William Richert, the maverick writer-director behind the Jeff Bridges-starring conspiracy thriller Winter Kills and A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, which gave River Phoenix his first leading role, has died. He was 79.
Richert died Tuesday at his home in Portland, Oregon, his wife, Gretchen, told The Hollywood Reporter. She would not disclosed the cause of death but said he chose to use Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act.
Richert’s résumé also included co-writing The Happy Hooker (1975), starring Lynn Redgrave as celebrity madam Xaviera Hollander, and a pair of Ivan Passer-directed films: Law and Disorder (1974), starring Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine, and Crime and Passion (1976), starring Omar Sharif and Karen Black.
A black comedy take on the mystery surrounding the John F. Kennedy assassination, Winter Kills (1979) featured Bridges fronting an all-star cast that also included John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, Eli Wallach, Toshiro Mifune, Dorothy Malone and Anthony Perkins.
When budget problems forced the $6 million Winter Kills to cease production within weeks of completion and enter bankruptcy, Richert co-wrote and directed The American Success Company and used funds from that to complete the film two years later.
The American Success Company, made in Germany and also starring Bridges, was released in 1980.
When he was 19, Richert wrote a novel, Aren’t You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye?, which was published in 1966. He adapted his book for the ’60s coming-of-age drama A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988).
Richert then portrayed Bob Pigeon, who mentored a gang of street kids and hustlers who live in an abandoned apartment building, alongside Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991).
He also appeared onscreen in Law and Disorder and in Joel Schumacher’s The Client (1994).
Born in Florida in 1942, Richert had a nomadic childhood, attending some 20 grammar schools as his parents took him and his siblings around the country.
He came to Hollywood in the early ’60s and landed a gig as a press agent for ABC’s The New Steve Allen Show, then worked on documentaries revolving around presidents’ daughters (it was never released), roller derby (1970’s Derby) and two young lovers studying at the American Ballet School (1972’s First Position).
For Winter Kills, Richert adapted a 1974 novel by Richard Condon, also the author of The Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor. Leonard J. Goldberg and Robert Sterling, wealthy marijuana dealers, were executive producers on the indie movie, which was filmed mostly at MGM.
“Part of the book was about how this president was groomed by his father to take office, how deals with made and the crooked stuff that went on,” Richert says in the 2003 documentary Who Killed Winter Kills. “It said a lot of things about powerful people in code. … It had to almost be financed by gangsters, by outsiders, which it was.”
A month after the film — which was shut down three separate times — opened, Goldberg was found handcuffed and shot to death in his Manhattan apartment by “somebody he owed money to,” Richert says in the doc. Years later, Sterling was sentenced to 40 years in prison for pot smuggling.
In her New York Times review, Janet Maslin wrote that Winter Kills “isn’t exactly a comedy, but it’s funny. And it isn’t exactly serious, but it takes on the serious business of the Kennedy assassination. That’s why other ads for the film have been comparing it to Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H.
“This isn’t a social satire — it’s more like a movie with spring fever. It doesn’t make a bit of sense, but it’s fast and handsome and entertaining, bursting with a crazy vitality all its own.”
In 1980, Richert and former studio executive Claire Townsend launched Invisible Studio, which rereleased The American Success Story and a re-edited version of Winter Kills.
Richert also served as a writer, director and actor for The Face of Alexandre Dumas: The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) and acted in and directed an episode of the 1995 ABC series The Marshal, starring Jeff Fahey.
Richert claimed that the Aaron Sorkin-penned The American President was largely based on a version he had written, but the WGA and a court disagreed. He also sued the WGA and DGA over the mismanagement of funds collected from foreign earnings.
In addition to his wife, survivors include his son, Nick, and a granddaughter.