[Stuff magazine, UK edition,, 1998]
WITHOUT Robert Evans, there would be no Godfather films; no Chinatown; no Odd Couple or Rosemary's Baby; probably no Paramount studios. But worse than that, there would be no Robert Evans, something Evans himself would consider the most terrible loss of all.
Evans was 35 years old when he took charge of Paramount. His career as a movie actor had been chequered to say the least, but he had a flawless record in film production. He hadn't made a single one. For Paramount's owners, it was either appoint Evans or sell the studio lot to the cemetery next door. Over the next ten years they would frequently wish they'd gone with the stiffs. Evans made money and trouble in equal measures.
Naturally, he straight away became the most hated man in Hollywood. He was an upstart. He had no right to be there. Evans didn't care. He was accustomed to being where he didn't belong. As a teenage radio star in the Forties he used to smuggle girls into New York's St Moritz Hotel, a custom he gave up when he was caught in flagrante with Life magazine's Debutante Of The Year. His flair for accents made him the top Nazi of the airwaves, a piece of typecasting that failed to impress his family, who had once borne the good Jewish name of Shapera.
Evans' bid for screen notoriety had stalled after a flying start. He was hoisted into the role of genius MGM producer Irving Thalberg in Man Of A Thousand Faces by Thalberg's widow, Norma Shearer. Then, championed by the powerful Darryl Zanuck, he held onto the part of matador Pedro Romero in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, against the opposition of cast and crew. Except, that is, for Errol Flynn, who took the pretty-boy fledgling actor under his wing, and schooled him in what little dissipation he hadn't already taught himself. No Latin bullfighter could have been as voracious or as cheesy a seducer as Evans. Between dancers, starlets and models, he found time for flings with Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Lana Turner, which was thoughtful of him.
A horse opera was his undoing. The original, prescient title was The Hell Bent Kid. Instead it wound up in cinemas as The Fiend Who Went West, and Evans' fortunes went west with it. He returned to the world of commerce, where he had been helping his brother Charlie run a thriving fashion company. It was to be his last financial success. The tone for all his future business affairs would be set when in 1956 he delayed closing a real estate deal to sleep with a showgirl. The mile of Florida coastline, selling at $318,000, is now worth billions, but not to him. His unerring eye for dud investments and hopeless deals would eventually ruin him. Along with the cocaine, the four divorces, the obsessive gambling, the insanity and the murder trial, of course.
Evans never actually killed anyone, or even tried to. But because of the company he kept, he was bound to know somebody who had. In the 1970s, during his triumphant stint at Paramount, his friends were the showbusiness and political elite - Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Henry Kissinger. He was married to the biggest female box office draw in the world, Ali MacGraw. Then MacGraw left him for Steve McQueen, who wanted to assume custody of Evans' son.$150,000 dollars worth of legal muckraking dug up something so terrifying - or scurrilous - that McQueen backed off without a word as soon as he saw it.
Come the 80s, Evans was broke and single, mixing with reprobates and gold-diggers and low-grade hustlers, getting into the kind of trouble that even his mentor, Sidney Korshak, the heaviest and best connected of mob lawyers, couldn't fix. He was convicted of possessing cocaine on one of the very few occasions when he hadn't actually done so. His production of The Cotton Club went haywire. He and director Francis Ford Coppola were spitting blood at each other, as they had been ever since The Godfather - Evans claiming credit for forcing Coppola to recut it as the classic it became.
Those who thought Evans had been too lucky too long were rubbing their hands with schadenfreude. The chickens finally came home to roost, with an almighty squawking, when a pack of Evans' associates were tried and convicted of murdering one of their number - a fat, charmless promoter called Roy Radin who had marked Evans as a stepping stone towards Hollywood and away from troupes of tap-dancing dwarves. Evans took the Fifth throughout the case; leaving him with an unlikely but perhaps useful reputation as a man willing to settle deals with a spade and a foot of topsoil.
Evans' return to the movie business in the 90s was hailed as a miracle, mainly by Evans. His methods have been much parodied, covertly in Blake Edwards' SOB and directly by Dustin Hoffman in Wag The Dog. But in an era when films are created by committee and focus group, it's good to have at least one producer who believes in instinct and vision, even if his own have proved to be calamitous. He got married again this year, to ex-Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, over thirty years his junior; proving once again that he has the style and taste of a trainee Vegas croupier, the learning curve of a pigeon and the chutzpah of the devil's own poker buddy. As well as a seemingly endless supply of those strange square glasses.
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