Biography of Arnon Milchan covers triumphs and flaws

Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon by Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman; Gefen Books; 288 pages; no price listed.

By Norman Manson

Norman Manson

SAN DIEGO — This is the story of a man of extraordinary talents, as well as amazing drive and perseverance. Arnon Milchan had a fabulous career aiding Israel’s military machine, then turned his attention to Hollywood and produced no less than 110 films. And, to this day, he shows no inclination to retire or even slow down; he’s now in his late 60s.

A wheeler-dealer and a womanizer, he has pulled off a variety of operations in his longtime quest for fame and wealth. Now a billionaire, he hob-nobs with world figures and divides his time between homes in Israel, France and Malibu, as well as other sites around the world. This biography details his varied, sometimes dangerous exploits – he is known for taking risks – as he built his towering reputation, both in military and cinema circles.

But the most gut-wrenching, and in some ways most revealing, story in this book deals only marginally with Milchan. Its key character is Dr. Richard Kelly Smyth, a talented engineer and former high Pentagon operative who was deeply involved in Milchan’s military projects from 1969 until 1985, when he was indicted for shipping krytrons, sophisticated triggers for nuclear detonations, from the U.S. to Israel without the necessary export license.The indictment started the road to destruction of Smyth’s life – and Milchan totally abandoned  him as he fled the U.S., was finally caught and spent several nightmare years in a jail in Spain and another in the U.S. The two never spoke again. Milchan’s refusal to help his longtime associate and friend casts a deep shadow over his character. Obviously, Milchan thought little about others – his main concern was saving his own skin. 

While his name is not well known to the general public, Milchan is a major figure, both in the military and the film worlds. His career started with his father’s sudden death in 1965, when he took over what appeared to be the family’s fertilizer business, but quickly learned it was only a cover for a defense export-import firm, handling key Israeli miliary contracts. Only 21 at the time, he quickly showed his business acumen, making lucrative contacts with duPont and other international firms. And his became deeply involved in Israel’s nuclear weapons program, which, while never publicly acknowledged, was becoming a major strategic objective in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And Smyth was a key player in Israel’s acquisition of key nuclear components.

In the mid ’70s, Milchan, having made big money in military procurement, began looking for new worlds to conquer – and his choice was entertainment, especially movies. He decided that the Israeli movie industry was too modest for his tastes and headed quite quickly for Hollywood. He produced his first film in 1977, and by the early ’80s he was into film production in a big way, although few of his films earned critical acclaim. In 1990, he produced a breakthrough blockbuster, Pretty Woman, probably his most successful cinematic effort, although he came close to winning Oscars in the 90s with JFK and L.A.Confidential.

He also went through at least six marriages or intimate relationships. He is now married to Amanda Coetze, a former South African tennis star. He did have military connections with South Africa in the days of Apartheid, although he has since forcefully denounced that practice.

The story of this man’s checkered career, his accumulation of great wealth and his ability to wheel and deal, meanwhile staying out of legal trouble, is quite well told by Doron and Gelman. This is a well-researched account, with numerous footnotes to corroborate the authors’ sometimes inflammatory statements. Milchan’s life story, with all his accomplishments and blemishes, is certainly well worth telling.

Manson is a freelance writer based in San Diego.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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