In the early 1980s, movie producer Arnon Milchan presided over a string of hits, collaborating with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Sergio Leone and Ridley Scott. But what his film industry friends didn’t know was that while his Hollywood career flourished, Milchan was also winding down a secret double life as an arms dealer. The mogul behind hits such as Pretty Woman, Fight Club and LA Confidential also spent about 20 years as a leading Israeli intelligence agent.
Although Milchan’s clandestine career was widely known, he had never confessed to it in public until now. The Israeli investigative documentary series Uvda (“Fact”) will broadcast an interview next week, in which Milchan revealed that he facilitated arms deals on behalf of Israel, beginning in the 1960s. Speaking to Uvda host Ilana Dayan, he asked, “Do you know what it’s like to be a twentysomething-year-old kid [and] his country lets him be James Bond?”
Milchan was born in 1944 in what was then the British Mandate for Palestine. According to the 2011 book Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan, by Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, he was recruited to Israel’s intelligence services as a young man by its then deputy defence minister, Shimon Peres, now the Israeli President. Milchan joined the Bureau of Scientific Relations, or Lekem, which supported the country’s nascent nuclear arms programme.
In an interview for the book, Mr Peres admitted he was responsible for Milchan’s recruitment. “Arnon is a special man,” Mr Peres said. “His strength is in making connections at the highest levels. His activities gave us a huge advantage, strategically, diplomatically and technologically.”
In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Milchan worked tirelessly in the US to acquire arms for Israel. Meanwhile, he became embroiled in the movie business, and earned his first producer credit in 1977. In the mid-1980s, Milchan’s involvement in the arms trade became public knowledge, after a California aerospace executive was caught making illegal shipments of nuclear triggers through one of his companies, but the Reagan administration eventually dropped any charges against Milchan, and in 1987 Lekem was disbanded.
By that time, however, the mogul’s moonlighting was an open secret in Hollywood. The actor Robert De Niro, interviewed by Uvda, recalled that he once asked Milchan about the rumours during the period when the two worked together on The King of Comedy (1982) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). “He told me that he was an Israeli and that he of course would do these things for his country,” said De Niro.
As Milchan’s intelligence activities became known, they hampered his film career. “In Hollywood they don’t like working with an arms dealer, ideologically,” Milchan told Dayan. “[They don’t like working] with someone who lives off selling machine guns and killing. Instead of someone talking to me about a script, I had to spend half an hour explaining that I’m not an arms dealer.”
Dayan told The Hollywood Reporter that Milchan had initially refused to take part in the documentary. She also described the qualities that made him a success not only in movies, but also in his secret second career. “Milchan has been an entrepreneur since his early twenties, crossing from various realms of business, show business, politics and military, always bringing his unique charm and way of befriending and creating close bonds,” Dayan said. “Milchan walks a fine line of being both an insider and an outsider.”
On top of his movie work, Milchan is also the owner of the network which transmits Israeli television to the US. The documentary features interviews with several major stars whom Milchan has worked with and befriended, including Warren Beatty, Jennifer Connelly, David Fincher and Ben Affleck.
Milchan also revealed that he received help in his covert activities from other Hollywood figures, including the late director-producer Sydney Pollack, whom Milchan claims knowingly assisted him in several arms deals. The actor Richard Dreyfuss unwittingly abetted the Israeli cause by hosting a dinner party at his home, to which Milchan invited a leading US nuclear weapons expert. Milchan hoped to recruit the scientist, Arthur Biehl, but lured him to Dreyfuss’s house by suggesting the actor needed scientific advice for a musical. “Anyone who lives in California is a star-fucker,” Milchan said. “They hear ‘star’, they come running.”
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