Menahem Golan, Passionate Auteur of the B-Movie

Menahem Golan, the colorful Israeli filmmaker who began his prolific B-movie career with Roger Corman, introduced audiences to Jean-Claude Van Damme and during his 1980s heyday directed action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, died on Friday in Jaffa, Israel. He was 85.

His family announced his death. No cause was given.

Mr. Golan’s best-known films as producer, director or both included “The Delta Force” (1986), in which terrorists go up against elite commandos including Mr. Norris and Lee Marvin; “Over the Top” (1987), starring Mr. Stallone as an arm wrestler; and the four “Death Wish” sequels, with Charles Bronson.

Mr. Golan produced more than 200 films, directed more than 40 and wrote almost as many (often under the name Joseph Goldman), including works as serious as a 2002 production of “Crime and Punishment,” with John Hurt and Vanessa Redgrave, and as exploitative as “The Versace Murder” (1998), filmed less than four months after the fashion designer Gianni Versace’s death. An article in The New York Times described one of Mr. Golan’s contributions to that movie as standing behind the camera throwing fake blood on the actor playing the killer.
Charles Bronson in “Death Wish 3” (1985), one of the hundreds of Golan productions. Credit Cannon Films, via Getty Images

To say that Mr. Golan discovered Mr. Van Damme, when he was a Belgian kickboxer who had appeared only in tiny parts in a handful of films, is to give Mr. Van Damme too little credit. As he has told the story, he spotted Mr. Golan outside a restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif., and leapt into action, executing a karate kick above the filmmaker’s head. Mr. Golan promptly gave him his first starring role, in “Bloodsport” (1988), about a potentially deadly martial arts tournament. Mr. Van Damme was paid $25,000, and the film earned almost $12 million in the United States alone.

At the annual Cannes Film Festival in France, Mr. Golan became a celebrity. Working with Yoram Globus, his cousin and business partner in Cannon Films, he promoted his high-minded films and his less lofty action titles with equal fervor. Perhaps the oddest deal he made at the festival was an agreement with Jean-Luc Godard, said to have been signed on a napkin at a hotel bar, to direct a version of “King Lear.” The cast of that film, which when released in 1987 ended up being a science-fiction comedy about post-Chernobyl culture, included Norman Mailer, Woody Allen and the director Peter Sellars. In 1990, when the mayor of Cannes proposed giving Mr. Golan key to the city, Mr. Golan said, “Why not just give me the piece of the Croisette that I already own with all the money I’ve spent here?”

Mr. Golan was born Menahem Globus on May 31, 1929, in Tiberias, a city on the Sea of Galilee, in what was then Palestine and is now Israel.

He served as a pilot and bombardier in the Israeli war of independence; in 1948, when the state of Israel was established, he changed his surname to Golan. He studied drama in London and in the United States and worked in theater before landing his first film job, as a production assistant on Mr. Corman’s “The Young Racers” (1963), a racecar drama starring Mark Damon.

That same year Mr. Golan directed his first movie, “El Dorado,” a crime story set in Israel. The next year he produced his first, “Sallah Shabati,” a satire about Israeli immigration and non-European Jews. Both films starred Topol.

Mr. Golan directed and helped write “Mivtsa Yonatan” (“Operation Thunderbolt”), about the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe, Uganda, which was nominated for a 1978 Oscar as best foreign-language film.

But Mr. Golan had not forgotten his lessons from Mr. Corman. Besides prestige projects like “A Cry in the Dark” (1988), with Meryl Streep, and “I’m Almost Not Crazy,” a 1984 documentary about the actor and director John Cassavetes, Mr. Golan and his company churned out movies about ninjas, cyborgs, chain saws and the likes of “Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde” (1993).

His final production was “Rak Klavim Ratzim Hofshi” (“Only Dogs Run Free,” 2007), a low-budget drama filmed in Israel, and his final directing and writing credit was “Marriage Agreement” (2008), a comedy. A documentary, “The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films,” is scheduled for the fall.

Mr. Golan, who lived in Jaffa and whose survivors include his wife and three children, sometimes defended his artistic choices. When he was filming “Mack the Knife,” an earthy 1989 version of “The Threepenny Opera” in which 19th-century characters carry semiautomatic weapons, he told The New York Times: “Believe it or not, in Berlin they’ve done a punk version. People are doing it with green in their hair.”

In the same article, David Toguri, the film’s choreographer, said: “The purists won’t like it, but it works. It’s made for cinema, and Menahem Golan is a real cinema man.”