What The Hey? Calm Down Dear, It’s Cannon’s Captain America!

captain america michael winner

In 1984, cigar chomping Cannon film tycoons Menaham Golam and Yorum Globus pony up a $225,000.00 five year deal with Marvel Comics for the rights to Spider-Man and Captain America. Cannon were renowned for their lavish advertising for many proposed films, one way of attracting investors before a single frame of film was committed. They wasted no time with their superhero properties, with double spread adverts in Variety, among others. Captain America went through several proposed directors and writers, before the Cannon boys passed the baton in 1986 to one of their trusted old hands, English director and bon viveur, Michael Winner, who famously directed the early Death Wish films for them. Marvel chief Jim Shooter seemed impressed by his vigilante film credentials. He impressed upon Winner that Cap be credible. As he says in his blog :

The main thing I tried to impress upon Winner were the things I thought were of paramount importance—making it credible that a guy would dress up in a red, white and blue suit and do what Cap did. Getting the audience to accept that as a reasonable reality. Avoiding campy-ness.” 

One of the first things Winner did was to recruit television writer Stan Hey, who has had a varied and colourful career, writing some of the best episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Dalziel And Pascoe, and many more. Stan can be found on twitter  where I tracked him down and asked would he mind illuminating the readers of Cinetropolis on this little known project. Stan very graciously agreed, and below are his funny and engaging  responses to my gormless queries, which also amounts to a touching tribute to the late Mr Winner.

 

How did you know Mr Winner? Were you friends / colleagues before this project?

I’d met Michael some time in 1984 after he’d read a spec script I’d written set in Cambridge just after the war. It was a hybrid spoof based on ‘The Third Man’ and the Cambridge Spies. It had a lot of visual gags in, ‘Airplane’ style but it wasn’t much good. But Winner wanted to talk about it. I knew about him in a small way. I liked his 1960s films ‘I’ll Never Forget Whatisname’, and Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, who wrote ‘Hannibal Brooks’, I think, told me how they’d had an up/down time with him. The general impression was of a Movie Mogul with a vicious manner.

I was fairly nervous when I got to his big house off Holland Park, and was sent up to his office. He was seated behind his huge desk, smoking an equally huge cigar but was in jeans, and desert boots with no socks. Not quite the monster mogul. And of course he turned out to be charming, funny in a raucous way, and self-mocking. I did some more work on that script but it got nowhere. And then nine months later he called me in to help him on ‘Captain America’, for which he’d got some money from Cannon.

I liked American comics when I was a kid but not obsessively. I’d never heard of ‘Captain America’ but bluffed a bit about what I’d managed to pick up – this was before the internet. I waffled on about ‘The Red Skull’ having more oomph and character than the Captain and we would have to address that. He smoked his cigar a bit and threw his one copy of the comic across the room. ‘You’ve got the job, Stanley. You’ve convinced me with your vast fucking knowledge. I want you to start here next Monday at 9am. We’ve got six weeks to write it….’

Come Monday, Michael had imported some quaking, black-tee-shirted geek from Forbidden Planet who allegedly knew every story element of the ‘Captain America’ comics. I was despatched to one of the rooms, not an office, with an electric typewriter on a dressing table, some paper and a handful of comics, and told to get writing, starting with how Steve Rogers became the Captain. Winner would pop in every hour or so, and if I had a query, would command the geek to attend over the house’s intercom system. By the end of the first day I think we had about six mediocre pages. After the first week we took stock and started to re-write.

Does a copy of the script still exist?

I’m afraid it does, somewhere in my script box. Our version, that is. The eventual shooting script was the work of several dozen American writers and finally got made in 1989, to no great effect.

What was the story outline?

We decided in conversation that we had to get the story away from its World War II roots, fast-forwarding out of an initial set-piece in which ‘C.A.’ steers a Nazi rocket away from hitting the White House and ends up embedded in a glacier for forty years, then setting up renewed conflict with the Red Skull now a psychotic super-villain. Michael wanted to set it mostly in New York where he had good relations with Mayor Koch (from ‘Death Wish’ days probably). We updated it to the 1970s and chose what would now be described as a terrorist plot.

