Cast & Crew
Nick Kegan is the younger brother of a President of the United States who was assassinated. Nineteen years after the crime, Nick decides to learn who was reponsible for his brother's death. Nick's wealthy father and his staff, and the odd assotrment of survivors from the era, are helpful, but are also impediments in the process of uncovering the truth.
Ira Stanley Rosenstein
Bill P Wilson
Robert De Mora
Michael A. Genne
Robert W Glass
Mina Mittelman Short
Robert O Moore
Arthur J Parker
William P Scott
Jose Antonio Torres
William B Venegas
John M Walker
Goldberg and Sterling wanted Milos Forman for the production. When he proved unavailable, Forman's agent steered them toward another of his clients, screenwriter and producer William Richert, who they approached to script the film. "In the end I said, okay, I'll do it," recalled Richert years later, "but I gotta do it as a comedy because there's no other way to approach this tragedy." His screenplay streamlined the dense narrative while, in his words, creating a story that sends his protagonist down the rabbit hole like "Alice in Wonderland." As other directors turned down the film, Richert made a pitch to direct it himself, even though he had never directed a feature before, only documentaries.
With script in hand and the guarantee of a $6.5 million budget, Richert went after a powerhouse cast. Jeff Bridges had just finished King Kong (1976) when he signed on as Nick Kegan, the presidential sibling who digs up the "truth" 20 years later. "I wanted to get cinematic icons for each role," explained Richert in 2003, referring to the small but essential characters that Nick meets along the way: political dealmakers, industrial titans, military leaders, and political operatives with secrets that could take down an administration. The commitment of Bridges helped open doors and ease the worries of acting legends who might have qualms about the subject matter.
John Huston plays Nick's snarling kingmaker of a Dad, a character inspired by Joseph Kennedy by way of Howard Hughes. According to Richert, Huston knew the real Joseph Kennedy and eagerly took on a role that satirized him so savagely. Anthony Perkins is the father's ruthlessly efficient information broker, an enigmatic, cold-blooded figure who inhabits what seems to be a computer room out of a James Bond movie. Richard Boone gives a hearty performance as a grizzly of a family friend. Sterling Hayden makes his entrance in a tank and chases Nick's across a muddy field mired in war games. Elizabeth Taylor is unbilled in a role as a Washington hostess who pimped for the White House. The slain president, seen in flashbacks, is played by Taylor's husband at the time, John Warner, then the Secretary of the Navy. And the legends continue: Eli Wallach as a Jack Ruby-like nightclub owner, Dorothy Malone as Nick's dotty mother, Ralph Meeker, and Toshiro Mifune.
It's an impressive cast for a first-time feature filmmaker and his production team is equally impressive. It's shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, the immigrant cinematographer who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain (and smuggled film footage of the Russian military in the streets with him), and he helped define the look of seventies alienation in films like Deliverance (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Brian De Palma's Obsession (1976). Robert Boyle, who designed the sets for Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1963), was Richert's production designer, creating the atmosphere of power and wealth in his striking sets. Richert also gave Boyle a small role as a hotel desk clerk and he's quite distinguished looking.
While Richert spent money lavishly, the production began running out of money. Despite the promises of his producers, they had actually raised less than half of the $6.5 million budget before production began. The cast and crew had not been paid weeks, checks were bouncing, and money was owed on the studio space, yet the production carried on, in part thanks to the commitment of actors Bridges, Huston, and Perkins. Finally, the union literally shut the production down, shutting off the lights while the production scrambled to finish shooting a scene on a Hollywood soundstage.
Richert pulled enough money together to shoot for a week on location in Philadelphia but once again money ran out and the production was put into bankruptcy. In a last ditch effort, Richert put together another film, The American Success Company (1980), which he shot in Germany with Winter Kills stars Jeff Bridges and Belinda Bauer. By selling the distribution rights to his new comedy, he was able to raise enough money to complete Winter Kills and, after a two year hiatus, the film was back on. Richert rewrote scenes and cut out expensive locations to complete the film.
Winter Kills opened to positive (if at times querulous) reviews. "It doesn't make a bit of sense, but it's fast and handsome and entertaining, bursting with a crazy vitality all its own," wrote Janet Maslin for The New York Times, while a couple of weeks later Vincent Canby praised the film in a feature for the Sunday edition of the paper: "It's a comedy, a logical response to our times, a film whose reality depends on one's willingness to go along with the uproarious imaginations of Mr. Richert and Mr. Condon." Yet the film was pulled from theaters after only a few weeks by the distributer, Avco-Embassy, who reportedly told Richert that it was simply "the wrong time" for the film. Richard Condon, author of the original novel, believed that Avco-Embassy had suppressed the film for political reasons. Its parent company had major defense contracts and Condon was convinced that the Kennedy dynasty, which still wielded great political power, pressured the distributor to pull the film. To add more intrigue to the story, the film's original producers were out of the picture by the time the film opened. Leonard J. Goldberg had been found handcuffed to his bed and shot to death in his New York flat (ostensibly by the Mafia) weeks before the premiere and Robert Sterling was in prison, serving 40 years for drug smuggling.
Richert eventually got the rights back to the film, rereleased it in 1983 in a longer version (Avco-Embassy had cut the film for its initial release), and released on a special DVD in 2003. But the film was never a financial success and many of the collaborators who continued working without salary never got the money that was owed. It was a truly a labor of love for all who supported the film during its troubled life.
"A Funny, Paranoid Fable," Vincent Canby. The New York Times, May 27, 1979.
"Who killed Winter Kills?," Richard Condon. Harper's Magazine, May 1983.
"Film Took a Gamble That May Pay Off," Aljean Harmetz. The New York Times, May 17, 1979.
"'Winter Kills,' a Serio-Comedy: Spring Fever Time," Janet Maslin. The New York Times, May 18, 1979.
Audio commentary by William Richert from the DVD release of Winter Kills. Anchor Bay, 2003.
Who Killed Winter Kills?, documentary directed by Perry Martin. Anchor Bay, 2003.
By Sean Axemaker
Released in United States 1979
Released in United States 1979