The Career Of Robert Evans

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“The producer is like the conductor of an orchestra. Maybe he can’t play every instrument, but he knows what every instrument should sound like.”

Zanuck

The producer can be an enigmatic presence in the film making process. It is a role that is hard to define and thus, rarely recognised with the same reverence as a director or an actor. Yet a producer builds the framework for a film; their duties ranging from finding a screenplay and director, setting budgets, handling distribution and marketing, and playing a significant role in casting and crew. It is the director who then gives flesh and blood to a film’s skeleton, but it is the producer who gives it the kiss of life.

Robert Evans, as head of production for Paramount studios from 1966 to 1975, oversaw an impressive string of artistically and commercially successful movies including; Chinatown, The Odd Couple, The Italian Job, True Grit, Love Story, Harold and Maude, The Conversation, Romeo and Juliet, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Godfather.

Evans possessed a creative streak and a belief in irreverence, not afraid to force re-edits, re-writes of the musical score, change casting, and delay releases until he was satisfied with a movie. This led to frequent clashes with directors and studios; rarely did one of his productions pass without incident, acrimony or near disaster.

Despite this, he was no autocrat. Always a collaborator at heart, he believed passionately in the importance of the director, and helped facilitate the arrival of a new wave of directors and writers in the late sixties/early seventies, including Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, Roman Polanski, and Robert Towne.

Immaculately dressed, tanned, with a deep smooth confident baritone voice that was always ready with a compliment, Evans buzzed around the honey of success. Opportunity always had a way of finding him, but only because he was ready to seize it when it arrived.

After early attempts to make it in the acting world, via radio and TV, he became a self-made millionaire in his mid-twenties, launching one of the first companies to manufacture ladies pants.

His first break in cinema came when Norma Shearer, the widow of legendary producer Irving Thalberg, spotted him as he lay by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and asked him to play her husband in a biopic starring James Cagney. He agreed to audition, stating, “Cagney’s the one guy I’ve wanted to meet”. He got the part and in a further stroke of luck was spotted again not long after, by producer Daryl Zanuck in a New York restaurant, who cast him in the lead for The Sun Also Rises. A petition against Evans’ casting was overturned by Zanuck, who uttered the infamous line, “the kid stays in the picture”. Evans later commented this was the moment he wanted to be a producer not “some half assed actor shitting in his pants waiting for approval”.

With money from his clothing business, Evans set up a production company and began buying up film options of best-selling books. An expert in self-promotion, Evans held a press conference where he showed off his new film properties, paraded film star Alain Delon as the lead in Chevalier, and although unconfirmed, announced Delon’s co-star would be Bridget Bardot. Peter Bart, a New York Times journalist, was impressed by Evans, and wrote up a review in praise of his new production company and the bravado he exuded.

Charlie Bludhorn, whom had just bought out a debt ridden Paramount Studios at bottom value with his Gulf and Western company, read this article and summoned Evans to his New York office. After giving Evans a position as head of Paramount’s European production in London, he quickly brought him back to Hollywood where he was handed the keys to Paramount. This move was too much for many inside the industry; here was a man who had never produced a film before and was seen as nothing more than a ladies man with a tan. One critic in Life magazine described him as, “too good looking, too rich, too young, too lucky and too damn charming”.

Evans immediately brought in Bart, the New York Times journalist, to read scripts for him and be his right hand man. As they watched the films that Paramount had in post-production, they both agreed the studio was making the wrong films; over-elaborate musicals, old-fashioned westerns, and light comedies. Evans and Bart both felt that the future laid in finding the best new directors. To illustrate this belief, Evans, when faced with a room full of distribution managers, drew a line down the middle of a blackboard which said on one side, “Don’t tell me what to make” and “I won’t tell you how to sell” on the other.

Evans understood that ownership was everything in Hollywood, and had the studio pay advances to authors to write new books, which Paramount would later own the movie rights to. This proved lucrative, as books such as Love Story, The Godfather and Rosemary’s Baby all became bestsellers.

Evans decided upon Roman Polanski to direct Rosemary’s Baby, who was then relatively unknown outside of Europe. Having seen his earlier films, Evans saw his potential and convinced the studio to take a gamble. Polanski’s slow methodical way of directing soon had the film way behind schedule and the studio wanted to fire Polanksi, but Evans called their bluff by offering his resignation if they did so. A further complication arose when Frank Sinatra, then Mia Farrow’s husband, insisted she withdraw from the film so she could appear in his own film (ironically the film was The Detectives which Evans had bought and sold to 20th Century Fox) or he would divorce her. Farrow was ready to walk but Evans, an expert at flattering the egos of Hollywood stars, set up a screening of the first rough cut and whispered promises of Oscars in her ear which kept her onboard. Sinatra had his lawyer deliver the divorce papers on set.

Once released, Rosemary’s Baby was both a critical and box office success, and was quickly followed by Zeffirelli’s popular adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Despite this upturn in Paramount’s fortunes, the Board of Directors still felt the company was not worth future investment. Faced with studio closure, Evans filmed a soliloquy, directed by Mike Nichols, where he laid out the plans for Paramount’s renaissance.

