Robert Chartoff, Producer of 'Rocky' and 'Raging Bull,' Dies at 81
He and partner Irwin Winkler — both Oscar winners — also presided over such classics as 'The Right Stuff,' 'Point Blank' and 'They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?'
Robert Chartoff, the Oscar-winning producer whose potent partnership with Irwin Winkler bred best picture-winner Rocky, Raging Bull, The Right Stuff and many other critically acclaimed films, has died. He was 81.
Chartoff, who more recently was a producer on the 2013 sci-fi film Ender’s Game, died on Wednesday at his Santa Monica home after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Between 1967 and 1985, Chartoff-Winkler Productions turned out more than 25 features. The duo’s sterling accomplishments include John Boorman’s pulp classic Point Blank (1967); Sydney Pollack’s Depression-era They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969); Michael Winner’s taut The Mechanic (1972), which had no dialogue in its first 16 minutes; the self-destructive noir tale The Gambler (1974), written by first-time film writer James Toback and starring James Caan; and the Robert De Niro-Robert Duvall brotherly crime drama True Confessions (1981).
In addition to Rocky (1976), the pair also received best picture Oscar nominations for Raging Bull (1980), Martin Scorsese’s animalistic portrait of Jake LaMotta with De Niro as the middleweight champ, and The Right Stuff (1983), the adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book about the birth of the U.S. space program.
Their films collected 12 Oscars and 40 nominations and were distinguished by an understanding of characters who are willing to take risks or who find themselves in tough spots. In addition to Wolfe, Chartoff and Winkler mined works by such authors as Jimmy Breslin, Joseph Wambaugh, Horace McCoy, Anne Roiphe and John Gregory Dunne for their movies.
In 1975, Chartoff and Winkler took a meeting with then-unknown actor Sylvester Stallone, who pitched them a movie he was writing about a determined Philadelphia club fighter named Rocky Balboa who goes on to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.
“What I liked most was the ending,” Chartoff said in Steven Prigge’s 2004 book, Movie Moguls Speak: Interviews With Top Film Producers. “In the end, Rocky Balboa lost the fight to Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). However, something more important happened. He won by achieving his personal goal. That was very rare in American cinema.”
The producers had early support from Mike Medavoy at United Artists, who convinced the studio’s highest-level execs to make the film. The budget was $960,000 — low because Stallone would not sell the script unless he played the lead and thus no big-name, high-salary star was attached. (UA offered the broke actor $265,000 to let Ryan O’Neal or Burt Reynolds star, but Stallone wouldn’t budge.)
Chartoff and Winkler cast supporting players Burgess Meredith and Talia Shire when Lee Strasberg and Carrie Snodgress wanted more than the producers wanted to pay. They shot the film in 28 days, dug into their own pockets for $25,000 to pay for a new ending when UA wouldn’t and persuaded the studio to release Rocky in New York on Nov. 21, 1976, in time for Academy Award consideration.
The drama netted 10 Oscar nominations (including two for Stallone for best actor and screenplay, a feat previously accomplished by only Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles). Rocky won for best picture, director (John Avildsen) and editing and went on to rake in, by Chartoff’s estimate in 2004, more than $200 million.
“On the last day of filming, I bought a leather-bound pad and a pen for Sylvester,” Chartoff recalled in Movie Moguls. “I walked up to him and said, ‘Now go write the sequel.’ So, I believed we had something unique and it was a great movie, the personification of the American dream.”
Chartoff and Winkler produced the next four Rocky films through 1990 and had executive-producer credit on 2006’s Rocky Balboa.
For the $13 million Raging Bull, De Niro approached the pair to produce, and they agreed — but only if the actor could convince Scorsese to direct. He did, of course, and the black-and-white film collected eight Oscar noms and wins for De Niro and editor Thelma Schoonmaker en route to becoming one of the most revered films of all time.
Chartoff said he got the idea for making The Right Stuff movie after receiving Wolfe’s 1979 book as a house gift. “It was obvious to me, from reading the book, that there was a good movie in it,” he said. “I never thought otherwise. … I gave it to Irwin. He felt the same way.”
That film, written and directed by Philip Kaufman, starred Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn and Ed Harris and took four Oscars out of eight noms.
Chartoff was born on Aug. 26, 1933, and grew up in the Bronx. While attending Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and before heading off to Columbia Law School, he worked summers for an uncle who booked talent into hotels in the Catskill Mountains. This was his introduction to show business.
After graduating from law school, Chartoff began a career as a personal manager and formed a talent agency with Brooklyn native Winkler. They arranged for client Julie Christie’s screen test for 1965’s Doctor Zhivago.
The duo then formed Chartoff-Winkler Productions, got a deal at MGM and produced Elvis Presley’s Double Trouble (1967). Chartoff discovered a script based on Donald E. Westlake’s The Hunter that would become Point Blank, with Lee Marvin playing a man bent on recovering the loot that was stolen from him.
Later, Chartoff and Winkler produced The Strawberry Statement (1970), about student riots at Columbia, and Believe in Me (1971), both directed by Stuart Hagmann; the goofy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, based on Breslin’s novel; The New Centurions (1972), the George S. Scott-Stacy Keach-starrer from the Wambaugh book about a veteran cop and his protege; the Barbra Streisand comedy Up the Sandbox (1972), directed by Irvin Kershner; Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976); Scorsese and De Niro’s musical drama New York, New York (1977); Valentino (1977), with Rudolf Nureyev as the silent screen star; and Comes a Horseman (1978), starring Caan and Jane Fonda.
Chartoff-Winkler Productions dissolved in 1985, and Chartoff produced Beer (1985), Straight Talk (1992), In My Country (2004) and Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010). Ender’s Game, starring Hailee Steinfeld, Asa Butterfield, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley and Harrison Ford, opened in November 2013 with franchise potential but faltered.
Chartoff is listed as a producer on two upcoming films starring Stallone: Scarpa, about a hitman, and the Rocky-inspired Creed, featuring Michael B. Jordan as the grandson of the boxer’s adversary in the 1976 original.
Chartoff’s survivors include his wife, Jenny, and children Jennifer, Julie, Miranda, William (a producer himself) and Charlie. His first wife was late British actress Vanessa Howard.
In a March 2012 co-bylined piece written for Vanity Fair, Chartoff and Winkler reminisced about Rocky’s opening.
“We were standing outside a theater on Second Avenue, reading The New York Times review, by Vincent Canby: a ‘sentimental little slum movie … an unconvincing actor imitating a lug. Be warned.’
“Our old friend Peter Falk came up to us and we said, ‘Peter, look at this review. It’s awful. It’s going to kill the movie.’ And he said, ‘Do me a favor — go inside. The audience is standing and cheering.’”
Below, watch Chartoff, Winkler and Stallone in March 1977 accept the Oscar for best picture: