His movie credits include classics such as “Pretty Woman” and “JFK,” as well as recent Oscar winners “The Revenant” and “12 Years a Slave.” But his back story reads more like an espionage thriller that has landed him at the center of a scandal shaking the Israeli government.
The latest chapter in the strange saga of Israeli billionaire and veteran film producer Arnon Milchan arose last week over accusations that he — in Hollywood mogul fashion — gave thousands of dollars worth of cigars and champagne to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his wife.
Israeli police Thursday interrogated Netanyahu for the second time in one week over accusations that he improperly accepted gifts from rich businessmen. Those individuals are said to include Milchan, 72, and others who gave gifts to the prime minister, according to Israeli media reports.
Milchan, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. Netanyahu’s lawyer dismissed the allegations after the three-hour questioning session, saying “any reasonable person knows that there is nothing remotely criminal involved when a close friend gives his friend a gift of cigars,” according to Israeli news outlets.
Still, the investigation has shone a spotlight on Milchan, a Tel Aviv-born tycoon whose business interests at one point reportedly spanned 30 companies in 17 countries. He has long wielded influence in politics in the country and abroad, and worked in industries including agribusiness, plastics and weapons.
He is considered one of the movie business’ most influential producers, yet has remained an elusive figure in Hollywood. Though he’s a jet-setting entrepreneur known for his charm, Milchan rarely gives media interviews. Nonetheless, he has earned respect and admiration from A-listers and studio chiefs. Over his long career, he has made films with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone.
“Look in the dictionary under Renaissance man,” said then-20th Century Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos in a documentary for Israeli Channel 2 TV. “You’ll see a picture of Arnon — or you should.”
Milchan has used his clout and film connections to help shape Israel’s image around the world. He once hosted an A-list party at his Malibu home for then-foreign minister Silvan Shalom, attended by stars such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson, according to Jacob Dayan, who was Israel consul general to Los Angeles from 2007 to 2011. He has played a key role in “branding Israel” in Hollywood, Dayan told The Times several years ago.
“When you have such access to opinion-shapers, this gives Israel a tremendous advantage,” Dayan said. “These are extremely influential people. And such access is an asset to Israel. I don’t know many people who can bring Hollywood’s entire A-list to their home like this.”
Beyond his ties to the film industry, Milchan is perhaps best known for his involvement in the armaments business. Though he was described in a 1989 Israeli newspaper article as “probably the country’s largest armaments dealer” at the time, Milchan has downplayed the extent of his history in the munitions business.
In an interview for a Times profile in 1992, Milchan acknowledged dealings with the Israeli Ministry of Defense and his role as a consultant to defense contractor and aerospace giant Raytheon Co.
He was also connected to a pair of international scandals decades ago. One was his association with a pro-apartheid propaganda campaign in 1970s involving South Africa. The other concerned the shipment of devices that can be used to trigger nuclear explosions to one of his Israeli companies. His business associate, Richard Kelly Smyth, was accused of smuggling the devices to Israel in a 1985 case. Milchan was never formally charged with wrongdoing in either matter.
His murky past, though, did little to slow his rise to power in the movie business. Milchan turned his attention to Hollywood in 1975 after producing films in Israel and England, with early efforts including Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” He won show-business credibility with commercial hits such as “Pretty Woman” (1990) and “The War of the Roses” (1989). Milchan produced the 1984 classic “Once Upon a Time in America,” in which he also played a minor acting role as a chauffeur.
“He is a fearless man himself and has an affinity for artists who go where no one has gone before them,” Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher said in an interview with The Times years ago.
Milchan’s star reached new heights in 1991 when his company, Regency Enterprises, formed a joint venture with Time Warner, French TV giant Canal Plus and German entertainment company Scriba & Deyhle. The partnership produced such hits for Regency and Time Warner’s Warner Bros. movie studio as “Natural Born Killers” and “L.A. Confidential.”
After six years with Warner Bros., Milchan moved his New Regency Productions to Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox lot in 1997. Under the deal, Fox took a 20% stake in the company for about $200 million.
Milchan has had his share of struggles as a producer. New Regency’s latest movie, the video game adaptation “Assassins Creed” — which cost $125 million to produce — flopped at the box office, grossing $96 million in ticket sales. The studio’s 2016 Warren Beatty film “Rules Don’t Apply” was also a commercial bomb.
The company endured a fraught production process for “The Revenant,” and its budget ballooned to $135 million. Still, the film was a hit and scored Leonardo DiCaprio his first best-actor Oscar win. New Regency scored back-to-back best picture wins for “12 Years a Slave” in 2014 and “Birdman” in 2015.
Regency’s next film is “A Cure for Wellness,” a psychological thriller from director Gore Verbinski that will debut in February.
Sobelman is a former special correspondent.
Jan. 9, 6:45 p.m.: This article was updated with more details on Milchan’s Hollywood ties.
This article was originally published Jan. 7 at 3 a.m.