Arnon Milchan has two high-level lives: One as the producer of big-name movies like Love and Other Drugs and Knight and Day, and the other as an intelligence agent for the Israeli government. Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon, a new biography by Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, is chock-full of hush-hush anecdotes — more from the Tinseltown gig than the foreign government one, but both can be equally top secret. Check out the following excerpts from the upcoming book, including Milchan’s selling-your-Google-stock-in-2004-esque missed opportunity when he passed on the Harry Potter franchise:
Statistically, he can only hope that two or three will become the hits that will carry the company financially. If he’s lucky, three or four of the films will break even, or make a little money; two will likely lose money; and two will likely be total disasters.
“It’s a horrible business,” Milchan said. One of the problems with becoming a major player inundated with material is that occasionally, in hindsight, a once-in-a-lifetime, earth-shattering blockbuster is overlooked. Milchan was the first producer to be offered the exclusive rights to the very first Harry Potter book, and for the entire forthcoming series of books yet to be written. He was offered the rights for the ridiculously low price of $35,000. But he had trouble connecting with the story and turned it down, believing that it would probably go nowhere. After that first Harry Potter book became the wildly successful Harry Potter movie, Milchan said that he didn’t know what to do first, throw up or commit suicide.
It wouldn’t be the last time. Milchan had a 50 percent interest in what became the billion-dollar animated series Ice Age. When Ice Age’s original budget jumped modestly from $57 million to $61 million, he backed out, refusing to believe that the animated feature would break even.
And a strange and hilarious incident with Robert De Niro while casting Once Upon a Time in America:
As word spread of the production in the works, [director Sergio] Leone personally received numerous phone calls from top talents, such as Warren Beatty. Like he did with most of the others, Leone turned him down cold. “He’s a hairdresser, for Christ’s sake,” Leone said to Milchan.
“But he only played the role of a hairdresser in Shampoo,” Milchan said, in hopes of changing Leone’s mind.
“No, no, he is a hairdresser,” Leone insisted.
A few days later he received a call from Clint Eastwood. “No, no, I have already cast him in three movies. I need something fresh.”
If there was one person Sergio Leone wanted for the film, it was Robert De Niro, who had played the lead in Milchan’s The King of Comedy. According to Milchan, it was not easy to convince De Niro to read the long script, but finally the actor claimed that he’d read through the entire manuscript and agreed to meet with Leone.
The meeting was scheduled at the Mayflower Hotel in New York City. Leone, obese at the time, was dressed in a gigantic robe as they convened in a top-floor suite that Milchan had reserved for the meeting. Leone and De Niro were to talk one-on-one as Milchan waited for a call in a separate room. When the phone finally rang, it was De Niro whispering on the other end. “Arnon, I need to talk with you.”
Milchan rushed over to De Niro’s room and knocked on the door. De Niro said, “I can’t do the movie.” Milchan was stunned. “Why not?”
De Niro led Milchan to the bathroom and pointed at the toilet.
Milchan was puzzled.
“Can’t you see that he pissed all over my toilet seat?” he asked in that tone that only Robert De Niro can do.
The seat was indeed soiled. “Come on, Robert, he didn’t do that on purpose. He’s fat, he didn’t see.”
“No way, Arnon, he did this on purpose.” De Niro implied that it was a power game, a marking of territory of sorts, showing who’s the boss.
Milchan calmed him down, and ultimately De Niro was cast in the lead role as the Jewish gangster David Aaronson.