October 20, 2021

New Book Recounts Tale of Israeli Agent at Home in Hollywood

Mr. Chernin may have been even more right than he knew.

“Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan,” written by Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, and set for publication on July 30 by Gefen Books, now holds that Mr. Milchan — whose credits include “Love and Other Drugs” and “Knight and Day” — at least through the mid-1980s was a full-fledged operative for Israel’s top-secret intelligence agency, Lakam. (The acronym is from the Hebrew for the blandly named Science Liaison Bureau.)

In that capacity, according to the book, Mr. Milchan supervised government-backed accounts and front companies that financed “the special needs of the entirety of Israel’s intelligence operations outside the country.”

The “special needs” serviced by Mr. Milchan, who is now 66 years old, included buying components to build and maintain Israel’s nuclear arsenal. But with the indictment in 1985 of Richard Kelly Smyth, an aerospace executive who had made illegal shipments of nuclear triggers through Milchan companies, Mr. Milchan unexpectedly found his arms-dealing in the news even as he was wrangling with Universal Pictures over the near collapse of a movie, “Brazil,” directed by Terry Gilliam.

Mr. Smyth became a fugitive. He was finally arrested in 2001, convicted and imprisoned. He was released on probation in 2005.

Mr. Milchan was not accused of wrongdoing, but the case drew scrutiny to his activities in the arms business even as he stepped up his film career under deals first at Warner Brothers, then at 20th Century Fox, whose parent company bought a stake in his Regency Enterprises. In the glow of friendships with the likes of Brad Pitt and Robert De Niro, speculation about his intrigues seemed to fade — until a pair of unlikely biographers decided to figure out why Israel had been filtering a large part of its military budget through Hollywood hands.

Mr. Doron spoke recently over coffee at a patio cafe here, expressing puzzlement at Israel’s reliance on a middleman to broker deals that seemingly could have been made without the services of his Milchan Brothers umbrella company and affiliates.

He was flanked by Mr. Gelman, who sipped watermelon juice, and joined in explaining how the two — who are brothers-in-law — conceived of writing about Mr. Milchan, who had been vaguely identified in Israel’s press as the “Chuck Norris of the Lakam.” Mr. Gelman, who was born in the United States, had lived in Israel and served as a paratrooper during the 1982 war in Lebanon. Mr. Doron had been a writer and editor specializing in Israeli military issues.

Never having written together, they began culling public records and published accounts. Eventually, they met Mr. Smyth, who was by then living in Lompoc, Calif., and, with his story in hand, cobbled together a draft of their book before approaching Mr. Milchan.

“Should I be concerned?” Mr. Milchan asked during a first conversation by phone in 2009, Mr. Gelman said. A major worry, Mr. Gelman told him, was the impression that he had profited hugely from Israel’s security dilemmas.

“I did it for my country, the money did not go to me,” Mr. Gelman recalled Mr. Milchan explaining, when the three later met, and began a series of sessions that went on for six months.

Mr. Milchan’s disclaimer about profiteering provoked further research into how various companies set up by Mr. Milchan or associated with Milchan Brothers traded in arms for Israel and other countries. While doing so, he set aside money in accounts for use by Israel, allowing that country’s prime minister “to execute decisions beyond Israel’s borders without the need for the formal budgeting, cabinet approvals, petty internal politics, or leaks to the press that might endanger the operation.”

In the end, the book was not authorized by Mr. Milchan. The account was based partly on interviews with the likes of Shimon Peres, the Israeli president who, according to the book, acknowledged having “recruited” Mr. Milchan as a clandestine operative.

“Confidential” was sold to Gefen Publishing by David Kuhn, a literary agent who was previously an editor at Brill’s Content and The New Yorker. Its narrative follows Mr. Milchan through his first acquaintance with the arms business via his father’s company, through his introduction to Israel’s nuclear program by Mr. Peres and the Lakam chief, Benjamin Blumberg.

After the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Mr. Milchan began acquiring both big-ticket conventional weapons and krytrons, devices that can trigger nuclear bombs. In the middle of it all, he was introduced to the film business by Elliott Kastner, now deceased, the American producer with whom he collaborated on a 1977 picture, “The Stick-Up.”

Mr. Milchan thought the movie bad enough to remove his credit but he immediately backed another film, “Black Joy,” that appeared at the Cannes Film Festival. By the early 1980s, Mr. Milchan was a force in Hollywood, with a growing string of credits on films like “The King of Comedy” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” both with Mr. De Niro — and the movies soon became not just convenient cover, but a full-blown second career.

In the late 1990s, the News Corporation, which owns Fox, paid $200 million for a 20 percent stake in Mr. Milchan’s Regency Enterprises. A News Corporation spokeswoman, Teri Everett, had no immediate response to a query about the company’s reason for backing Mr. Milchan, and about any reaction by its chief executive, Rupert Murdoch, to revelations in the new book. (Mr. Milchan’s latest film for Fox, the comedy “Monte Carlo,” opened to soft reviews and modest prospects a few weeks ago.)

Asked whether Mr. Milchan would discuss the book, his executive assistant, Jane Bulmer, said he was traveling and out of reach. But, Ms. Bulmer said in an e-mail, Mr. Milchan had told her “that he has not read the book and does not plan on commenting on any unauthorized books that have been written about him.”

As for Mr. Milchan’s current status with Israeli intelligence, Mr. Gelman and Mr. Doron declined to venture a guess. “We really don’t know with certainty,” Mr. Gelman said.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=21f015cdbc98b5c4f6b5e36a4263bf3a

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