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Perhaps one of the most notorious personages ever to grace motion pictures, producer and former Paramount Pictures studio head Robert Evans blazed a trail through Hollywood that left behind numerous fractured marriages, countless heartbroken starlets, several friends-turned-enemies, and a career brimming with some of the best movies ever made. After receiving his start as an actor in movies like "The Sun Also Rises" (1957) and "The Best of Everything" (1959), Evans turned to producing in the late-1960s, which quickly led to becoming a powerful executive at the struggling Paramount Pictures. Almost immediately, Evans had a profound effect on the studio's bottom line, churning out hits like "Barefoot in the Park" (1967), "The Odd Couple" (1968) and "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). In the following decade, he steadied Paramount's fortunes with huge hits like "Love Story" (1970) and "The Godfather" (1972), before leaving the studio to branch out on his own as a producer with "Chinatown" (1974). Following up with "Marathon Man" (1976) and "Black Sunday" (1977), Evans seemed impervious to failure. But in 1980, following a cocaine bust and the ridicule endured from producing "Popeye" (1980), Evans hit a career...
Perhaps one of the most notorious personages ever to grace motion pictures, producer and former Paramount Pictures studio head Robert Evans blazed a trail through Hollywood that left behind numerous fractured marriages, countless heartbroken starlets, several friends-turned-enemies, and a career brimming with some of the best movies ever made. After receiving his start as an actor in movies like "The Sun Also Rises" (1957) and "The Best of Everything" (1959), Evans turned to producing in the late-1960s, which quickly led to becoming a powerful executive at the struggling Paramount Pictures. Almost immediately, Evans had a profound effect on the studio's bottom line, churning out hits like "Barefoot in the Park" (1967), "The Odd Couple" (1968) and "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). In the following decade, he steadied Paramount's fortunes with huge hits like "Love Story" (1970) and "The Godfather" (1972), before leaving the studio to branch out on his own as a producer with "Chinatown" (1974). Following up with "Marathon Man" (1976) and "Black Sunday" (1977), Evans seemed impervious to failure. But in 1980, following a cocaine bust and the ridicule endured from producing "Popeye" (1980), Evans hit a career slump that ended with him broke and ostracized from Hollywood. The final straw was "The Cotton Club" (1984), a huge flop that was mired in production excesses that also included the murder of a financier, for which Evans was briefly implicated. Sinking further into debt, depression and cocaine addiction, Evans languished in obscurity for the remainder of the decade. He reemerged with the misfire "Chinatown" sequel, "The Two Jakes" (1990), and spent the rest of the 1990s making critical and financial disasters like "Sliver" (1993), "Jade" (1995) and "The Saint" (1997). He earned a degree of cult status following the self-narrated documentary "The Kid Stays in the Picture" (2002), which introduced Evans to a new generation while reminding older crowds just how integral he had been to one of cinema's most vibrant eras.
Born on June 29, 1930 in New York City, Evans grew up in a comfortable home headed by his father, Archie Shapera, a dentists, and his mother, Florence, a homemaker. As a child, Evans performed on numerous radio shows - some 300 all told - including "Archie Andrews" (NBC, 1943-1953), "The Aldrich Family" (NBC/CBS, 1939-1953) and "Gang Busters" (NBC/CBS, 1935-1957). Following his television debut on "Elizabeth and Essex" (1947), he went into business with his brother, Charles, and his partner, Joseph Picone, with the fashion company Evans-Picone, for which he did their promotional work. Moving to Hollywood some years later, Evans was lounging poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he was spotted by Golden Age actress, Norma Shearer, who thought him to be a dead-ringer for her deceased husband, Irving G. Thalberg, which happened to be a role in the biopic of actor Lon Chaney, "Man of a Thousand Faces" (1957). Shearer successfully lobbied for Evans to get the part, which wound up becoming his feature debut. Evans went on to appear as Pedro Romero in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" (1957), despite objections raised by star Ava Gardner and even the author himself.
Continuing his attempt to make it as an actor, Evans enlisted the help of famed acting coach, Stella Adler, for the audition for a supporting role in the relationship melodrama "The Best of Everything" (1959), which helped him land the part. Despite managing to make strides on screen, Evans remained largely dissatisfied with his career. He decided instead to move into producing by joining 20th Century Fox, where he set up "The Detective" (1968) with Frank Sinatra starring as a tough cop is sent to investigate the murder of a department store magnate's son. Featuring a strong performance from Sinatra, the gritty crime thriller became one of the biggest box office successes of the year. He left Fox to take a studio executive job at Paramount Pictures in 1966, where he served as the Vice President of Production and almost immediately began to turn the ailing studio's fortunes around, despite his lack of experience. Evans had his first hit with the winning romantic comedy, "Barefoot in the Park" (1967), which starred Robert Redford and Jane Fonda as a pair of newlyweds adjusting to their new lives together. Staying with Neil Simon's source material, Evans produced another hit with "The Odd Couple" (1968), which pitted Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon as polar opposite roommates living together in Manhattan.
