Wednesday 29 January 2020

Obituary: Fred Weintraub

Producer who shot Bruce Lee to fame and made the famous Woodstock documentary

BIG BREAK: Fred Weintraub with Bruce Lee on the set of the martial arts film ‘Enter the Dragon’, which made Lee famous
BIG BREAK: Fred Weintraub with Bruce Lee on the set of the martial arts film ‘Enter the Dragon’, which made Lee famous Newsdesk Newsdesk

Fred Weintraub, the producer, who has died aged 88, had a long career in several branches of the entertainment world, ranging from houses of ill fame to the film industry, and he helped the spirit of the 1960s to take root by promoting young performers at his club in New York, and by producing the film of the historic Woodstock festival.

In 1969, the bearded, pony-tailed Weintraub found himself unexpectedly the nebulously titled vice-president of creative services at Warner Bros, after a friend had bought the studio. Asked to justify his appointment despite his lack of experience in the business, he riposted: "I've never made a bad movie."

On his first day at work, an acquaintance turned up and asked for $100,000 to help fund a documentary about a concert he was organising that weekend in upstate New York. Weintraub's days as a club promoter had given him a nose for what young people wanted, and he convinced the studio to put up the money.

As reports came in over the next few days about the chaos at White Lake - the site of the concert was actually 43 miles from Woodstock, but by then the tickets had been printed - Weintraub became the butt of colleagues' jokes. These redoubled when it turned out he had not secured the musicians' signatures necessary to release the soundtrack album. Yet once the miles of footage had been edited (in part by the young Martin Scorsese), the three-hour documentary became a box-office sensation and went on to win an Oscar.

Weintraub had little taste for Hollywood politics, however, and after speaking his mind too often moved into independent film-making.

Among the television projects that he helped to develop were The Dukes of Hazzard and Kung Fu, the Western-set martial arts series. He had intended it as a vehicle for the then unknown Bruce Lee, whom he knew, but the broadcaster shied away from casting an Asian actor in favour of David Carradine. Accordingly, Weintraub determined to make Lee a star himself.

The result was Enter the Dragon, directed by Robert Clouse, which in 1973 made Lee a household name and sparked a boom in similar pictures. Much of it was shot in Hong Kong, and Weintraub was driven half-mad by the nervousness of Lee - who, aware that this was his big chance, failed to appear for the first two weeks of shooting - and by quixotic local ways of doing things.

Props, such as furniture, were rented by the day, and would be substituted the next for different ones, playing havoc with continuity. In addition, the climactic mass fight scene on the outdoor terraces (actually a tennis court) was held up when the wardrobe mistress decided overnight to wash all the white uniforms as they had grass stains.

Despite Lee's death shortly before the premiere, the film was a smash. Weintraub went on to make several more martial arts films and to produce Steve McQueen's last movie, Tom Horn, released in 1980.

Later he pioneered film- making on location in Eastern Europe. Its challenges included an emergency search for razors, after he noticed in rushes that the 20 local girls hired to dance energetically did not conform to American expectations of grooming.

Frederick Robert Weintraub was born on April 27, 1928 and grew up in the Bronx, where his parents ran a children's furniture and toy shop. Every Christmas, he and his sister would be given presents from the store's stock, and every January their father would take them back.

After studying at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School, Fred went to work for his father, setting up a chain of 50 shops. In his late 20s, however, he despaired of his way of life, identifying with the frustration of Anthony Quinn's character in Fellini's La Strada. He walked out on his wife and two daughters and within a few weeks was living in Paris with a black cabaret singer.

He had a spell in advertising before winding up as a piano player in a Havana bordello. Beaten up and deported for lending his boat to pro-Castro gunrunners, he settled in Greenwich Village. In 1961 he bought the lease on a cafe in Bleecker Street from a chess opponent, Manny Roth (the uncle of the rock star David Lee Roth), and renamed it The Bitter End.

Although it did not serve alcohol, the club soon became popular, and influential as a launch pad for the folk music movement. While Bob Dylan never played there, almost everyone else did. Peter, Paul and Mary shot their first LP cover in front of the stage's brick wall, and Weintraub for a time managed a struggling singer named Neil Diamond.

Weintraub later admitted that he didn't like folk music and preferred stand-up comedy. For a time he was friends with Woody Allen. Once, the two played a prank on their respective psychiatrists, trading dreams.

He published an entertaining memoir in 2011.

He was married four times, and is survived by his wife Jackie, two sons and two daughters.

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