Iconoclastic writer-director-producer-actor William Richert became known as an uncompromising Hollywood outsider, who despite daunting odds, managed to helm a small number of uniquely personal films. After receiving his start in television and theater, Richert launched his career with the documentaries "Derby" (1971) and "First Position" (1972). His second effort as a feature film director, the conspiracy thriller "Winter Kills" (1979), became more notorious for its absurd, scandalous road to completion than for its modest legacy as an overlooked cult classic. He went on to direct the late River Phoenix in the 1960s coming-of-age drama "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon" (1988), which was based on a novel Richert had written at the age of 19. Much of Richert's late-career credits were as an actor, such as his reteaming with Phoenix onscreen for Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" (1991). Other projects included mounting a low-budget version of "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1998), for which he served as writer, director and supporting player. In retrospect, the paucity of commercially successful works over the course of Richert's 30-plus year career belied a man firmly committed to his craft and the art of filmmaking, albeit on his own terms.
William Richert was born in Florida in 1942 into an unconventional, nomadic family. By his own recollection, his mother, an Irish woman instilled with a deep wanderlust, would frequently pack up Richert and his siblings and move to a new locale with little to no notice. His father, a man deeply in love, would always follow. By Richert's estimate, he attended nearly 20 different grammar schools in an equal number of states over the course of his unpredictable childhood. Already an accomplished poet and an aspiring writer, Richert arrived in Hollywood by bus at age 17 sometime around 1961. By age 18, he had landed a position as a press agent for "The New Steve Allen Show" (ABC, 1961-65) and subsequently worked as a freelance speechwriter for the chairman of the show's corporate sponsor, Westinghouse. Between assignments, the 19-year-old Richert managed to find time to write his first novel, Aren't You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye?, published in 1966.
Inspired by the creative process and having made various connections in the entertainment industry, Richert entered filmmaking with a documentary entitled "Presidents' Daughters" featuring interviews with Margaret Truman, Linda Bird Johnson, Tricia Nixon and others. Never completed, several minutes of footage from the film was aired on a 1969 installment of "60 Minutes" (CBS, 1968- ), before it was subsequently lost. Richert earned his first official producer's credit with the absorbing cinéma vérité documentary "Derby" (1971), an inside look at the rough-and-tumble world of professional roller derby. The following year, he directed as well as produced the more sedate "First Position" (1972), another well-received documentary following two young lovers, both studying at the American Ballet School. Nothing if not ambitious, Richert entered fiction filmmaking as a producer and co-writer, in addition to work as a supporting player, in "Law and Disorder" (1974), a social comedy-drama starring Carroll O'Connor and Ernest Borgnine.
Richert continued to focus on writing when he penned the screenplay for "The Happy Hooker" (1975), a somewhat sanitized and comedic adaptation of the autobiographical novel by celebrity madam Xaviera Hollander. Contributions to the script for the Omar Shariff-Karen Black comedic thriller "Crime and Passion" (1976) further added to his writing résumé. For his first non-documentary feature, Richert chose an adaptation of a novel by Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi's Honor. A darkly satiric conspiracy thriller of the highest degree, "Winter Kills" (1979) starred Jeff Bridges as the brother of a slain Kennedy-like U.S. President and son of wealthy industrialist/kingmaker (John Huston) who may or may not have been involved in the assassination plot. Just as fascinating as the byzantine plot of the film - which featured an impressive supporting cast that included Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Toshiro Mifune, Dorothy Malone and a brief appearance by Elizabeth Taylor - were the behind-the-scenes machinations, debacles and deadly scandals.
Richert began filming "Winter Kills" in 1976, only to have the production completely shut down within weeks of completion after the film went egregiously over budget. Things quickly went from bad to worse to absurd after MGM Studios seized control of the film's negatives and the "Winter Kills" production promptly went into bankruptcy. Not long after, one of the film's producers - a wealthy marijuana dealer - was murdered for failure to pay back drug debts. His partner in crime and on the film was sentenced to 40 years in prison for drug smuggling years later. It looked as if "Winters Kills" was dead in the water. And it might have been, if not for the dogged determination of Richert, who took on another job as the co-writer and director of another film starring Bridges. As soon as production wrapped, he returned to "Winter Kills" with enough funds and backing to complete the picture. Despite the labor of love, the film was barely given a theatrical release, garnered mixed reviews and soon disappeared from screens.
Released the following year with even less fanfare was "The American Success Company" (1980), the film Richert had co-written and directed while trying to drum up financing to complete "Winter Kills." In 1980, Richert and former studio exec Claire Townsend formed the Invisible Studio, an unorthodox distribution company which re-released "The American Success Story" as "American Success" in 1981 (the title was later shortened further to "Success"). "Winter Kills" was revived, re-edited and re-released with its original ending restored in 1983. Exhausted by the constant uphill battles so prevalent in the movie business, Richert left filmmaking for several years before returning as the writer-director of "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon" (1988). A mildly quirky coming-of-age story starring teen heartthrob River Phoenix, the story was in fact an adaptation of Richert's own novel Aren't You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? While the romantic drama garnered strong notices for Phoenix's older co-star Ann Magnuson, it met with tepid reviews overall, and failed to connect with a larger audience.
As he entered the next decade, Richert's professional credits were more often for his work as an actor, and it was in this capacity that he reteamed with Phoenix, appearing alongside him in director Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" (1991). A gritty, affecting movie, starring Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as a pair of Portland-area street hustlers, it also featured Richert as their Falstaffian mentor, Bob Pigeon. As an actor, he resurfaced sporadically with small turns in the adaptation of John Grisham's legal thriller, "The Client" (1994), and in an episode of the short-lived Jeff Fahey crime drama "The Marshal" (ABC, 1995). He also picked up another small directorial credit for an episode of this same series that year. In another personal project, Richert wrote, directed and acted in an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' classic adventure tale "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1998). Hindered by a shoestring budget and competing with another higher-profile version of the story starring Leonardo DiCaprio released in theaters almost simultaneously, the film garnered little attention.
In 2010, Richert settled a 2005 class action suit filed against the Writers Guild of America over the mismanagement of funds collected from foreign earnings which were due writers. It was not the first time the unconventional filmmaker had butted heads with the union. Years earlier he had claimed that the Aaron Sorkin penned "The American President" (1995), was largely based on an earlier version he had written, originally titled "The President Elopes." Ultimately, the WGA sided with Sorkin, as did the court in the law suit that followed.
By Bryce Coleman