Filmmaker Menahem Golan—an Israeli-born fixture of the international movie business, who became a B-movie icon after taking over Cannon Films—has died at the age of 85.
Starting with the 1963 Israeli movie El Dorado, Golan directed scores of films, often in partnership with his cousin, the producer Yoram Globus. During this period, Golan directed four movies that went on to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Film. The most famous of these is probably Operation Thunderbolt, an action film about the Operation Entebbe rescue mission of the year before. Produced with the co-operation of the Israeli government and the country’s Air Force, it featured a cast headed by Klaus Kinski and Sybil Danning, as well as brief glimpses of such political figures as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.
Golan and his cousin would become much better known two years later, when they took over Cannon Films, and began turning out a steady stream of product that made their company’s name—and the name “Golan-Globus”—synonymous with tight budgets, flamboyant hype, and, as often as not, lousy movies. Cannon had been created in 1967 by Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey, whose own low-budget output consisted largely of softcore sexploitation films such as Maid In Sweden (1967) and The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington (1975), plus the 1970 surprise hit Joe, starring Peter Boyle. By 1979, when Golan-Globus purchased it for half a million dollars, Cannon was on the ropes. Golan-Globus revived it by rushing a series of low-budget action films and trendy teensploitation films into production, just in time to cash in on the sudden need for cheap product being generated by the growing number of cable-TV channels and the birth of the home-video market.
Golan-Globus made a specialty of “pre-selling” their films, based on their promised “exploitable elements,” to cable TV and home video companies and film distributors, well before even making the movies. Budgets were kept so low that most of the films scarcely had to perform at the box office to make a profit. In a 1983 Film Comment article that hailed Golan and Globus as “New Hollywood’s kings of the cheapies,” Roger Corman, for whom Golan had once worked as an assistant, called him “a master of the pre-sell on the international market.”
Early Golan-Globus-era Cannon releases included the 1982 Death Wish II, which Golan-Globus, in a typical act of carnival showmanship, announced, even before making efforts to secure the sequel rights from the producer of the 1974 original, Dino De Laurentiis. There was also Enter The Ninja (1981), which Golan directed, and which was successful enough to inspire its own string of sequels; Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981), a Sylvia Kristel nudie (directed by French softcore specialist Just Jaeckin) superficially disguised as a classic-lit adaptation; Hercules (1983), starring TV’s Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno; The Last American Virgin (1982), an English-language remake of Lemon Popsicle, the Israeli film that Golan-Globus had produced in 1978; the dance musicals Breakin’ (1984) and Breakin’ II: Electric Boogaloo (1984); the Cold War shoot-‘em-ups Invasion U.S.A. (1985) and Missing In Action (1984) and its sequels; and the inevitable, albeit inexplicable, Death Wish 3 (1985).
Cannon also produced several of the first starring vehicles of Jean-Claude Van Damme, as well as Masters Of The Universe (1987), starring Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and Frank Langella as Skeletor. Its output included The Barbarians (1987), starring David and Peter Paul, A.K.A. the Barbarian Brothers; Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985), Invaders From Mars (1986), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (1986); John Frankenheimer’s Elmore Leonard adaptation 52 Pick-Up (1986); and the Sylvester Stallone vehicles Over The Top (1987), which Golan directed, and Cobra (1986).
“Exploitable elements” included not just sex, violence, and youth trends, but also stars. Cannon courted actors—or, at least, celebrities—by green lighting dream projects that big studios weren’t prepared to take a chance on. In exchange, the stars agreed to work without their usual perks and at reduced salaries, often taking promises of percentage instead of hard cash. For example, when Brooke Shields’ name was still warm after The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love, Cannon signed her to star in the 1983 bomb Sahara, which marked the start of a distribution deal with MGM/UA that was seen as Golan-Globus’ official welcome to the big time. The next year, that deal was torched over the Bo Derek vehicle Bolero, after Cannon insisted on releasing the movie without an MPAA rating, rather than reduce the sex scenes and nudity that were its sole reason for existing. Cannon even roped in Katharine Hepburn and Nick Nolte by agreeing to back The Ultimate Solution Of Grace Quigley, a black comedy about the relationship between an elderly woman and a hit man that Hepburn had been trying to get made for over a decade.
At the same time, Golan-Globus did a bit of dabbling in the art-house market, producing one of John Cassavettes’ last films, Love Streams (1984), and serving as U.S. distributor for Neil Jordan’s The Company Of Wolves (1985), Robert Altman’s film of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love (1985), Franco Zefferelli’s film of the Verdi opera Otello (1986), and Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly (1987), starring Mickey Rourke as Charles Bukowski’s fictional alter ego, Henry Chinaski. Another Golan-Globus production, Jerry Schatzberg’s Street Smart (1987), is notable for having earned Morgan Freeman his first Academy Award nomination, suddenly kicking the actor’s career into high gear and making him an overnight Hollywood success at 50. The company also distributed one of Golan’s own curiosities, The Apple (1970), a very strange, allegorical sci-fi disco musical that eventually attracted a cult following.
