Michael Winner, Film Director and Food Critic, Dies at 77

Michael Winner, who died today, was a successful movie director before he started writing about restaurants for the Sunday Times, where his self-professed ignorance about food never inhibited him from trenchant views.

His films included “Scorpio” and “Death Wish.” He directed stars including Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, James Stewart, Charles Bronson, Robert Mitchum, John Cleese, Burt Lancaster, Michael Caine, Roger Moore and Lauren Bacall, just to cite a few of the names dropped on his website.

Winner, 77, was suffering from liver cancer and said last year that specialists had given him 18 months to live. He said in October he was considering traveling to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to commit suicide, the Times reported.

“Michael was a wonderful man, brilliant, funny and generous,” his widow Geraldine said, according to Sky News. “A light has gone out in my life.”

Winner, who was born in London, went to Cambridge University at the age of 17, the youngest student there, and graduated at 20 with an honors degree in law and economics, according to his website.

He became known as a director of comedies such as “The Jokers,” before in 1974 creating “Death Wish,” the first of a series of violent films that starred Charles Bronson. His film career lasted more than 50 years before he became a restaurant critic.

Vendetta Punches

In his new role, he won thousands of readers and a large mail bag with his acerbic writing. Those he admired were heaped with praise. Those who fell below his expectations were pilloried: No punches were pulled, no vendettas left unpursued.

He was popular for the warmth and humor of his writing and there was sadness when in December he said he was retiring from writing his “Winner’s Dinners” column in the Sunday Times.

“The endless drivel you write about restaurants and food has kept me amused for years,” the newspaper cited a reader as saying. “Don’t you dare threaten to shuffle off -- either from your column or your mortal coil.”

Winner was also known for the catchphrase, “Calm down dear,” used in the television commercials he created for the insurance company Esure. He also founded the Police Memorial Trust after a woman constable, Yvonne Fletcher, was shot dead outside Libya’s London mission in 1984.

He married his partner Geraldine Lynton-Edwards two years ago.

It’s safe to say he wasn’t a regular at restaurant-industry parties and generally didn’t hang out with food critics. I saw him only twice. The first was at a reception at the Burlington Arcade, where he was chatting with the pop singer Lulu.

Ivy Breakfast

“That’s Michael Winner,” one waitress said to her companion. “Who’s Michael Winner?” the colleague responded. The other occasion was when he was taking breakfast with the singer Lily Allen at the Club at the Ivy.

One of his best friends was the actor Michael Caine, who paid this tribute to him on “This Is Your Life.”

“I am here to tell everybody, Michael, you are a complete and utter fraud,” Caine said. “You come on like this bombastic, ill-tempered monster. It’s not the side of you I see. I see a man who has a tremendous artistic eye.

“You have an incredible legal brain. Before I even go to my own lawyer I talk to you first. You’re extremely funny, very sensitive, very kind and very generous. I hope everyone believes me when I say that you are a kind and wonderful person. “And I’m not kidding.”

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Warwick Thompson on London theater, Erika Lederman on London going out and Shaun Walker on the Bolshoi ballet.

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