Menahem Golan, pioneering Israeli filmmaker, dies at 85

Golan produced and directed some of the most cherished movies in Israel and also had a successful Hollywood career.

The Go-Go Boys (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Go-Go Boys
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Menahem Golan, one of the founders of the Israeli film industry, whose company, the Cannon Group, was once the largest independent production company in Hollywood, died in Jaffa on Friday night at the age of 85.
The legendary producer/ director collapsed while out for a walk with his family and could not be resuscitated.
Along with his cousin, Yoram Globus, Golan produced some of the most popular and important Israeli films of the ’60s and ’70s, including Sallah Shabati, the Eskimo Limon series and Operation Thunderbolt. Moving to Hollywood in the mid-’70s, the two cousins, nicknamed the Go-Go Boys, founded the Cannon Group, which was known for profitable action movies featuring beefcakes, such as Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sylvester Stallone.
Golan was born Menahem Globus in Tiberias to Polish immigrants in 1929. He served in the Israel Air Force during the War of Independence, and changed his name to Golan. After the war, he studied at the Old Vic in London, then returned to Israel to direct theater.
But after taking a job with reigning B-movie producer Roger Corman, Golan wanted to make movies.
Returning to Israel, he teamed up with his cousin, Yoram Globus, whose father owned a movie theater, and directed his first film, El Dorado, starring Chaim Topol and Gila Almagor, in 1963.
Golan and Globus founded their first company, Noah Films, and produced several Oscar-nominated films in the ’60s and ’70s: Sallah Shabati (1964), I Love You Rosa (1972), The House on Chelouche Street (1973), and Operation Thunderbolt (1977).
Throughout his career, Golan divided his energy between highbrow Oscar bait and low-brow movies, although the low-brow predominated, and he introduced the sertei bourekas, silly comedies filled with slapstick, to Israel, notably the popular Lemon Popsicle (Eskimo Limon) franchise. He also produced and directed a relatively big-budget musical, Kazablan (1974), starring Yehoram Gaon.
While Israelis loved his homegrown classics, international audiences will remember him for the hundreds of low-budget, high-profit action and adventure films he directed and produced after he and Globus formed Cannon in Hollywood in the mid-70s. Among Cannon’s many hits were Missing in Action (1984) and The Delta Force (1986) starring Chuck Norris, the Death Wish series with Charles Bronson, and Bloodsport (1988) with Van Damme.
Golan never met a trend he didn’t want to capitalize on, and rushed Breakin’ – one of the first breakdance movies – into production when he saw breakdancers performing on a Los Angeles street; the movie, which was made on a shoestring, made nearly $40 million. Enter the Ninja (1981), American Ninja (1985) and American Ninja 2 (1987) were Golan’s contribution to the martial-arts movie craze.
Globus handled the company finances, while Golan produced and directed at a frenetic pace, often pre-selling movies based only on an idea and a poster. Known and sometimes derided for his chutzpah, Golan became a key player in Hollywood, churning out dozens of movies a year.
Despite his crowd-pleasing blockbusters, Golan always appreciated quality cinema and produced movies by some of the most critically acclaimed directors of his day, among them John Cassavetes (Love Streams), Robert Altman (Fool for Love), Andrey Konchalovsky (Runaway Train) and Jean-Luc Godard (King Lear).
At a certain point, as stars began to draw bigger salaries in the ’80s, the Cannon formula for success no longer added up, and the two cousins went through a period of debt and failure. The two had a falling out, and their famous partnership disintegrated. They never completely reconciled, although in Hilla Medalia’s just-released documentary, The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, they spoke to each other, and, in the most touching scene, watched some of their old movies together, gobbling popcorn. Golan, though frail and nursing an injury, attended the documentary’s premiere last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where he had made so many deals over the years.
Golan continued working in Hollywood for a few years after he and Globus stopped working together, but then moved back to Israel, where he continued to produce and direct. In 2002, he made Open Heart, an adaptation of the A.B. Yehoshua novel, Return from India, with Aki Avni and Assi Dayan, and in 2005 he directed Days of Love, an Israeli version of the movie A Star is Born starring Maya Buskila and Nir Levy.
His daughter Yael told reporters that he had not been in good health for some years and that his death did not come as a surprise.
He is survived by his wife and three children.
His funeral will take place Sunday in Kfar Saba.