In Hollywood terms, Cannon probably reached the high point of its critical respectability with 1985’s Runaway Train, directed by the Russian émigré Andrei Konchalovsky from a script adapted from an unproduced screenplay by Akira Kurosawa. That film earned Academy Award nominations for its star, Jon Voight, and second lead, Eric Roberts. By the time the awards ceremony rolled around, Golan had released his own latest film as a director: The Delta Force (1986), an official remake of Operation Thunderbolt, with a cast that included Chuck Norris, Lee Marvin, Joey Bishop, Hanna Schygulla, Robert Forster, Lainie Kazan, and Cannon Films mainstay Shelley Winters. Although the film’s basic situation and certain details were clearly modeled on the real-life hostage situation aboard TWA Flight 847 the year before, it included more Cannon-friendly embellishments, like Norris tearing around Beirut on a rocket-firing motorcycle.
The weird zenith of Golan-Globus’ reach for artistic credibility came in 1985, when Golan ran into Jean-Luc Godard at the Cannes Film Festival and asked him to make a movie of King Lear for Cannon. The two drew up a contract on a napkin, which Golan subsequently had framed and displayed on a wall of his office. The original plan was to have Norman Mailer write the screenplay—and Mailer agreed, provided that Cannon would also hire him to write and direct a movie of his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance.
Ultimately, Mailer, who planned to write the film as a modern story about an aging Mafia don called “Don Learo,” left the project, and Godard made the movie with Burgess Meredith, Molly Ringwald, Woody Allen, and the eccentric opera director Peter Sellars as “William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth,” set in a post-apocalyptic world blighted by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. (Quentin Tarantino listed the film on his acting resume when he was starting out—which he figured was a safe thing to do, since he was unlikely to run across anyone who’d seen it.) Proving themselves good sports, Cannon went ahead and made Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance anyway.
In the end, Cannon was undone not by its art-house dreams or too many crappy movies, but an ill-conceived attempt on Golan’s part to break into the comic-book superhero-movie business. In 1986, after disappointing returns on Superman III and Supergirl, Alexander and Ilya Salkind sold the rights to the Superman franchise to Golan-Globus for $5 million. Cannon was able to convince a reluctant Christopher Reeve to return to the role that made him famous by promising him story input on the movie, which would make a strong statement about the danger of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, Golan and Globus were unable to overcome their own addiction to microscopic budgets. Not only was Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987) unaccountably cheap and chintzy-looking for a new installment in a major franchise, it was reportedly unfinished; when the production threatened to go over budget, Golan-Globus simply shut off the tap. The movie failed at the box office and put Superman in deep freeze for 20 years.
Golan was also one of those who struggled to successfully bring the Marvel superheroes to the big screen, years before Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies finally made that dream a reality. Cannon purchased the film rights to Spider-Man and Captain America in the mid-’80s, though its hold on the web-slinger reverted back to Marvel when the company was unable to get a movie made within the contractually obligated five-year window. By that time, Cannon, financially weakened by the Superman IV debacle and other failures, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
In 1988, the company was acquired by Pathé Communications. Feeling like it just wasn’t fun anymore, Golan quit in 1989 and was given control of 21st Century Film, a small production and distribution company that, along with the rights to Captain America, made up part of his severance package. Globus stayed behind at Pathé, officially marking the end of an era. Golan’s Captain America movie, completed in 1990 by director Albert Pyum, was famously terrible, and sat on the shelf for two years before being given an ignominious straight-to-video release.
In 1996, 21st Century Film went bankrupt, after releasing such films as Deadly Heroes (1993), an action movie directed by Golan and starring Michael Pare and Jan-Michael Vincent, and the fifth and final Death Wish movie with Charles Bronson. In 2001, with his business and even his Los Angeles home in the hands of his creditors, he returned to Israel and established what he called “New Cannon Incorporated,” through which he produced and directed yet more movies, including a 2002 modern version of Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, starring Crispin Glover, Vanessa Redgrave, and John Hurt. He directed his last film, Marriage Agreement, in 2008, 14 years after the Israeli Film Academy presented him with its Ophir Prize for Lifetime Achievement.
Golan’s career and partnership with Yoram Globus inspired two new feature documentaries: Hilla Medalia and Daniel Sivan’s The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story Of Cannon Films, which was shown at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; and Mark Hartley’s Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films, which will have its world premiere next month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In a recent interview, Hartley summed up Golan’s drive and working methods by saying Golan “loved movies so much he just wanted to keep making them. Whenever they were in trouble he said, ‘Well, let’s make another 20 movies.’”