Director and producer Menahem Golan, one of the founding fathers of Israeli cinema who also made it big in Hollywood, has died at 85, less than three months after a documentary about his film empire debuted at the the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
Though visibly unwell, Golan traveled to Cannes in May to attend the premiere of Hilla Medalia’s documentary, The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, together with Yoram Globus, his partner in the film company. The film, screened as part of the prestigious Cannes Classics, documented the rise and fall of the cousins’ trashy but extremely successful Hollywood venture. The Hollywood Reporter described the duo as “the last of the brash, shameless, old-school, ingratiatingly crass pirates to streak across the cinematic firmament before the advent of the suits and bean counters”—and indeed they were.
Golan, who was born in 1929 in Tiberias, then Mandate Palestine, started out in the theater before becoming a successful producer-director in Israel in the 1960s. In 1964 his production Sallah Shabati, written and directed by Ephraim Kishon, was the first Israeli film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film and the first Israeli film to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. And Operation Thunderbolt, a film he directed in 1977 based on Operation Entebbe, was also nominated for an Oscar, in the same category. In Israel, though, Golan will probably be remembered most of all for producing the 1978 horny-teen-flick Eskimo Limon and its sequels.
After moving to Hollywood, Golan specialized in B-movies–after all, he learned the tricks of the trade from producer Roger Corman, for whom he worked as an assistant in the 1960s—many of which have since accumulated undeniable cult value. The 1980s were Cannon Films’ heyday. They made endless forgettable action flicks with Sylvester Stallone, Michael Dudikoff, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, which appealed mostly to kids, but they also deserve credit for turning the New York City underground phenomenon of breakdancing into an international dance-craze with Breakin’, and for molding Chuck Norris into an ’80s icon.
Craving respectability, Cannon Films started signing on directors like Jean-Luc Godard, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and Roman Polanski, but it seems the Go-Go Boys were much better at producing low-brow films than art-house pieces. By the end of the 1980s it was all over for Cannon. Golan and Globus stopped talking to each other (they’d since made up) and returned to Israel. In the 1990s, Golan directed stage-musicals in Israel and returned to making Israeli films. In 2008 he returned to the theater. In 2010 he was arrested for flying abroad while subjected to a stay of exit order. Golan told Israel’s Channel 10 News that he was beaten by policemen upon his return to the country and reported being deeply in debt.
In October 2013 he was hospitalized after falling and suffering a head injury, but he still had one final hurrah left: The 1980s king of Cannes went back to the South of France to relive his glory days on the big screen.
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.