Arnon Milchan, ex-Israeli soldier, soccer star, shadowy arms consultant, international business entrepreneur and big-time Hollywood producer, does not lack confidence.
His next ambition, for instance, is to make peace between Arabs and Jews and take care of the Iranian situation.
In a wide-ranging interview, Milchan (pronounced with a soft “ch” as in “China”) reminisced about his past, discussed the movie industries in Israel and the United States and spoke of his plans for a Jewish-Arab university in northern Israel.
The occasion for the rare interview was last week’s gala dinner and show at Paramount Studios, hosted by the Consulate General of Israel and the Los Angeles-based Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, with Milchan as the guest of honor.
“I usually hate these events. I don’t even go to my own premieres, but this is for a good cause, Israel’s youth movement,” Milchan said. “I’m not personally involved in any way; it’s almost like a surprise party.”
Milchan provided his own surprise for the occasion, when, after accepting the Legacy of Citizens Lifetime Achievement Award, he called tennis champ Serena Williams to the stage and shared the award with her.
Milchan was born in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv, 63 years ago as an 11th-generation sabra on both sides of the family.
“On one family side we go back to [the great medieval Bible commentator] Rashi, on the other side almost to King David,” he said. When he met Yasser Arafat, the late PLO leader, Milchan told him, “I’m more Palestinian than you are.”
During their meeting, Milchan also discovered another side of the old terrorist.
“Arafat told me that he had seen my movie, ‘Pretty Woman,’ at least 20 times,” Milchan said. “A bodyguard took me to Arafat’s bedroom, and there was a cassette of the movie.”
In the early 1960s, Milchan was a star center forward for Tel Aviv Maccabi and the national soccer team.
“I had the choice of becoming a professional soccer player or going to the university,” he recalled. “I made a mistake and went to school.”
He has four children, ranging in age from 5 to 40 and five grandchildren “as of yesterday.”
At age 20, Milchan inherited a debt-laden fertilizer company from his father and turned it into one of Israel’s largest agro-chemical concerns. Today, with worldwide business investments and profitable movies, he confirms Fortune magazine’s estimate of his worth at $3.1 billion.
Milchan served in the Israeli army during the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. After getting his feet wet in the Israeli and British movie industries, he was ready to take on Hollywood.
Now the founder and head of New Regency Productions, Milchan is credited as the producer of approximately 120 feature films. Among his best known titles are “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Brazil,” “Pretty Woman,” “JFK,” “Free Willy,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”
Although he is involved in many facets of Israeli life, Milchan takes no part in the country’s film industry or, for that matter, in making Hollywood movies on Jewish or Israeli themes.
“I have a high regard for Israeli movies, but you’ve got to specialize,” he said. “You can’t make a ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith,’ which opened in 3,000 American theaters, and then a Hebrew-language film with English subtitles that plays in a few art houses.”
Milchan doesn’t do documentaries or films on Holocaust themes, he said, “although if somebody brought me a great script, like ‘Schindler’s List,’ I might make it. But I’d rather give money to someone else who can do a better job than I could.”
He does give money to Israeli causes, such as $1 million to the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, for which he also served as chairman.
Milchan said he put up $100 million for a pet project to establish a doctorate-granting university in the Galilee, with a top faculty (“I wished that teachers were the highest paid people in Israel”) to attract Jewish, Muslim and Christian students.
The project has been stalled for two years, which Milchan blames on “government changes, academic opposition and bureaucracy,” but if it doesn’t take off, he plans to initiate a major hydraulic energy scheme instead.
Milchan is not involved in the L.A. Jewish community “because I only live here, in Malibu, three months each year,” he said. The rest of the time he spends in Israel, where he has houses in Herzliyah and Bet Yanai, near Caesarea, or in his London residence.
In the mid-1980s, Milchan’s name frequently popped up as an “arms merchant” in a criminal case involving the illegal shipment to Israel of 800 krytrons, small electronic devices that can be used for triggering nuclear weapons. Milchan was never charged in the case, but he acknowledges that one of his companies served as a front in the transaction, “with the full knowledge of the Israeli and American governments.”
Milchan follows Israeli politics closely and is fond of dropping the names of his high-level friends, particularly Shimon Peres (“his first letter he wrote as president went to me”), but also Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud Party leader Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu.
He recalled that in 1965, he put up $3,000 to help David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Peres form the short-lived Rafi Party.
As always, he said, he likes to operate behind the scenes and asserted that he helped then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon persuade Peres to join the new Kadima Party. Currently, Milchan said, “I’m trying to make peace among the left, right and center.”
He is more circumspect about playing any role in American politics. “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, except in private, but I know the players,” he said.
Toward the end of the interview, Milchan mentioned a just-published 25-page cover story on him in Cigar Aficionado magazine written by its publisher, Marvin R. Shanken. Milchan, who said he no longer smokes stogies, offered to hand-deliver the magazine to the interviewer’s home, via his chauffeur. He emphasized that he had vetted the article before publication and that every word was true.
Milchan closes out the Cigar interview with some introspective thoughts.
“I really, really believe that I have the skills, the courage, the conviction and the know-how to make a difference in the peace process in the Middle East,” he said.
“I think I can get in a room, no different than I got into a room with Arafat,” Milchan said. “I can get in the room and work out a deal…. I can get with the Iranian guy. I think if I really want something, it is to work with the next administration in Israel and the United States, whoever is the president here, whoever is the prime minister in Israel, and get myself hired to be the go-between, between Arabs and Jews.
“I will deliver this one,” he added. “The point I’m making here, I’m the most qualified person I’ve ever met to make peace. It will be my best movie, and I can do it. That’s my big dream.”