AS A restaurant critic, he was the scourge of many a maître d’, and as a film director, he invited Charles Bronson to shoot muggers in Death Wish.
Michael Winner, who in recent years was best known for his TV adverts and the catchphrase “Calm down, dear”, has died at the age of 77.
As one of Britain’s most prolific directors, though rarely a darling of the critics, Michael Winner made more than 30 films. Many starred his favourite leading man, Bronson, including the western Chato’s Land and thriller The Mechanic.
The pair’s biggest success was Death Wish, about a New York vigilante, which when released in 1974 became one of the biggest films of the year and sparked a debate over screen violence.
He was also famous for his barbed restaurant reviews, written for the Sunday Times under the headline “Winner’s Dinners” and for his honesty in explaining how much money, frequently running into tens of thousands of pounds, he spent on his lavish holidays.
A bachelor with an eye for a beautiful women for most of his life, two years ago he finally married a woman he had first met 56 years ago.
Yesterday, his widow, Geraldine Lynton, a former dancer, said: “Michael was a wonderful man – brilliant, funny and generous. A light has gone out in my life.”
Winner had struggled with ill-health since eating a bad oyster on holiday in Barbados in 2007 and was almost killed by the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus.
The illness left him on the brink of death five times and resulted in 19 operations, one of which necessitated the removal of an Achilles tendon, leaving him struggling to walk.
Last year, he gave an interview in which he revealed liver specialists had given him 18 months to live and that he had researched Dignitas, the assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, but had not told his wife.
Instead, he died in the 46-room mansion in Kensington, London, where he had spent most of his life and which he described “the home of a country bishop who’s won the pools”.
In a film career that spanned more than 50 years, he worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum and Faye Dunaway.
Winner, whose appearance in adverts for motor insurance coined the catchphrase “Calm down dear, it’s only a commercial”, also founded and funded the Police Memorial Trust following the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.
Yesterday, friends and colleagues paid tribute to him. Actor John Cleese said: “I have just heard the very sad news about Michael.
“He was the dearest, kindest, funniest and most generous of friends. I shall miss him terribly.”
The restaurant critic Jay Rayner wrote on Twitter: “RIP Michael Winner. He could be absurd and made some lousy films. But he could also be a rather lovely man. Winner made life more interesting.”
Simon Cowell said: “I’m very sad to hear about Michael passing away. He’s become a very good friend over the years and someone whose company I have always really enjoyed.
“Laughter was never far away when Michael was around and he is someone who, the more I got to know, the fonder I got of him. I am sure there are a lot of other people who, like me, will really miss him.”
Peter Wood, chairman of insurance company Esure, whose adverts Winner fronted, said: “Michael was one of the last of the great British characters who prided himself on being difficult while actually being incredibly charming and sensitive deep down. Few people could help make a company famous with an ad-libbed phrase in an advert, but he did that for us. The world has lost a colour from its palette with his passing.”
Winner was also a great raconteur. He often told how, when he offered Bronson Death Wish’s lead role as the vigilante hero who kills criminals, the actor said: “Oh, I’d like to do that.”
“Play the role?” asked Winner. “No,” replied Bronson. “Shoot muggers.”
Brian Pendreigh: Enigmatic genius – or so he loved to tell everyone
It takes a special sort of man to maintain a total belief in his own genius, while appearing in drag in a TV advert for insurance. But this is a man who felt insulted by the offer of an OBE.
Michael Winner was anathema to many, with his smug, self-satisfied chuckle and right-wing views. Latterly, he was a figure of fun, selling car insurance with the condescending catchphrase “Calm down dear, it’s only a commercial”.
It is easy to forget – and perhaps many younger people never knew – that Michael Winner was one of the most successful film directors Britain his produced.
His 1974 vigilante drama Death Wish cost $3 million and grossed $22m in North America alone.
Hollywood studios hired Winner to make westerns. There was a time when he was telling Brando, Orson Welles and Burt Lancaster what to do.
Earlier, he had made entertaining, playful films that helped to define the 1960s in Britain.
It looked like I might write his biography. Then he decided to do it himself, which was typical, and probably best all round. Winner Takes All: A Life of Sorts was a wonderful exercise in name-dropping anecdotes.
A decade earlie,r I wrote a book called On Location and he sent me dozens of photographs and reams of material. And of course Winner and his films figured prominently in the book. Tit for tat.
I first met him in the 1980s on a film called Bullseye! with Roger Moore and Michael Caine. He took us for lunch in Inveraray and was charming to me and the stars, but curt to
the point of rudeness
when addressing waiters (underlings) and his then-partner, Jenny Seagrove. They later split up.
Some might say Winner was a typical bully, but he was a complex man and commanded a certain loyalty from many who knew him.
At boarding school Winner paid an older boy, John Fraser, to clean his room for him on a regular basis.
Fraser duly went off to Oxford, only to then take the job of Winner’s assistant, which he did for decades. Winner was always very accessible, but Fraser’s was the posh voice you heard first if you phoned.
I think Winner wanted to belong, to be respected, to be liked.
His Christmas card always came first. He was Jewish, so they showed not Jesus, but Michael … on some exotic holiday or posing for a new oil painting or advertising something. There was no card this Christmas.
No doubt before long some 21-year-old critic will “rediscover” his films and hail him as a genius.
• Brian Pendreigh is a film critic.