Robert Evans: Staying in the Picture
Robert Evans is the legendary movie producer whose credits include Chinatown and The Godfather. If you follow this site, I am guessing you know his story. If not, you should pick up Evans’ autobiography, The Kid Stays in The Picture. Or if you prefer, check out the film adaptation which Evans discussed with Movieline magazine at the time of this profile from the June 2002 issue. Evans always has an interesting story to tell. In the profile, Evans talks about how Jack Nicholson scammed him out of valuable furniture and the time he and Cary Grant took LSD together.
In the opening shots of The Kid Stays in the Picture, the camera circles a richly appointed mansion as Irving Berlin music on the soundtrack evokes the splendor of another era. The moment might have come from the movie version of The Great Gatsby, and, indeed, the house’s owner, Robert Evans, produced that movie and used to be called a latter-day Jay Gatsby himself. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous character, Evans is a self-invented man of mystery. He was born Robert Shapera and started his career as a clothing manufacturer before becoming a B-actor who re-created himself as the crown prince of Hollywood during the ’60s and ’70s. Evans went on to be haunted by a series of scandals (involving drug addiction and the infamous Cotton Club murder investigation), but having survived those he’s reclaimed the spotlight as the star of the uncommonly stylish documentary inspired by his best-selling autobiography.
One of the many stories Evans told in his autobiography concerned the film adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel he oversaw when he was running Paramount. His third wife, Ali MacGraw, had urged him to make the film; she was dying to play Daisy. But after she left him for Steve McQueen, whom she met during the making of The Getaway, Evans refused to cast her in Gatsby. Another of his intriguing tales involves his fabled home, hidden away behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. Evans was staying at the hotel in 1956 when Norma Shearer spotted him and suggested he play her late husband, Irving G. Thalberg, in a film called Man of a Thousand Faces. He and Shearer went for a walk, and that is how he discovered the hideaway that Greta Garbo had once used. Ten years later Evans bought the house for $290,000, and he still holds court there today.
The heart of the house is the theater that Evans built shortly after taking up residence in 1966, when he had just been named head of production at Paramount. He installed his own screening room with two Peerless Cinearc 35 millimeter projectors and a 16-foot screen. “I built it for survival,” Evans says. “I was a pretty-boy actor hired to be head of the studio, and everybody expected me to fall on my ass. But I’ve learned one thing in life: whether it’s school or marriage or work, you gotta do your homework. I failed in the other areas, but I was not going to fail in this job. So I saw two movies every night for years. I caught up on everyone’s work. Not just the actors or the directors, but the cinematographers, the art directors, the costume designers.”
Evans screened rough cuts of all the Paramount movies in his home theater, and he ran other studios’ movies for his high-powered buddies. “We ran the first Godfather here, and Charlie Bluhdorn [chairman of Gulf and Western, which owned Paramount at the time] fell asleep,” Evans recalls with a laugh. “Another time I had all my friends here watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and we turned it off in the middle. So our judgment wasn’t perfect.”
The screening room has six black leather chairs in the back row, a large sofa in front and room for several giant beanbags if the crowd’s big enough. A full bar is set up in one corner. The walls are decked with a Picasso lithograph, a photograph by Helmut Newton, and, of course, posters from Evans’s movies–Love Story, Chinatown, The Godfather, and even The Fiend Who Walked the West, the picture that finished off his acting career.
The screening room has undergone some changes over the years. “By 1978 or 1979, the chairs were getting run down,” Evans says. “But I couldn’t afford to replace them. From 1979 to 1989, the only money I made was as a male model for a cosmetics company. Finally, when I got a new deal at Paramount in 1990, the first thing I did was design new chairs. Shortly after that, Jack Nicholson came over here to see Dances with Wolves. He said, ‘Where are the old blackies?’ I told him I was donating the chairs to the Motion Picture Relief Home. He asked if he could have them. He sold one of them for $125,000, another one for more. Naturally, he wouldn’t give me half, but that’s beside the point. He recognized their value, because lots of decisions and deals were made in those chairs.”
Today Evans still screens movies a few times a week. “I’ll invite actors, directors, movie pals, along with a few tennis bums. I like to get the reading of people in their twenties. I ran Love Story a couple of months ago, and there was no one here over 35. There were tears in all the girls’ eyes afterwards. I realized that simple story, 30 years old and with corny dialogue in a lot of places, still strikes people’s emotions.”
He also runs new movies, though he admits that he doesn’t always make it to the end. “I like to keep up with the new actors and the new comedians,” Evans says. “I enjoyed the picture that the Farrelly brothers did–Shallow Hal. I thought Jack Black was wonderful. I tried to get him for a picture, but I couldn’t.”
Although it would be tempting for Evans to sink into memories of his glory days, he prefers to look forward; he starts production on a new picture, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, this summer. At first he resisted the idea of a film version of The Kid Stays in the Picture because he was not eager to relive some of the painful episodes in his past. But despite his initial misgivings, this low-budget documentary turned out to be a more satisfying venture than any of his big studio productions during the last decade, which have included Sliver, The Saint and The Out-of-Towners. “They were fair at best,” Evans says candidly. “On The Saint there were 11 writers, and by the time they were finished, it had nothing to do with the story I set out to tell. Everything today is done by committee. That’s why I loved, loved, loved making our little picture. We did it ourselves.”
The film’s premiere at Sundance was a slightly surreal experience for the 71-year-old producer. “I don’t belong at Sundance,” Evans admits. “I’m everything they’re not.” To his amazement, he received a 12-minute standing ovation after the screening. “Back in 1958, I was friendly with Cary Grant,” Evans muses. “He was a big movie star, and I was a wannabe, but we were taking out the same girl, a Yugoslavian basketball player. The three of us did everything together. One day Cary came to me and said, ‘Bob, I’m a believer in LSD. It’s done marvels for me, and I would like the three of us to take it together under a doctor’s care.’ So we took it at the doctor’s office. When I was at Sundance, I told the audience that story and said, ‘That was the last time I hallucinated until tonight.'”