Evans' power at Paramount only grew when he steered "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) to the big screen, director Roman Polanski's disturbing horror movie about a young wife and mother (Mia Farrow) who grows to realize that her soon-to-be child is not of this world. His unbelievable run continued with the easygoing crime caper, "The Italian Job" (1969), starring Michael Caine, and the charming Western "True Grit" (1969), which starred John Wayne in his only Oscar-winning role. He had his biggest hit with his next film, "Love Story" (1970), which starred Ryan O'Neal and Evans' real-life wife Ali McGraw as a pair of mismatched lovers who manage to stick together despite the objections of his father (Ray Milland), only to suffer tragic consequences. Though critics were divided, "Love Story" was a big success with audiences, as the picture became the highest-grossing movie made by Paramount up to that point. The film also earned seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. Meanwhile, Evans and McGraw - who happened to be his third wife at this point - had son Josh Evan in 1971.
Also that year, having almost singlehandedly pulling Paramount back from the brink, Evans was given the reigns of the entire studio and named top dog as Executive Vice-President in charge of worldwide production at the studio. He next proceeded to steer "The Godfather" (1972) through production, a process that began as far back as 1968, when a then-unknown author named Mario Puzo brought pages from his unpublished manuscript, Mafia, to Evans in hopes of securing a payday to cover what he owed to bookies. At least that was how Evans claimed the story went. Others connected to the movie claimed it was brought to Paramount through other channels. Regardless of how the manuscript ended up at the studio, there was no doubt that Evans was integral to getting the picture made. In order to make an authentic film about the Italian Mafia, Evans insisted on an Italian-American director. After finally settling for Francis Ford Coppola when most other bigger names had passed on the project, Evans and his new director clashed mightily over which actors to cast. With Coppola championing Al Pacino as Michael Corleone and Marlon Brando as Don Corleone, Evans was pushing for the likes of Warren Beatty and Danny Thomas for Vito, telling Coppola, "A runt will not play Michael." (Vanity Fair, March 2009). Coppola ultimately won the battle.
Through the course of production, Evans and his producers were plotting to fire Coppola, due to cost overruns and an inability to stay on schedule. Because of his numerous tangles with the director throughout the production - already proving difficult due to death threats from actual mobsters before producer Albert Ruddy smoothed things over - Evans cemented his reputation for being antagonistic towards filmmakers. Regardless of the great difficulty in getting the film made, "The Godfather" proved to be the massive hit Paramount was looking for. The crime saga depicting the decline of an older generation of mobsters in favor of the new was also a big hit with critics, winning three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Throughout the years, Evans became known for personally coveting credit for the success of the film created under his watch, although the extent and merits of his contributions were routinely debated. Meanwhile, Evans and wife Ali McGraw divorced in 1972 after she fell for her co-star, Steven McQueen, in "The Getaway" (1972). Evans later attributed his near-obsession with seeing "The Godfather" through to completion as the straw that broke the camel's back. He soon followed up with "Serpico" (1973), director Sidney Lumet's gritty crime drama about rookie police officer Frank Serpico (Al Pacino), whose attempts to shed light on a corrupt system leads to his ultimate downfall. The film went on to became yet another 1970s classic that the high-flying Evans could count as his own.
Evans next steered the financially successful, but critically underappreciated adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic novel, "The Great Gatsby" (1974), which starred Robert Redford as the self-made Gatsby, Mia Farrow as the superficial Daisy Buchanan, and Sam Waterston as the naïve Nick Carraway. Working again with the excitable Coppola, Evans helped shepherd "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) and "The Conversation" (1974) to the big screen. Both were hits, both were critically hailed, and both became staples of 1970s cinema. But it was "The Godfather, Part II" which earned the greatest distinction after winning six Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. Evans left the studio top spot and became an independent producer in 1974, a highly successful stint that started with producing director Roman Polanski's classic neo-noir "Chinatown" (1974), a lush, cynical and serpentine neo-noir set in 1930s Los Angeles. The film starred Evans' close friend, Jack Nicholson, who portrayed Jake Gittes, a dogged private eye whose search for the murderer of a water department official pulls him into a much darker and more sordid scandal involving the official's wife (Faye Dunaway) and her despicable father (John Houston). After receiving 11 Academy Award nominations, "Chinatown" only took home one for Robert Towne's Best Original Screenplay. Nonetheless, the film was considered to be one of the best ones made in that period, while Towne's script was held up as being the best ever written.
Evans continued his unparalleled run with the John Schlesinger thriller "Marathon Man" (1976), starring another longtime pal, Dustin Hoffman, who later had a falling out with the producer over his undeniable impersonation of Evans with his character in "Wag the Dog" (1997). He moved on to produce John Frankenheimer's popular thriller "Black Sunday" (1977), which featured a stunning climactic scene involving a blimp at the Super Bowl, and the rather underwhelming romantic drama, "Players" (1979), which starred ex-wife Ali McGraw - a film he made while in the midst of a divorce with another wife, former Miss America Phyllis George. Evans entered the next decade on a high note with the country-themed hit "Urban Cowboy" (1980), which capitalized on the then massive popularity of its star, John Travolta, while generating a soundtrack some claimed help propel interest in the pop-country phenomenon that soon followed. But cracks began to appear in Evans' seemingly impervious façade when he produced director Robert Altman's unsuccessful and highly-ridiculed take on "Popeye" (1980), starring Robin Williams as the big-armed sailor who is fond of his spinach. Also that year, Evans ran into legal trouble when he was arrested and later convicted on a misdemeanor cocaine charge. Sentenced to probation, he was given the chance to wipe the slate clean with an anti-drug film called "Get High on Yourself" (1981), which he financed with his own money and cast with several famous actor friends.
