One of the most feared and secretive men in Hollywood—routinely described by employees and observers as a “tyrant”—is throwing a lot of cash behind Marco Rubio. He’s also a huge fan of his dear friend and fellow billionaire, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, the 73-year-old “mystery mogul,” philanthropist, and CEO of Marvel Entertainment, is a uniquely powerful force in the movie business.
In 1998, he jumped from running a company called Toy Biz to wrest control of Marvel from Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn (another Trump buddy). Shortly after seizing power, he reversed Marvel’s financial slide and transformed it into the powerhouse it is today. Perlmutter was behind the $4 billion Disney-Marvel acquisition deal in 2009. Forbes called him the “man behind some of the hottest movies in the past decade” (The Avengers, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy), and elsewhere he has been dubbed one of a handful of people who “secretly rule the world.”
“Anybody who gives a shit about superhero fiction, you really have to know about this guy,” says Abraham Riesman, a New York magazine editor and comic-book devotee who has covered Perlmutter. “Depending on who you ask, he either ruined the culture of Marvel comics when he took over in the ’90s, or he completely saved the company … Perlmutter took over and instituted this regime that is hard to describe as anything other than authoritarian … It is not unusual for him to be called a tyrant by people who worked for him or know him.”
Recently, Perlmutter has attracted media attention for his political giving. Last year, he and his wife, Laura, gave $2 million to Conservative Solutions PAC, a pro-Rubio super PAC. Last month, when Trump ditched a Republican debate to mount his veterans fundraiser in Iowa, the couple donated a cool million. Trump name-checked them on-stage (“one of the great, great men of our country in terms of business and talent," the presidential contender gushed), and the Perlmutters’ rep issued a terse statement touting their donation.
“The Perlmutters are thrilled to support their friend Donald Trump in his efforts to help veterans,” the representative told The Hollywood Reporter.
Long before this round of media scrutiny, the Perlmutters managed to make big news, both in and out of the entertainment world. And yet somehow nobody seems capable of getting the Marvel CEO on camera—or on the record.
There is precisely one photo of him on the Internet, taken in 1985. And he doesn’t grant interviews. For all the power he wields in Los Angeles, he spends most of his time at his estates in Palm Beach, Florida, and New York. And details about his personal life and early years are scant. (A veteran of the Israeli Army, he has long been rumored to have fought in the Six-Day War in 1967, and reportedly emigrated from Israel to the U.S. with just $250 to start a new life.) So firm is his commitment to secrecy that he reportedly attended the star-studded premiere of Iron Man disguised in glasses and a fake moustache.
You can find photos online of charity events and parties thrown in the Perlmutters’ honor. In some of them, you will see Laura pictured. But you will never see Ike.
“He certainly is feared,” Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, told The Daily Beast. “He has cultivated this aura of mystery ... He’s intimidating. The idea that this company is really run by someone who has never been photographed with a smile on his face, that really stands out. He’s kind of a looming shadow. There’s not a lot that’s known about him, even to people who have firsthand stories about him.”
These firsthand accounts often play like Office Space horror stories and paint a starkly negative portrait of Marvel’s distant ruler.
There are tales that Perlmutter—whose rule has been marked by austerity and aggressive cost-cutting—would fish still-perfectly-useable paper clips out of trash bins in his effort to pinch every last company penny. The eccentric CEO wanted only potato chips to be served at the red-carpet Iron Man premiere in 2008. He wanted to restrict journalists at junkets to a single can of soda per head. He has argued about the cost of ordering too many pencils for Marvel staff. And some at Disney say they are so intimidated and paranoid about Perlmutter that they believe he “has spies or is listening in on phone calls.”
“It’s all sort of weird,” one Marvel vet told The Daily Beast, chuckling. “You immediately get the sense that he would make a good comic-book character himself.”
Other stories and accusations are decidedly less cartoonish.
When Don Cheadle was hired (with a smaller paycheck) to replace Terrence Howard in the Iron Man movies, Perlmutter allegedly said that nobody would notice because black guys “look the same.” A leaked email shows him explaining to Sony’s CEO in listicle format why female superhero movies are bad for business. A Florida businessman accused him of engineering a hate-mail campaign that falsely smeared the businessman with rumored allegations of murder, child rape, and pro-Hitler sympathies—all due to a dispute over an upscale Palm Beach tennis center. (Perlmutter denies the accusation, and the legal feud is ongoing.)
Perhaps the most disturbing allegation is that he told Marvel’s (now former) editor-in-chief Bob Harras that if his kids turn out to be gay that he ought to murder them. The Daily Beast tried to contact Harras numerous times for comment without success.
So, Perlmutter has made his fair share of enemies over the decades, within and without Marvel. And he’s left a good number of people feeling awfully screwed over.
“I would describe him as someone I thought was a dear friend who turned out to be anything but,” Elliot Dworkin, former head of purchasing operations for drugstore chain Revco, told The Daily Beast. “He’s a tyrant, there’s no question about that.”
Dworkin says he “dealt with [Perlmutter] closely” back in the mid ’80s. They were chummy and played tennis together. But after the two fell out over a business deal, Dworkin says, the friendship abruptly ended.
Dworkin calls Perlmutter “the most tight, close-to-the-vest person I’ve ever met,” and someone who almost surely loathes the press his recent political contributions have received. And as much as he considered Perlmutter a good friend, he cannot recall him ever opening up about, say, his personal politics.
“He didn’t have any children, and he did tell me once that he would leave everything to Israel when he died,” Dworkin said.
For those seeking a broader picture of Perlmutter’s political leanings, following the money doesn’t get you very far. The Perlmutters are far more likely to cut big checks for health care philanthropy than to give to presidential campaigns or super PACs. And for someone as secretive as Perlmutter, it’s easy to see why: Reporters don’t usually drill down on do-gooding.
After news broke of the couple’s donation to and friendship with Trump, Marvel was left to field some predictable liberal backlash, including calls for a Marvel boycott. And comics writer and Marvel freelancer G. Willow Wilson even addressed the issue on her Tumblr:
“Did the money come out of Perlmutter’s private fortune, or did some portion of what you spent on your Marvel pull list support a political candidate who wants to deport millions of immigrants, build a wall along the Mexican border, and require religious minorities to carry ID badges?” she wrote. “I have no easy answers to these questions … The real possibility of a Trump presidency is terrifying to those who would prefer not to live in a dystopian autocracy, and for obvious reasons, the idea that the CEO of Marvel supports Trump makes a lot of readers seriously concerned. Yet—frustratingly—boycotting books you love will not take a single dime out of Perlmutter’s pocket, much less out of Trump’s.”
“A lot of readers were concerned that this was a sort of Chick-fil-A scenario,” Wilson told The Daily Beast. “In this particular case, since Perlmutter was publicly linked to Marvel [by Trump] ... it sort of raised a lot of fears in the minds of readers about it being very difficult to disentangle the connection between art, politics, and money.”
It remains to be seem whether Perlmutter and his wife plan on throwing more millions at the 2016 election. A Marvel representative did not respond to a request for comment or an interview request for their “mystery mogul.”