The Spectacular Rises and Falls of Robert Evans

Mia Farrow, Robert Evans, and Roman Polanski on the set of Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

There’s good reason to credit the directors who drew from the vitality of the French New Wave and the documentary filmmakers of the Direct Cinema movement with rejuvenating American cinema in the late 1960s and early ’70s when it had become mired in stuffy costume dramas and plodding musicals. But it was Robert Evans, the producer and studio executive who passed away this past weekend at the age of eighty-nine, who got films such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971), and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) actually made. As Brooks Barnes writes in the New York Times, Evans, “with his bolo ties and burnt-bacon tan, served as a bridge between old and new Hollywood.” Or, as Owen Gleiberman puts it in Variety, “as surely as the studio-system era was built on such legends as the pitch-perfect vulgarity of Samuel Goldwyn or the control-freak tyranny of Louis B. Mayer, the Hollywood that came after them had the high-wire, livin’-large effrontery of Robert Evans.”

Goldwyn and Mayer aside, it was Darryl F. Zanuck whom Evans modeled himself after. “I wanted to be him, not me,” he told Bernard Weinraub in the NYT in 1993. “I wanted to be the guy who makes the decisions, not the guy who has the decisions made for him.” A former child actor in radio dramas, Evans made his first million or two working for Evan-Picone, the women’s fashion company cofounded by his older brother. According to Hollywood lore, Norma Shearer spotted Evans at the pool of a hotel in Beverly Hills and decided that he could be perfectly cast as her late husband, producer Irving Thalberg, in Man of a Thousand Faces, a 1957 biopic starring James Cagney as Lon Chaney. That same year, Zanuck cast Evans as a bullfighter in Henry King’s adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. When his costars, Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power, and even Hemingway himself objected, Zanuck shot back: “The kid stays in the picture.”

That line became the title of Evans’s 1994 autobiography, an all-caps “MUST READ,” according to Sheila O’Malley, who argues that “one of the best things about the book” is that Evans “does not protect himself. Sharks do not apologize for being sharks.” Patton Oswalt has famously insisted that the book is a must-listen, too. Evans recorded an audio version in the gravelly voice of what Vanity Fair’s Donald Liebenson calls his “brash, braggadocious persona.” Among the tales told is that of the 1966 NYT profile of Evans that caught the eye of Charles Bluhdorn, who had just become the head of Gulf + Western, the conglomerate that had acquired Paramount that year. Peter Bart, who would later work with Evans at Paramount before becoming the chief editor of Variety, depicted Evans in the piece as a go-getter who secured properties to adapt even before writers had completed them: “I like it. I want it. Let’s sew it up.” Bluhdorn made Evans head of production at Paramount.

At the time, the studio ranked ninth and last among the majors, but after a string of hits such as The Odd Couple (1968), Love Story (1970), and of course, The Godfather, it had shot to the top of the list. Evans fought tooth and nail with both Coppola and the other suits at Paramount throughout the making and marketing of The Godfather. Everyone won some and lost some of those battles. Coppola was said to have objected to the casting of James Caan as Sonny, while Evans was dead set against Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. As the BFI’s David Parkinson notes, Evans called Coppola’s early two-hour cut “a long, bad trailer for a really good film,” but Coppola has always said that creating the living and breathing epic it eventually became entailed putting in sequences that Evans had at first insisted on cutting.

As an independent producer, Evans reunited with Polanski and his close friend Jack Nicholson to make Chinatown (1974). Robert Towne’s screenplay “was originally so dense that no one could understand it,” writes Owen Gleiberman, but Evans “used his producer’s alchemy to mold it into a great movie.” Talking to Latesha Harris in Variety, Towne recalls working with Evans one night until four in the morning. “And all I remember,” says Towne, “is Evans sitting there, turning to me and saying, ‘Fuck it. I just want it to be good.’ And I thought, that’s really from the heart, that’s all he really wanted . . . He was wonderful and infuriating and I loved him very much.”

That same year saw the release of an extravagant adaptation of an American classic starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. “You know, at one point, I wanted Warren Beatty to star in The Great Gatsby,” Evans told Joe Leydon in 2002, “and he said, ‘No, I’ll direct it—and you’ll play Jay Gatsby.’ Maybe he was right.” The occasion for Leydon’s interview was the Sundance premiere of The Kid Stays in the Picture, Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s documentary based on the memoir. “Evans received a standing ovation,” notes Leydon. “During a post-screening Q&A session, when someone asked if there’s anything he would change about his life, he replied: ‘The second half.’”

By 1980, Evans had developed a severe penchant for cocaine and had divorced the first four of an eventual total of seven wives. One of his dealers introduced him to producer Roy Radin, with whom Evans set up a deal to make Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984). When Radin was murdered in 1983, Evans was questioned—he pleaded the fifth on the advice of his lawyer—but never tried. Few question Evans’s innocence, but the association with the murder hammered home in the press resulted in his not being able to work again until he returned in 1990 with The Two Jakes, a sequel to Chinatown. Despite Robert Towne’s screenplay and a cast featuring Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel, the movie flopped.

Evans went on to work with Phillip Noyce on Sliver (1993) and William Friedkin on Jade (1995), but he didn’t produce a major hit again until he teamed up with director Donald Petrie and stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey on How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003). Christine Peters, a producer who worked with Evans on the film, tells the Hollywood Reporter that “he was nothing like the men who have been exposed in recent years as predators and abusers. Bob was always the consummate gentleman. He hired women and solicited their insight when others often saw females as merely objects who should be seen and not heard. Conversely, Bob desperately wanted to hear a woman’s perspective.”

Peter Bogdanovich, who worked with Evans on Paper Moon (1973) and Daisy Miller (1974), tells Variety’s Brent Lang that “Bob was the last of a breed. He connected to the Hollywood of the ’50s. They made fun of him because he was an actor who became a studio head. But why not? He played the part very well.”

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