Michael Winner: 'The people who hate me just don't get the joke'

The snappily dressed director of 34 films, who flits between London, LA and Barbados, is 75 this week. But still, at heart, he's shy, he says. Matthew Bell meets Michael Winner
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The Independent Online

Today, Michael Winner is in town and he is giving a performance.

We have taken our seats in the private underground cinema of his vast London mansion, his a battered director's chair with "Winner" across the back, mine a millionaire's armchair. The lights are on, our tape recorders rolling (he always records interviews), and then – action!

Brash, loud, rude – Winner has directed enough divas to know how to be one. He will be 75 on Saturday and he's got the anecdotes to prove it: some familiar, some funny, all barked out as if he's on the phone to Australia and finished with a "Haaaaaaa ha ha herr herr" so you know when to laugh. Then there are the names – Marlon Brando, Charles Bronson, Burt Lancaster – not so much dropped, but laid like a cable through the conversation.

Everyone is "dear" or "darlin'", as in "Marlon Brando rang me one night and said 'I think I've only got five friends in the world, and you're one of them.' I said, Marlon, if you think you've got five friends you're doing farcking well, darlin'. Haaaaa ha ha herr herr."

Michael must be doing pretty well, then, because he had 12 couples for dinner at The Ritz last weekend to celebrate his birthday. But most of his friends, as he says, are dead: Marlon Brando, Charles Bronson, Burt Lancaster... "There's nothing good about getting old. The only thing you've got to look forward to is dying! Haaaaa ha ha herr herr."

Success came early for Winner, who directed his first film aged 25 in 1960. So all the "stars" he worked and made friends with were older than him. "I talk to dead people now. I see this street where we did this film with Marlon, and I talk to him. They're not there any more." The only one left is Michael Caine, with whom he goes on holiday each winter, to Barbados or Miami. This year he's spending Christmas at Caine's house. In Miami? "No, in Leatherhead. Haaaa ha ha herr herr."

His reputation as a terrible name-dropper and show-off isn't entirely his fault: whenever any famous actor dies he is asked for a quote, regardless of how well he knew them, and, naturally, he always obliges. He claims he asks journalists not to describe him as "close friend Michael Winner" when often he has barely met them, but they always do. Still, being associated with famous and glamorous people has always been his thing: he gets starstruck, even now.

Because the fact is, he says, he's not that sociable. He's quite shy. Hang on a minute – quite shy? Michael Winner? The director of 34 films who has been swanking round Los Angeles and Barbados with all those ritzy glitzy friends since anyone can remember? The self-made millionaire who claims to have had 130 girlfriends? The self-aggrandising Sunday Times restaurant critic, who only ever seems to review Sandy Lane or The Baglioni: "I don't go anywhere for the readers – the day I do that is the day I stop doing it." Michael Winner, who launched his latest book, Unbelievable! My Life in Restaurants and Other Places last Monday with an awards ceremony where he ting-ting'ed his champagne flute and then doled out prizes to his favourite restaurateurs from around the world?

"People call me a boulevardier, or some crap. I only go out three times a week. I'm like a mini Howard Hughes! I go to lunch on Saturday and Sunday and that's it. I love myself, I'm very happy with myself. And of course there's Geraldine here. I'm very quiet normally. I'm up for you, but I'm very quiet, very reserved, and very shy. Very shy. Nearly all actors are shy. Most of those people are very shy," he says, waving a hand at walls which are dripping with framed photos of Marlon Brando, Charles Bronson, Burt Lancaster.... "They all act to create another persona that they are not."

In theory, Winner should be dead too. Three years ago he caught the very rare bacterial infection Vibrio vulnificus, which kills 95 per cent of its victims within 48 hours. He got it from an oyster – what else? – in Barbados and had to undergo 19 operations with full anaesthetic over two months. He is still crippled because part of his leg had to be cut away and the doctors removed three vital tendons, including his Achilles heel, which means he now has bad balance. The bit of leg you can see between his slippers and trousers is black, but he shuffles around the house without a stick and is surprisingly sprightly. He has had health scares in the past, including a triple heart bypass, a hernia and appendicitis, and 40 years of chomping cigars has taken its toll.