Taking this film reel under his arm on the red eye to New York, he headed straight to the Gulf and Western building where he was met by a cold boardroom, occupied by cardboard cut outs of stiff collared grey men. He offered his immediate resignation but insisted that they watch his film first. They agreed, the lights went down and he rolled the film. A crackle and pop, the first frames of blank negative, then Evans appeared on the screen of a boardroom movie set. Evans, dressed in rich casual wear of sixties California, with a twee soundtrack playing in the background, delivered a speech encompassing the best-selling books they owned and the films they had in production, including; Harold and Maude, The Odd Couple, Love Story and The Godfather.

Evans describes it as his best acting performance, and although saccharine, it remained persuasive enough to keep Paramount studios in production and for him to keep his job.

After the success of Love Story – a personal victory for Evans who supervised the editing and the last minute addition of the soundtrack -Paramount went from being ninth place in the studio rankings to number one, where it stayed for four consecutive years.

The biggest achievement of Evans tenure at Paramount was undoubtedly The Godfather. Evans’ influence was as disruptive as it was helpful to the production; he initially refused Coppola’s casting of Brando and Pacino, which caused months of delays in pre-production. When the film was finished and finally shown, Evans turned to Coppola and said; “you shot a great film. Where the fuck is it – in the kitchen with your spaghetti?”. He insisted that footage was restored to the film making it half an hour longer. Evans went further, as he postponed the big Christmas release of the movie to everyone’s disbelief and stepped into the editing room himself.

Coppola and Evans to this day dispute each other’s role in the making of The Godfather, with Coppola denying Evans’ input in the final edit. Whatever the truth holds, the result of their mutual resentment produced one of the great epics of American cinema. As Evans himself has said; “success breeds strange bedfellows”.

Subsequent to the release of The Godfather, Evans discovered his wife Ali McGraw had been having an on-set affair with Steve McQueen in The Getaway, a film he insisted she make with him. Evans – bewitched by cocaine, which was cascading through the Hollywood hills – became a more quixotic character; cocooned in his beloved Woodland home living in his pyjamas. He stopped engaging with the other studio executives, to the point he was barely involved in production of The Godfather II.

However, by now Evans’ track record had gained him some influence at Paramount. Emulating his great hero Zanuck, Evans had his lawyer Sidney Korshak, the dark angel of Hollywood, negotiate a deal whereby he could produce one film a year under his own name and remain head of Paramount. The first film to be made under this contract was Chinatown, a complex tale of incest and corruption written by Robert Towne. Nobody at Paramount understood the script and warned Evans away from making this his first film. Ignoring their advice, he put Polanksi at the helm and brought together Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

The production was again turbulent. Polanski barred Towne from the set after endless arguments over the script, including the downbeat finale which Towne brandished “immoral”. Dunaway and the director fought throughout the filming until the set was eventually closed down. Evans used his favourite trick; he offered them both the choice between aRolls Royce or an Oscar nod. Filming soon recommenced.

Evans reached his mountain peak at the Oscars in 1974, with Chinatown garnering eleven Academy Award nominations. With The Godfather II and The Conversation, Paramount had a total of forty-three nominations. Although Chinatown was the favourite for best film, The Godfather II won, and pointedly, Coppola forgot to mention Evans.

After the Oscars, Evans was demoted in a Studio re-shuffle. Although he retained his rights to make independent films, and continued to produce further hits with Marathon Man, Urban Cowboy and Black Sunday, he was now being overtaken by the rapacious momentum of the blockbuster generation, with films such as Jaws and Star Wars.

By the 1980’s the flame of success burnt less brightly for Evans, and was virtually extinguished by his coke addiction, the huge commercial failure of The Cotton Club (which reopened old feuds with Coppola), bad drug deals, and his name attached to a murder case, of which he was later cleared of any involvement in. The 80’s couldn’t end soon enough and the 90’s did herald a return to film production and an acclaimed autobiography, aptly named, The Kid Stays in the Picture.

As either ally or enemy – and sometimes both – Evans presided over Paramount for a unique period in American cinematic history. He was able to coax, infuriate and charm actors, directors and writers, to make the best work of their careers. In the end they had their plaudits, and Evans, he had a thousand framed pictures of their smiling faces stood next to him, adorned along the walls of his Woodland home.

– Thomas Jarvis

3 Comments
  1. Bill Mesce says

    Very nice piece. Evans was hardly modest (and still isn’t), may have even inflated his contributions to the works done under him, but there’s no denying that at his peak he had an incredible instinct for what worked for the audience of the time. He had something so few studio execs have these days: a passion for movies. It showed in the projects he chose and in the way he fought for them. It’s a shame he flamed out.

    1. Phyllis Benjamion says

      He was the most handsome man I have ever seen in his youth. Tough and smart too. Wish I could have gone out with him and seen his house

      1. Jamie says

        I met Robert at his house in 1996. His house is incredible and most everything in it or on the property has a story. He is one of the kindest, hospitable, and intelligent man I have ever met.

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