The Last Tycoon

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Milchan says he dropped out of weapons sales, which he calls “aerospace,” in 1991, post-Gulf War, after “selling the Patriot missiles to Israel to defend against the Scuds.” He says he quit for various reasons, not the least being that he was tired of being stigmatized by what he calls “cheap shots.” Some question whether he is really out of the business. Even Milchan is somewhat ambiguous: “I’ll say it in my own words. I love Israel, and any way I can help Israel, I will. I’ll do it again and again. If you say I’m an arms dealer, that’s your problem. In Israel, there is practically no business that does not have something to do with defense.”

People come to Hollywood to be born again. The promised land of indulgence and amnesia, Hollywood cares little about people’s pasts. Indeed, Milchan’s weapons dealing has, if anything, augmented the aura and mystique of his outsider, bad-boy profile. Moreover, anything done for the benefit of Israel is given a wide berth. “I remember a front-page story in London about Arnon and nuclear triggers,” recalls one of Hollywood’s most prominent producers. “Hollywood doesn’t give a shit about it. They think it’s glamorous. It’s like Begelman. Anything goes, as long as your pictures make money.”

But given his combative nature, Milchan has had his share of skirmishes. “Arnon was a pirate, a buccaneer in Hollywood,” says Gilliam. “He ran into Hollywood’s anti-Semitism. They don’t like real Jews. They don’t like Israelis. Arnon has a Levantine soul. Everything is horse trading and carpet dealing.” A top Hollywood executive once warned Oliver Stone to stay clear of Milchan. “He told me that Arnon was a Middle Eastern rug dealer. Beware,” recalls Stone, embittered from business dealings gone sour. “I should have listened to him. He was right.”

In one bruising battle during the making of Brazil, then-MCA president Sidney Sheinberg shot off a memo to Milchan: “In Texas, we have a saying, `Put your money where your mouth is.’ I’m sure there’s a Hebrew equivalent.” Milchan, who later battled Sheinberg over the release of the film, was unamused and dismissed the executive as “an assimilated Beverly Hills Jew.”

Ultimately, it is Israel and its sense of persecution that colors Milchan’s personal and professional life. Former Fox president and now independent producer Larry Gordon remembers getting a call a few years ago from Milchan, who was on his first trip to Tokyo. “At the time, I was partnered with the Japanese, and Arnon called and said, `Larry, I feel really weird here. It’s very strange the way they treat me.’ I said, `Arnon, you gotta understand, these people don’t like Americans, they don’t like Jews, and they especially don’t like Israelis. That’s just the way it is.’ There was a long pause, and then Arnon says, `You mean, like Baghdad?'”

Milchan first started producing films in Israel with a movie called Black Joy in the mid-’70s, then forayed into Hollywood by covering the completion bond for the television miniseries Masada in 1981. “I was discovered by a guy called Elliot Kastner,” says Milchan. A lover of glamour, glitz and girls, Milchan became hooked on show business after a dinner with Kastner and Elizabeth Taylor. “You kind of buy yourself into it to be humiliated into becoming the next sucker in the business. So I voluntarily said, `Okay, I just want to be around.’ All of a sudden, I’m in business with this guy,” says Milchan. “Just staying alive is the name of the game. So I hung on.”

A former employee says that Milchan used his invincible charm to convince Cannes officials that Black Joy was a worthy entry into the festival. After a few films and a falling-out with Kastner, Milchan set out on his own, setting up Regency Productions and establishing a reputation for making prestige pictures with respected directors such as Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet, Ridley Scott, Ron Shelton and Martin Scorsese (The King of Comedy is Milchan’s favorite of the movies he’s produced). Adding to his outsider mystique, the multilingual Milchan continued to live and work most of the time away from Hollywood, shuttling between his various homes, the consummate jet-setter.

“He’s one of those rare people who can do the detail work and also stay focused on the big picture,” says former partner Steve Reuther. “I knew he had a dozen other businesses, but here he only talked about the movie business.” A current associate describes him as “both a dealmaker and a filmmaker who’s pretty hands-on when he’s in town.” Robert De Niro, who has made five films with Milchan (Brazil, Guilty by Suspicion, Heat, The King of Comedy and Once Upon a Time in America), says that “compared to some of the people out there who have nothing on them but an Armani suit, Arnon is the real thing. He’s paid his dues, he’s got good taste, works very hard, and he’s totally committed. He spins circles around those other guys.”

Milchan runs his company like a family business. Heading up New Regency Productions for him is his childhood friend David Matalon, whose parents were best friends with Milchan’s. Daughter Alexandra is vice president of production in Los Angeles; son Yariv, a photographer, shoots movie stills, while daughter Elinor is an independent producer, presently making a documentary on Cuban artists. All three children speak reverentially of their father, who raised them from their teen years. French is the family language, Israel the family identity, says Elinor. “When we were kids, we wanted more time with him,” says Alexandra, “but now I realize it’s quality, not quantity, of time. Growing up, I would read that he was an arms dealer; he was in the MOSSAD, and he was a movie producer. But what I like is that he is really close to the ground, very real and simple. Until recently, we traveled coach. He wanted us to know the real world. The worst thing that could happen to me is to lose his trust and respect. My family is not a family—it’s a clan.”

In Israel, Milchan spends much of his time with best friend Shimon Peres, the former prime minister who recommended two books to him, The Name of the Rose and The Remains of the Day. (Rose was developed by Milchan and eventually made into a movie by other people.) His relationship with Peres almost led to another unlikely collaboration. “I was over at his house during Passover in 1995,” recalls Milchan. Anyway, we’re getting drunk, having a good time, and all of a sudden he’s looking at his watch. He said, `Oh. It’s 11:30. I have a meeting with the Palestinians.'” Moments later, “security men and the [Palestinian] delegation come in, including Nabil Shaat, an Arafat lieutenant. And it’s `Shimon promised me this and that.’ I’m absolutely impressed with how smart they are, how in good faith and trusting they are. Seriously. There was more good faith there than there is in Hollywood. And I’m sitting there and nobody has noticed me, and Shimon says, `This is Arnon, he’s a good friend. He makes movies.’ And somebody says, `Really? What movies?’ `Oh, he made Pretty Woman.’ And they say, `That’s Arafat’s favorite movie. He saw it 20 times. Oh, you did The Client? Oh, my God.’ At the end, they are designing a movie about a Palestinian and a Jew.”


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

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