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FALL SNEAKS

Their Cameras Keep Rolling Along

For these three seasoned directors--even as they harbor memories of a Hollywood that is no longer--the projects are still coming.

September 13, 1998|Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

They arrived in Hollywood in a distant era--long before the town became obsessed with box-office grosses, or studios had ever heard of the word "synergy," or a small circle of actors pulling down $20 million per picture emerged as industry power brokers.

When he directed films like "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "The Manchurian Candidate" in the early 1960s, John Frankenheimer said, movies never opened on 2,000 or more screens. Today, films are judged like racehorses. If they don't break fast and hit the wire first, they are judged failures after only one weekend in release.

When he wrote his Oscar-winning 1974 screenplay "Chinatown," Robert Towne said, the best film executives in town often made movies on a showman's hunch. "You [mess] up, and it's your ass," one studio boss growled at Towne, "but go ahead and try."

As a producer of "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" two decades ago, Irwin Winkler said, studio executives rarely meddled in the filmmaking process. Instead of marketing research, they relied on the passion of the filmmakers.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 16, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 5 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
"Ronin" release--A story in last Sunday's Calendar section about director John Frankenheimer gave an incorrect date for the release of his film "Ronin." The film will be released Sept. 25.

That Frankenheimer, Towne and Winkler are still in the game, when the game itself has changed so dramatically, is testimony not only to their talents but also to their perseverance. Each has known heady success and humbling disappointments in a business no one can quite figure out.

This fall, these three men--each now in his 60s--are at the center of things once again.

Frankenheimer is directing Robert De Niro in an espionage-themed action-thriller called "Ronin" for MGM.

Towne is directing "Without Limits," a Warner Bros. biographical drama based on the life and athletic accomplishments of legendary Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who was killed in a 1975 car crash.

Winkler is directing Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino in the MGM film "At First Sight," a love story that revolves around a man blinded since early childhood who regains his sight. (The film is scheduled to be released late this year or early next.)

In a town notoriously fixated on youth, it seems a young director honed on rock videos and TV commercials grabs Hollywood's attention every week. Youth must be served, as it was when Frankenheimer, Towne and Winkler were starting out.

But whether today's Wunderkinder are still around making films three or four decades hence is anybody's guess. Those who are, no doubt, will look back on their early days--as Frankenheimer, Towne and Winkler now do--and reflect on the Hollywood they knew, way back when, as the 20th century was passing from the stage.

JOHN FRANKENHEIMER

The movie is called "Ronin."

The word itself refers to a dishonored samurai who, without a master to protect, roams the world looking for new challenges.

In the film, Robert De Niro stars as a down-on-his-luck American with a murky, Cold War background who is recruited by an Irish group to seize a briefcase--the contents of which are unknown. The film, which MGM will release Oct. 2, is filled with car chases through the streets of Paris, deafening explosions and weaponry galore.

"I go where the material is," director Frankenheimer explains. "I like character-driven dramas with some action in them." Besides, "Ronin" is not a typical shoot-'em-up, he adds. "Nothing in this picture is what it seems to be, which is what I like."

There are those who contend that Frankenheimer peaked too early, that the brilliance he so often displayed as a young director in live TV dramas and his early films simply evaporated into thin air somewhere along the way.

But in the last four years, Frankenheimer has proved the doubters wrong. He has come roaring back in, of all places, cable television, winning three consecutive Emmy Awards and receiving a fourth Emmy nomination only this year.

He arrived during the 1950s, in what is now affectionately called the Golden Age of television. Those were the days when Frankenheimer and other directors like Sidney Lumet, George Roy Hill, Franklin Schaffner and Delbert Mann cut their teeth on live TV dramas. Over a six-year period, Frankenheimer would direct 152 such broadcasts, most of them 90 minutes in length.

"I became a director when I was 24," he recalled. "Nobody went out of their way to say, 'This is what you have to do.' " Still, he learned from great directors of that era, titans like Billy Wilder, William Wyler, George Stevens and Fred Zinnemann. "They were wonderful to me," he said. "I learned a lot from their work. I never knew Hitchcock, but I was influenced by his work."

Frankenheimer's early television work included such signature productions as "Playhouse 90's" "Days of Wine and Roses" and "The Comedian" as well as "Ford Startime: TV's Finest Hour: 'The Turn of the Screw.' "

Through them all, he forged a reputation for fluid camera work, transforming static images that were the staple of live television in those days into innovative dramatic statements.

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