Times Staff Writer

Film makers put up with all sorts of distractions while shooting on location. Animals roam onto the set. Airliners leave hash marks in the sky. Exotic insects buzz and attack.

Producer Ron Samuels, who just returned from filming in Israel, may be the first to be shut down because his props were needed for combat.

“We were shooting one afternoon at an air base and they said, ‘That’s it, you’re through for the day,’ ” Samuels recalls. “Fifteen minutes later, they scrambled and did this strike in southern Lebanon.”


They were the Israeli air force. What they scrambled with were American-made F-16 jet fighters, a dozen of which were being rented--munitions and pilots included--by Samuels for an action-adventure film called “The Iron Eagle.”

Before the rental jets could be launched, Israeli ground workers had to peel away their Hollywood costuming--U.S. Air Force insignias installed over Israeli markings--lest they cause an even greater stir in the Middle East.

“Imagine if those planes appeared on a raid with American markings,” Samuels says. “That would have been pretty horrific.”

“The Iron Eagle” is a story about an American teen-ager (Jason Gedrick) who commandeers an F-16 fighter and with the help of an Air Force colonel (Lou Gossett Jr.) attempts to rescue his father from Middle East terrorists. He filmed in Israel, Samuels says, primarily because that fleet of jets was made available to him.

“We could have made this film on a lesser scale,” he says, “but when the deal came through that we could use the Israeli Air Force, we figured we had to do it. You don’t get many chances to film with real F-16s.”

No, and it’s not clear why Israel, on constant combat alert, made its jets available for this movie. Samuels hints that the film’s anti-terrorist theme may have gone down well with the Israeli government. Also, Israel’s depressed economy could do with an infusion of $5 million to $6 million, which is what Samuels estimates spending there.

But somehow, one hears the shuffling of shekels.

Samuels, the former business manager of such TV stars as Lynda Carter (to whom he was married), Lindsay Wagner and Jaclyn Smith, chose “The Iron Eagle” as his first feature after making a $100-million funding deal with an anonymous Texas land developer and oilman and a long-term distribution deal with Tri-Star Pictures that have effectively turned him into a one-man studio.

He says he met the oilman about 18 months ago in a social tennis match set up by his friend Chris Evert Lloyd. The Texan had never invested in films before, he says, but when he mentioned the kind of pictures he’d like to make--non-exploitation action films with pro-American sentiments--the man said, “Come down and let’s talk about it.”

Two months later, they formed a partnership called U.S. Equity, and the investor funded it with $100 million cash. Samuels says he controls the money and makes all creative decisions on how it is spent.

His deal with Tri-Star is also a partnership, he says, with the studio putting up a portion of each film budget, and all of the advertising money.

Point. Set. Match.

“I am in a very unique situation,” says Samuels, in what will do for the understatement of the year. “To be able to make films without having to go to anybody for approval gives me a lot of flexibility.”

Samuels, who co-owns a separate TV production company with another tennis partner, singer Kenny Rogers, says he read more than 300 scripts before Joe Wizan, former head of 20th Century Fox, sent over “The Iron Eagle.” He says he made the decision to make the film 20 minutes after reading it and within 48 hours had someone en route to Israel to scout locations and negotiate the use of military bases, people and materiel.

Samuels got more than he set out to bargain for, including F-16s, Phantoms and pilots to fly them. He even had Lou Lenard, who founded Israel’s Air Force, and Motti Hodd, its commander during the Six Day War, on the payroll as technical advisers.

There were drawbacks. Twice terrorists lobbed grenades into buildings adjacent to the hotel where Samuels, director Sidney Furie and other crew members were staying. Production was shut down for one full day because of a national strike, and half a day for that air raid in Lebanon.

If you want to really feel sorry for Samuels, imagine what it must have been like watching Israeli TV. The only English-language program was featuring re-runs of “Wonder Woman,” his ex-wife’s series.

“Needless to say, I didn’t watch it (TV) a lot,” he says.

“The Iron Eagle” is costing about $10 million, Samuels says, a good chunk of which went into insurance for the $30-million jets.

“When I started shopping for the (aircraft) insurance, the best deals we could find had $5-million deductibles,” he says. “Dump one plane, that’s a movie. . . . We ended up insuring them through the same New York company that the Israeli Air Force gets its insurance from.”

Samuels says he’s going back to Israel next year to film “Hello,” a love story about an American boy, who is a tourist, and an Israeli girl, who is a soldier. He says he also plans to return some of the profits from his Israeli-set movies to Israel, by way of an art center or drama school.

VACATION HIT: “National Lampoon’s European Vacation,” one of the most critically panned travel films since “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” made off with $12.3 million last weekend to establish the hottest non-holiday opening figures this summer.

Of the other new releases, Disney’s “The Black Cauldron” did a modest $4.2 million in opening weekend business, while Orion’s “The Heavenly Kid” opened to a disastrous $1.6 million.

“Kiss of the Spider Woman,” a prison drama starring William Hurt as a transvestite with a yen for Old Hollywood, broke the house record in New York’s 700-seat Cinema I.