The Hollywood producer has seen them come and go over the last 24 years: blowhards and egomaniacs and self-deluding hacks, wunderkinds and wondrous talents and a staggering parade of frauds. He has clashed with Oliver Stone, launched Julia Roberts, survived Barbra Streisand. The Hollywood producer reads people for a living. He has become very rich. He met Richard Williams—father, coach and manager of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams—late in 1997, after having bought a big chunk of the Puma sneaker and apparel company and deciding to pursue an endorsement deal with Serena. The two men began to talk. Then they began to negotiate. The Hollywood producer had rarely been so confounded.
"You know when you meet somebody, and you think he's either insane or he's a genius?" says the producer, Arnon Milchan, founder of New Regency Productions. "But if he's insane, he's still fascinating, because you've never seen somebody so crazy in that way? You say, 'It's probably impossible, but this guy looks like he's in good faith.' What he's saying you've never heard before.
"He's saying, 'I knew. I was planning this before the girls were born.' That's like I would tell you that I knew Pretty Woman would exist before it was a script, and that it would be a great script, and I knew I was going to discover Julia Roberts, and she was going to be Number 1. In my world if I say those things, somebody will say, 'What mushrooms did Arnon take?' "
Forgive Milchan his discombobulation. It's 4:30 a.m., the mid-May morning just beginning to break over the Mediterranean. Milchan is staying in the French town of Antibes while attending the 52nd Cannes International Film Festival, and he needs his rest. Today two of his megabudget films premiere, Entrapment at Cannes and William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the U.S. But jet lag and the recent screen tests Milchan arranged for Venus and Serena have him babbling at high speed.
When he sat across his desk from Richard Dove Williams that day a year and a half ago, Milchan faced a cotton picker's son who had dropped out of high school at 16; raised his family in the gangland jungle of Compton, Calif.; taught himself tennis; felt beyond reason that his girls would be great at the sport; and gambled plenty of money that he was right. Serena was ranked 99th in the world then, but Richard—against the advice of his closest advisers—kept bending the bargaining away from a big payment up front and toward huge incentive payoffs when, not if, Serena cracked the Top 10, the Top 5, the top spot at last.
Milchan, a man who's estimated to be worth more than some movie studios, didn't understand. How could this man have such confidence? What about the unknown? What about injuries? "Then you think, Wait a minute, where's the upside for him if he's lying?" Milchan says. "There's no upside. So there are only two possibilities: Either he's totally crazy—but that's impossible, because there's something totally sane and healthy about his family—or he knows something I don't."
Milchan has never found out all that Richard Williams knows. He sees only what everyone else has seen this spring: After years of hype and hope and controversy, Venus and Serena Williams have become the hottest players—male or female—in tennis, an unprecedented sister act that threatens to overwhelm the sport with power, athleticism and in-your-face attitude. Already this year 18-year-old Venus and 17-year-old Serena have met in a historic final (at the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., on March 28), won WTA tournaments on the same day (Venus the IGA Superthrift Tennis Classic in Oklahoma City and Serena the Open Gaz de France in Paris on Feb. 28) and, with six tournament wins between them (four for fifth-ranked Venus and two for No. 10 Serena), begun to crowd No. 1 Martina Hingis atop the money list like a pair of bullies plotting to take her milk money. "They're the strongest opponents on tour," Hingis says.
"I wasn't expecting them so fast, you know?" says 19th-ranked Irina Spirlea, who infamously bumped Venus during a changeover at the 1997 U.S. Open, beat Serena on the same court a year later and was manhandled 6-2, 6-3 by Serena three weeks ago at the Italian Open in Rome. "Sometimes I'm in awe. They have something the others don't have."
And, boy, do they know it. Now that their braces have been removed, Venus and Serena have taken off the gloves as well, vowing to make the French Open and Wimbledon singles trophies family property. Serena, who is in just her second year on tour—and is still looking to advance past the fourth round in the singles of a Grand Slam—blithely predicts that she will win at the All-England Club in July. "I can see myself lifting that plate for sure," she says. "I just can't see it not happening."
To which Venus, who has only been to one Slam final, at the 1997 U.S. Open, responds, "If she's going to take Wimbledon, I have to take the French. That's how I feel."