Film producer Robert Evans once said that the guiding principle of his life was the belief that the impossible is possible. It was the reason he “landed on his ass” so often and “touched magic,” he would say. He died at 89 on Saturday, and anyone reading Francis Ford Coppola’s eulogy will realize Evans was right: If even Coppola managed to say a good word about Evans, maybe the impossible is indeed possible.
Coppola is one of the few who still remember the golden days when Evans was a mover and shaker in Hollywood, helping make directors — such as Coppola himself — and then making their lives a misery. The Hollywood that bid farewell to Bob Evans this week is a faded version of the bold and vibrant Tinseltown that was reflected in the enormous lenses of Evans’ glasses. He never wrote a script and never directed even a single scene, yet in his lifetime became a Hollywood legend, in some ways becoming an emblem of the brazen LA of the 1970s.
As studio chief at Paramount Pictures from 1966 to 1974, Evans was responsible for hits such as “Chinatown,” “The Godfather” (parts I and II), “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Love Story,” “Harold and Maude,” “The Conversation” and many others. This isn’t just a list of classic movies; they represented nothing less than a revolution. Under the noses of a conservative board of directors, he approved provocative, daring screenplays; gave a chance to rookie directors; and launched projects no one else believed in. Many of those directors would go on to become the most characteristic figures in the American New Wave (aka New Hollywood).
Evans himself was a project no one else believed in. The native New Yorker was born Robert J. Shapera in June 1930, to a Jewish dentist father and homemaker mother. He first worked in his brother’s women’s clothing company, and when he was named head of production at the then-ailing Paramount Pictures in 1966 at the tender age of 36 — and with no relevant managerial experience — Hollywood’s trade newspapers tried to guess how many weeks he would last in the position. No one imagined he’d last even a year.
You can understand why. At that point, Evans’ record in the film industry consisted of a few unsuccessful acting roles — the most prominent being as a matador in the 1957 Ernest Hemingway adaptation “The Sun Also Rises.” During that shoot, the entire cast got together to demand that producer Darryl F. Zanuck fire Evans, arguing that he’d harm the picture; Hemingway was among the first to sign the petition. Zanuck came to the set, gathered the cast and crew together, pointed at Evans and announced: “The kid stays in the picture.”
That sentence became Evans’ motto and the title of his best-selling memoir, which was released in 1994 and turned into an award-winning documentary in 2002. He later wrote that the Zanuck incident was the moment he gave up on his dream of being an actor: “It was then I learned what a producer was — a Boss. It was then I learned I wanted to be D.Z. [Zanuck], not some half-assed actor shitting in his pants, desperate for a nod of approval,” he wrote in 1994.
When Evans assumed his role at Paramount, there were eight big studios in Hollywood. Paramount was the ninth, with a turnover that comprised only 3 percent of parent company Gulf + Western’s revenues. When Evans left his post eight years later, Paramount had become the number one studio, responsible for some 50 percent of Gulf + Western’s turnover.
But money isn’t the real story here. Evans brought his parent company a string of successes that redefined American culture, bringing a new generation to movie theatres. He helped introduce a halcyon age where the director was king and creativity was given space to shine.
Coke it is
Evans himself was reborn as a golden boy, a beautiful hedonist with the kind of star qualities that caused shooting to stop when he visited a set. One can understand how such a legend was constructed: An ambitious megalomaniac, Evans was never likely to be mistaken as bashful or modest. He was a compulsive talker with an iconic voice, always dressed to kill. He had model looks, a full head of slicked hair, a constant tan and pearly-white teeth. He was charismatic, funny, and always getting what he wanted through a combination of chutzpah, cunning and, if necessary, forcefulness.
His friends said there was no one more generous, but a number of people referred to him as “the devil.” Evans lived in a classic Hollywood mansion (he had to sell it when he was down on his luck after exiting Paramount, only getting it back when his friend Jack Nicholson supposedly went down on his knees, begging the new owner to sell it back to Evans). He hosted the best parties there, and at his peak his nostrils snorted more coke than passes through Bogota airport. Evans was the greatest raconteur in a city that draws the world’s best storytellers. And his best stories were always about himself.
His decline came quickly in the 1980s. After years of success came the flops, both in movie theaters and in his private life. He reportedly never truly recovered from the separation from his wife and mother of his only child, Ali MacGraw, who left him for Steve McQueen (the two actors met on the set of another Evans movie, “The Getaway,” in 1972). Evans was married seven times, but never for more than three years. Dependence on cocaine overtook him and affected his critical judgment. But the greatest blow — no pun intended — came when one of his business associates in “The Cotton Club,” a music promoter and financier called Roy Radin, was found dead in June 1983. It transpired that the murder had been ordered by another of Evans’ partners, who was also his drug supplier. Although Evans was never suspected of being involved in the murder, his name became attached to the affair and his status slumped in Hollywood.
He did stage a comeback of sorts in the ’90s, including the erotic thrillers “Sliver” (1993) and “Jade” (1995), and later the romantic comedy “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (2003). But it wasn’t the same. He returned to the public consciousness with “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” reinventing himself as a kind of caricature of a legendary film producer, spinning crazy tales from an age in which he was omnipotent. All that remained were memories of times past that, today, sound so far-fetched, you wonder whether they ever really happened.
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