The Last Tycoon

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Like a figure out of fiction, Arnon Milchan is the kind of mysterious character Hollywood loves to invent. He has produced nearly 50 films, including L.A. Confidential and Pretty Woman, and now he’s in business with Rupert Murdoch. Yet he remains the town’s most secretive mogul. Could it be the Israeli arms deals?

“ARNON. MMM,” MURMURS A VETERAN MOVIE PRODUCER. “You know how he made his fortune, don’t you?” It is the invariable, hushed preamble to the subject of Arnon Milchan. Confidential stories quickly follow—sketching a man of irascible charm and a shrouded, mysterious past, bearing more in common with Jay Gatsby or even James Bond than, say, Jack Warner or Mike Ovitz.

Twenty years ago, Milchan, an unknown Israeli tycoon, pitched his hat into the Hollywood ring. Today he runs his own mini studio within a studio on Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox lot. It is the reward for being one of the town’s most prolific producers of successful quality movies, more than 60 in all, including Fight Club, L.A. Confidential, Entrapment, Pretty Woman, JFK, The King of Comedy, Brazil, Natural Born Killers, Heat, The Mambo Kings and The War of the Roses. Now, having conquered movies, Milchan has set his sights on the even more lucrative small screen. His first sitcom, Malcolm in the Middle, became an almost instant hit and the phenomenon of the TV season. Premiering in January to some of the best ratings and reviews in Fox’s 13-year history, the show was the most watched comedy in the country in only its second week on the air. Milchan is currently plotting a TV pilot of L.A. Confidential and a program by the creators of The Blair Witch Project and, of course, more movies.

Although kingpins like Warner Bros.’ Gerald Levin and Disney’s Michael Eisner are quick to return his calls, and celebrities like Tom Cruise, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino count him as a friend, Milchan rarely turns up in print, and not by accident. He is an authentic Hollywood anomaly. “My idea of a good profile is no profile,” he tells me over the telephone. In a town where disclosure and revelation are as banal as cereal, Arnon Milchan has kept his secrets to himself.

In 1996, Milchan briefly popped onto the media radar screen when he nearly seized control of MGM with his partner, Australian media baron Kerry Packer. But only Kirk Kerkorian was willing to pay $1.3 billion for the studio that he had already bought and gutted twice before. “Sometimes losing is winning,” Milchan told me smoothly at the time.

Determined to build his own media giant, Milchan promptly moved on to other ventures and bought a 32 percent stake in the German sneaker giant Puma for $150 million (“We have total control over the company,” boasts Milchan). He also gobbled up Restless Records to produce film scores and carved a distribution deal with BMG music. Then in 1997, ending a six-year relationship with Warner Bros., he embarked on perhaps his boldest move yet, a partnership with Murdoch, selling him 20 percent of his film company, New Regency Productions, for $200 million. Murdoch also invested another $30 million in Regency Television. Milchan’s tony offices occupy most of Building 12, right next door to the Executive Building on the Fox lot. And it is from this seat of power that Milchan is building an entertainment empire that could one day rival Murdoch’s.

Following weeks of a transcontinental phone chase, Milchan reluctantly agrees to meet with me only to “consider” the possibility of an interview. A young-looking, exceedingly fit 55-year-old man, Milchan appears at the bar of the Hotel Bel-Air wearing khakis, a T-shirt and an elegant, single-breasted blue blazer. Notwithstanding encroaching baldness and rimless eyeglasses, Milchan has the boyish jaunt and ease of a tennis player. In fact, he is a formidable tennis player, hitting the courts for at least three, sometimes six hours a day.

Milchan is quick to make clear his reservations about doing an interview. “I know how you reporters work,” he says, his voice tinged with the distinctive guttural tones of an Israeli. “You sit down at your computer and you hit NEXIS and then,” a flourish of his hand and some eye-rolling, “it’s the same old stuff all over again.” His eyes meet mine, his meaning clear. “You mean, the arms dealing?” I venture cautiously. But before I finish, Milchan is waving his hands dismissively. “See what I mean?” he says plaintively. I fear that this may be the end of our brief meeting. After a weighty silence, I tell him that I assume he sees himself as a “patriot.” He brightens considerably. “Absolutely. Of course I am,” he says, leaning across the table. “But all that is old business—something I did a long time ago.” Well, not exactly, but a topic to pursue later.

It is agreed we will talk in Montfort l’Amaury, a bucolic region about an hour outside of Paris, where Milchan owns a restored 18th-century home, formerly a hunting lodge, on a 50-acre farm. It is replete with pond, chickens, ducks, three horses, five ponies and two donkeys. The estate, which Milchan bought 18 years ago, sprawls onto the Bois de Rambouillet, a lush forest preserved by the French government next to the country home (and far less grand property) of French president Jacques Chirac. Milchan has kept the residence simple, preferring traditional furnishings and representational paintings. The grounds include a clay tennis court, enclosed pool, spa, gym and guest house, where photos of him with his celebrity friends adorn the walls. For his L.A. spread, Milchan has recently purchased and is renovating a home in Malibu in an area that could be called Mogul Beach, with neighbors like David Geffen, Terry Semel and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Then there are houses in Tel Aviv and Monaco where Milchan enjoys tax-free citizenship.

But we first meet at the Hotel Trianon in Versailles, halfway between Paris and Montfort l’Amaury. Milchan announces that he has a precondition for the interview. I’m fairly sure it’s going to center on arms dealing, but to my surprise and relief, Milchan has an even more sensitive subject. Before I go to his home, I have to agree not to write about whom he lives with and where. Milchan explains with discomforting sincerity that he doesn’t want “to hurt anyone’s feelings,” though it is transparently clear that self-interest is, at least, equally important. Director Terry Gilliam, who made Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen with him, says he’s got “a tall Scandinavian blonde in every port.” When I mention Gilliam’s quip, Milchan laughs. “Okay, you can say that,” he hedges. “Just nothing specific.” Steve Reuther, Milchan’s former business partner, offers his own assessment of Milchan’s lifestyle. “I’ve seen better,” he says, his voice tinged with the jaundice of show business, “and I’ve seen worse.”

Born in Tel Aviv, Milchan describes himself as a “10th-generation Palestinian.” Indeed, he was born into Israeli aristocracy. “My family’s been there for 500 years. My grandfather was a very close friend of President Weizman.” Milchan’s father was an enviable success story himself, having laid the sprinklers that irrigated Israel. Later, he would handle some of Israel’s lucrative military contracts, according to his son. However, it was young Milchan who put the company on the map internationally, after his father’s sudden death. Following a spot of schooling in London and Geneva, where he excelled in soccer and tennis, Milchan dropped out and returned to Israel. Soon, he struck gold. By marketing a newly discovered nutrient that quadrupled citrus production, he brought his company stratospheric sales throughout the world. “This is a man who made his fortune by screwing with nature,” says screenwriter Shawn Slovo, who began her career as Milchan’s secretary in 1977. “He’s the Israeli who made the desert bloom. Amazing when you think about it. He could have retired at the age of 22.”


This feature originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Los Angeles magazine

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