The Statue of Liberty had been cloaked up for a year or so while being spruced up for the American bicentennial.We devised a story in which the unveiling ceremony revealed that the Statue had been stolen by the Red Skull, with the President ordering immediate action to recover the ‘kidnap victim’. The Red Skull taunted America and a mystery parcel was sent on the back of a truck – it was the 17 stone little finger of the torch-bearing hand of Liberty. It was probably too much of a caper and not enough ‘American paranoia’ in action, the usual format for these comic adaptations. After our six weeks were over we submitted the script and word soon came back that Stan Lee of Marvel Comics didn’t care for it too much. (He’s taken complete control of his works now and is more a mogul than Goram or Globus ever were!)

What was your working relationship like?

It was always a little tense because of the deadline but we got on pretty well – I did the main writing then Michael would read and suggest re-writes and I’d get on with those that I thought worthwhile. Michael was very kind – we stopped for lunch at the stroke of one every day and either ate in his dining room (he had a housekeeper Mrs. Hickey who cooked lunch and early evening dinners) or went to Kensington High Street to a smart Italian. On Fridays he would break open a bottle of Krug champagne, and there was always a cigar session at some time of the day. As long as I was punctual, and proficient in getting pages out for him to read, we were fine together. He would always let me finish at five, no matter how shitty the script was becoming. And we’d begin each day with a review of the previous day’s work. We finished with a 123 page script in 30 working days.

A year later Michael asked me to rewrite a script he’d been sent for a caper film starring Michael Caine and Roger Moore two scientists who had ‘twin enemies’. Thankfully I was too busy – it came out as ‘Bullseye!’ or something. I liked Michael a lot, and though his later films were a bit trashy, his early English work had a lot going for it. He just wanted to be a Hollywood movie star himself I suppose after mingling with Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and so on. We met socially on a few occasions and always exchanged Christmas cards. He was a kind man at heart, with an instinct for humour. I think a lot of the bragging and stomping came from insecurity. I will miss him.

Did you meet Menahem Golam or Yoram Globus, the chiefs of Cannon?

Not once. There was a Cannon London office but they were either in Israel or Hollywood. The only contact I had was indirect. I’d got a call to a meeting at the BBC (I was writing a TV film at the time, called ‘Coast to Coast’ that I’d asked Lenny Henry to be in) but Michael wouldn’t let me go because I was under contract to him and Cannon Films.

When I told him that I’d yet to receive a contract let alone been paid he did this comic routine over his speaker-phone to the Cannon office as I looked on – ‘my writer’s walking out on me here, I need a cheque for him IMMEDIATELY, bike it round…..Stanley, come back – he’s nearly out of the door, get the fucking cheque round!..Stanley it’ll be here in 30 minutes….don’t go!’  He was winking at me all the time. Sure enough the cheque turned up and I had to postpone my meeting till after 5pm. On balance, I think we were unlucky – Captain America just doesn’t cut it compared to the other comic-book heroes. Now if it had been ‘Batman’……

 

Interestingly, Jim Shooter considered the “geek” advisor Winner hired to have had “a total misconception of Captain America, who he saw as Captain Yankee A**hole.” When the script was finished Winner sent it off to Shooter, who didn’t feel it was right, shall we say.  He did single out one scene:

After awakening from suspended animation for forty years, Captain America is in a car, being driven through the streets of New York, on his way somewhere. Out the window he sees run down and abandoned buildings. Offensive graffiti. Streets strewn with garbage. Hookers, pimps, homeless people, punks, thugs, drug dealers…. He turns to the government official next to him and says, words to the effect, “Who won the war?!”

Here are Michael Winner’s letters to Jim Shooter, submitting the script, and his genial response to being turned down.

1.

michael winner cannon letter 1

2

michael winner cannon letter 2

3

michael winner cannon letter 3

 

 RIP Michael Winner 30/10/35 – 21/01/13

michael winner

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