‘Irishman’ Producer Irwin Winkler on De Niro, Scorsese and Early Days as an Agent

Irwin Winkler has been producing films for parts of six decades. His latest is “The Irishman,” which reunites him with frequent collaborators Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (“Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “New York, New York”) as well as Al Pacino (“Revolution”). Winkler was first mentioned in Variety on Dec. 24, 1958, when he was an agent at William Morris and getting married. He left the agency to become a producer, debuting with the 1967 Elvis Presley movie “Double Trouble.”

Soon after, he and Robert Chartoff formed Chartoff Winkler Prods., scoring big with the 1969 drama “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda, the film earned nine Oscar nominations, winning a supporting actor trophy for Gig Young. The producing duo took home the Oscar when “Rocky” (1976) won best picture. Since then, their many films have included “The Right Stuff,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” both “Creed” films and now “The Irishman.”

What inspired you to leave the agency to start Chartoff Winkler? 

That was very easy. I was a terrible agent. I was probably the worst agent William Morris ever had. They didn’t like me, and I didn’t like them, and I wanted to be on my own. And Bob Chartoff and I had a great friendship. He decided that he would give up the law and I would give up the agency and we would get into the movie business. But the primary reason for me leaving was, literally, I hated being an agent and they hated me being an agent.

Were there any lessons you were able to take from that time? 

Sure: Take chances. Take risks. Without risks you’ll have no real payoff. When you see a script by Sylvester Stallone, starring Sylvester Stallone, if you think it’s good, take a chance and do it and fight with everybody who doesn’t want to do it. Be persistent. Same thing is true of “Irishman.”

You’ve had a long working relationship with Robert De Niro.

The first film I did with him was back in 1971 [“The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”], when he had just done two tiny independent movies and nobody knew who he was. He replaced another actor last minute. The other actor, by the way, was Al Pacino, who went off to do “The Godfather.” Bob came to me a couple of weeks before we started shooting and said he’d like to go to Italy, where his character came from, and spend a little time soaking up the atmosphere. I said, “Bob, look, we don’t have money to send you to Italy to do this kind of research.” And he said, “No, it’s OK. I’ll do it on my own. I just wanted to tell you that I want to go and I’ll pay for it myself.” And off he went. I said to myself, at that time, “This guy is really, really special.” Because he cares that much.

What’s it been like to work with De Niro and Martin Scorsese throughout your career?

It’s great. They challenge me creatively, because neither Marty nor Bob is satisfied with taking what’s out there. Both are passionate; they love to take chances. These are real risk takers — men who are incredibly talented. It’s inspirational, quite frankly.

Technology is changing quickly, enabling things like the “de-aging” in “The Irishman.” 

I think Hollywood has been a little slow in keeping up with the newest forms in technology in the last decade or so. But that’s changing. I think that part of it is, there’s been great, great commercial success with some of the technology that’s out there, so they’re more willing to invest in the research and development of it. 

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