Robert Evans didn’t set out to be a movie producer or studio executive. That he became both of those things was just one example of serendipity in his remarkable life. His death today at age 89 will undoubtedly inspire people who knew and worked with him to reminisce. I met him only briefly when I chatted with him at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood a decade or so ago.
The best Robert Evans story is the one he told himself, in a 1994 autobiography called The Kid Stays in the Picture. If you’ve never read it I urge you to listen to the audio version, which at one time was the hottest book-on-tape in Hollywood. Back then it was released on cassettes; now it’s available online from Audible.com; you can even hear a free sample at HERE.
Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein were so bowled over by Evans’ larger-than-life saga that they turned it into a feature-length documentary bearing the same name in 2002. It’s very entertaining but it takes a back seat to the original audiobook, which was recorded before Evans suffered a stroke. His voice and his verve are slightly diminished on the movie soundtrack and that’s a shame.
For those who may be unfamiliar with Evans, here is a summary of his life that I wrote in 2003. Some references may be dated but I think it sums things up reasonably well.
By Leonard Maltin
When we think of movie moguls, we generally invoke the names of Hollywood pioneers like Louis B. Mayer or Jack L. Warner. I doubt most people outside the industry could name even a handful of today’s studio bosses or producers.
Robert Evans is an altogether different breed of mogul, from the modern era. He has lived much of his life in the public eye, first as an actor, then as a dashing studio chief, producer and husband of a beautiful movie star. He even made headlines for some notorious behavior.
But most of all, he is a survivor. He’s outlived mentors and detractors alike, survived courtroom notoriety and a stroke, and come all the way into the DVD era as an active participant.
And even Jack Warner couldn’t boast that his autobiography had been turned into a pop documentary within his lifetime.
When Evans wrote his colorful and candid autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, it’s unlikely he envisioned it becoming a movie (after gaining near-legendary status within Hollywood for the audiobook version, read by the author). Yet that documentary is now sitting on video store shelves right alongside famous films Evans produced like Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Godfather Part II.
Watch his interviews on DVDs like the one for Chinatown (along with his colleagues, director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne) and you’ll see first-hand his gift for storytelling, as well as a knack for getting involved with interesting people and eventful movie projects.
But you can go back father than that. Man of a Thousand Faces, from 1957, tells the story of legendary silent-screen star Lon Chaney. James Cagney stars, and in the role of 1920s “boy wonder” studio chief Irving Thalberg is a young, handsome fellow named Robert Evans.
This too-good-to-be-true coincidence came about because Norma Shearer, the longtime MGM star and widow of Irving Thalberg, noticed Evans alongside the Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool, and remarked that he bore a striking resemblance to her late husband. She urged that he be cast in the part.
At the time, Evans was helping to run a successful family clothing business, Evan-Picone, although he had some experience acting on radio as a youth. He claims he had no ambition to appear on camera, but he wasn’t going to turn down an offer like this. Within a year, he was costarring in movies ranging from The Fiend That Walked the West to Darryl F. Zanuck’s super-production of The Sun Also Rises.
In time, Evans found the business of moviemaking more intriguing than any parts he was being offered, so he reinvented himself. A decade after making his acting debut he was running Paramount Pictures, selected for that plum assignment by the dynamic new owner of the company, Gulf + Western’s Charles Bludhorn. As boss, he couldn’t give himself credit on films he had a hand in, which led to a unique arrangement for him to produce movies for Paramount like Chinatown.
His ups and downs since then have been well chronicled. He’s even been depicted on screen: Robert Vaughn played a studio chief patterned after him in Blake Edwards’ S.O.B., and Dustin Hoffman imitated him outright in Wag the Dog. (There’s also footage of Hoffman “doing” Evans in a gag reel from Marathon Man at the end of The Kid Stays in the Picture.)
But Evans has had the last laugh. He’s survived—and prevailed. This year’s box-office hit How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days bore his name as producer, which means he has yet another current property in the video marketplace. Evans may straddle the old Hollywood and the new, but you can’t ever accuse him of living in the past.