Death Wish director Michael Winner dies at 77

Michael Winner, a British filmmaker best known for directing the three Death Wish movies, has died at age 77.

Filmmaker had second career as acerbic restaurant critic for Sunday Times

British director and producer Michael Winner, seen signing copies of his autobiography Unbelievable! in London in 2010, died Monday. (Jonathan Short/Associated Press)

Michael Winner, a British filmmaker best known for directing the three Death Wish movies, has died at age 77.

Winner's wife said he died at his London home Monday after an illness.

Winner was also a restaurant critic with the long-running "Winner's Dinners" column in the Sunday Times newspaper and a collector of fine art and antiques.

He directed more than 30 movies, specializing in thrillers and action titles. Among his best-regarded work is The Big Sleep, a 1978 noir starring Robert Mitchum.

The Death Wish franchise, featuring Charles Bronson as a law-abiding citizen who becomes a vigilante when his wife and daughter are attacked, began in 1974.

Criticism of Death Wish violence

Though the first movie was criticized for its violence, it became a commercial success in the U.S. and Winner went on to direct two more instalments: Death Wish II in 1982 and Death Wish 3 in 1985. He brushed off criticism of his films.     

"If you want art, don't mess about with movies," he once said. "Buy a Picasso."

He took pride that Death Wish featured the film debuts of two future stars: Jeff Goldblum, billed as Freak 1, and Denzel Washington, billed as Alley Mugger.

Born in London in 1935, Winner worked as a newspaper showbiz writer and film critic before beginning his movie career with short films and documentaries.

His early British films included 1963’s gritty, London-set thriller West 11, 1964’s The System, about young men in a seaside town seeking sexual conquests, and I'll Never Forget What's'isname, which starred Oliver Reed as a London adman and Orson Welles as his boss. He made several other films with Reed, including Hannibal Brooks and The Jokers.

His 1973 spy film Scorpio starred Burt Lancaster as a veteran CIA agent trying to outwit a man who’s trying to kill him.

Prior to Death Wish, he made the films The Mechanic and The Stone Killer with action hero Bronson.

Last restaurant reviews in December

As a restaurant critic he was known for his acerbic verdicts — especially for poor service — which got him barred from some eateries.     

"He could be very witty, but also uncompromising in his demands for good service, which resonated with readers," said Martin Ivens, acting editor of The Sunday Times.     

"He was also not afraid to laugh at himself and rejoiced in the huge postbag of letters which poked gentle fun at him — often he would forward particularly insulting letters that had been sent straight to him for inclusion alongside his column."

Despite becoming very ill from bad oysters in 2007 and later from steak tartare, he continued his reviews until December 2012.

Former Monty Python comedian John Cleese and TV mogul Simon Cowell remembered him fondly on Monday. 

"Laughter was never far away when Michael was around, and he is someone who the more I got to know, the fonder I got of him," Cowell said.

Cleese said Winner had been "the dearest, kindest, funniest and most generous of friends. I shall miss him terribly."  

He is survived by his wife, Geraldine Winner.