Regardless of his public condemnation of drugs, Evans continued his habit unabated. In 1983, he became embroiled in further scandal while in the middle of making the period gangster piece, "The Cotton Club" (1984) with Francis Ford Coppola, when his business partner on the project, Roy Radin, was found murdered. Right from the start, "The Cotton Club" appeared doomed to failure. Initially, Evans wanted to direct the film himself, but decided not to and brought in a hopelessly broke Coppola in at the eleventh hour. Having spent some $13 million before Coppola even appeared, Evans resorted to finding money any way he could, including from notorious Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who was later complicit in the Iran-contra scandal. The budget ballooned to almost $50 million - a fortune at the time - while Evans became briefly implicated in Radin's slaying (In 1991, cocaine dealer Karen Greenberger and three bodyguards were convicted of the crime). The film released to lackluster box office totals, throwing Evans into deep despair, which became exacerbated due to giving trial testimony and the fact that he was now flat broke.
Following an extended hiatus, Evans returned to active producing and corralled Nicholson to direct and star in the inferior, but interesting "Chinatown" sequel, "The Two Jakes" (1990), which failed to capture the attention of anyone at the time and fared poorly at the box office. He moved on to the Sharon Stone erotic thriller, "Sliver" (1993), which was nearly universally panned by critics while performing fairly well in theaters. Evans continued making critically maligned flops with "Jade" (1995), an erotic thriller from the juvenile mind of Joe Eszterhas that starred David Caruso as an assistant D.A. drawn into a murder case involving a sultry psychologist (Linda Fiorentino) and her prominent attorney husband (Chazz Palminteri). Though he received some critical kudos for the comic strip adaptation of "The Phantom" (1996), they were not enough to boost ticket sales. Critics lashed out at his next project, "The Saint" (1997), which starred Val Kilmer as amateur detective, Simon Templar, a character featured in a long-running book series that was previously turned into films, a radio show and even a successful British television series. Unable to rekindle his magic from the 1970s, Evans struck out again with a rather limp remake of the comedy classic, "The Out-of-Towners" (1999), starring Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn.
Though fallen out of prominence for some time, Evans' illustrious career again came to the forefront with the documentary "The Kid Stays in the Picture" (2002). Based on the producer's life as told in his revealing 1994 autobiography and narrated by Evans himself, the documentary pulled no punches in detailing his outlandish adventures in show business. The title referred to his near-firing from his role in "The Sun Also Rises," a job that was saved by studio head, Darryl Zanuck, who watched Evans' first take and made a portentous decree: "The kid stays in the picture." The book itself was already a hit with Hollywood insiders, particularly the audio version that was narrated by Evans himself. The project came about when rising documentarian team Brett Morgen and Nanette Berstein worked with Evans - who was in the midst of recuperating from a debilitating stroke - in capturing the producer's chaotic, but always fascinating life on film. Kaleidoscopic, mesmerizing, and entirely subjective, "The Kid Stays in the Picture" was roundly praised by critics, while opening a re-exploration into his works and creating an air of pseudo-celebrity that could only be best described as the Cult of Evans.
The popularity of the film even led Evans and Morgen to develop the animated series, "Kid Notorious" (Comedy Central, 2003-04), which adapted anecdotes from his life into wild cartoon exploits that mixed "South Park"-style scatological gags with snarky, knowing Hollywood insider humor. He also returned to the producing game with the romantic comedy "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" (2003), a minor hit that proved star Kate Hudson's box office appeal in lightweight fare. Ever the lothario, Evans married in 2002 for a sixth time to Leslie Ann Woodward, a union that was dissolved after a mere eight months, though it was nothing compared to his nine-day marriage to previous wife, actress Catherine Oxenberg, in 1998. Evans next produced and appeared in the documentary "The Last Mogul" (2005), which detailed the life and career of former talent agent and studio executive, Lew Wasserman. Meanwhile, Evans appeared in spirit on the popular Hollywood series "Entourage" (HBO, 2004- ), in the form of Bob Ryan (Martin Landau), a legendary film producer fallen on hard times who is looking to make a comeback. Though initially offered to play the role himself, Evans bowed out, but graciously offered his Beverly Hills mansion as a location.
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Film lecturer at USC, UCLA and NYU.
"Where is everyone? Dead? Most. Wealthy? Some. Destitute? Many. Retired? Suppose so, I ain't seen 'em. One thing I do know, I ain't dead, I ain't wealthy, I ain't destitute and I ain't retired." --Evans in his book "The Kid Stays in the Picture"
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