It's a miracle, really, that he pulled through. "I don't know why I did – I wasn't fighting. I would have been very happy to die. I tell you – you don't believe in God till you're ill, and then suddenly God features very heavily." God hasn't figured before or since, as Winner doesn't "do Jewish", although part of his performance involves spraying you with mildly provocative comments about Jews and Nazis, which as a Jew he must think he can get away with. For instance, he likes nothing better than to spend his evenings watching Hitler on telly. "He wasn't on the other night – I had to watch Mussolini. That was a disappointment. You can always get Hitler on the documentary channel, or you get Eichmann, Mengele, Auschwitz, you know."

His father, however, with whom he was close, did do Jewish. A property developer, George Winner died in 1972, and Michael has paid for a seat to be named after him at his synagogue in St Petersburgh Place every year ever since.

His relation with his mother was less straightforward: after her husband's death she gambled away £8m at the casino in Cannes where she lived, before dying a few years later, denying Michael his inheritance. "Of course I've forgiven her. She was marvellous. But she stole millions. It was straightout theft."

As it happens Winner could do with that £8m: he claims to be £9m in debt, racked up no doubt because of his insistence on always flying by private plane and staying in £3,000-a-night hotels. "And that's just for the blarddy room!" Come off it, I say, he can't really be broke. "I am! You can look at the bank statements."

A few years ago, he decided to tell the Inland Revenue about some money he had stashed away in Switzerland during the Sixties – "I don't know why. I felt like dying pure. That was a stupid thing to do." A four-year criminal investigation followed and he ended up handing over £3m. But to owe £9m you have to be pretty rich. There is no mortgage on his Kensington house, which is worth about £35m, and, of course, the money still rolls in from his films, the least forgotten of which is Death Wish. He does, though, still worry: "It's silly but I worry a little because I see it could run out." What about cutting back? Doesn't Barbados get boring after a while? "I've been to Barbados 28 years in a row. I think there does come a point when you think I've done that."

Winner's house, where he has lived most of his life, is an extraordinary Grade II* labyrinth, designed for the Victorian artist Luke Fildes. He hates people thinking he inherited it, as he had to buy it off his father and convert it back into one, since it was divided into flats. He keeps a large staff, including a secretary and "Dinaaaah!", the assistant who has looked after him for the past 23 years. And somewhere in the warren upstairs is Geraldine, his beloved fiancée.

Much has been made of Winner's refusal ever to get married, though he has been engaged several times. "Obviously I have some mental failing because if you're 75 and you've never got married and you're not gay – which people used to think I was, which didn't bother me – there's something odd." But as he describes the life he has lived and loved, the films, the girlfriends, the travel, it's easy to see why he never wanted it to change. What about children: did he never want a mini Winni? "I think it was a decision based on greed. I wanted to have as many girls as I could. And the life was so good I thought, do I really want to change it? No, I don't."

An hour on, and the performance is over. Later he will hobble upstairs and sign some of the 2,000 copies of his book blocking the hall. Then he'll watch Hitler on telly before going out for supper with friends – a rare exception to his rule. He might shout and swear a bit, but he won't be the odious Michael Winner some love to hate. Not that he cares. "If you create this comedy character of wealth and opulence swanning around, people hate you. But the ones who hate me don't get me at all. They don't get the joke." It is all a performance, after all.

Curriculum vitae: 'Death Wish' director's zest for life

1935 Born 30 October in London to a Polish mother and part-Russian father, both Jewish.

1940 Aged five, he attends the Quaker St Christopher School in Letchworth, after being rejected by Cheltenham College as "the Jewish quota was full".

1950 Meets John Denham Davies, his first star, on the filmset of Tom Brown's Schooldays. Submits a story to the Kensington Post, who give him his own gossip column, aged 14.

1953 Goes sup to Downing College, Cambridge, to read law and economics.

1955 Becomes editor of Varsity. Sparks controversy with an Oxford edition.

1956 Graduates, aged 20, and makes his first short film, The Square, having borrowed £2,000 from his father.

1961 Lands his first major film, Play It Cool, to be made at Pinewood Studios.

1971 Makes his first Hollywood movie, Lawman, starring Burt Lancaster.

1974 Makes his biggest hit, Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson.

1985 After the death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, founds the Police Memorial Trust to honour police killed on duty.

1993 Writes his first restaurant review in The Sunday Times. It's an instant hit.

1999 Makes his last film, Parting Shots, after dwindling success.

2006 Turns down an OBE.

2007 Narrowly avoids death by oyster.