Robert Evans: Glory Days

Long before his name became synonymous with scandal. courtroom drama, and comeback chatter, Robert Evans reigned over Hollywood as the Paramount executive who oversaw, or produced, such seminal 70s hits as Chinatown, Paper Moon, Love Story and The Godfather. Here, in the first of a two-part interview, Evans recalls the ups and downs of the roller coaster ride he says is still "the only game in town."

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If the '70s were the royal age of the movies, then Robert Evans wore the crown as the producer who rescued a major studio from the graveyard, and who brought to the screen some of the decade's most stunning achievements. In 1966, the former film actor and sportswear executive was plucked out of relative obscurity by Paramount CEO Charles Bluhdorn to become vice-president in charge of production at Paramount. Evans was the first actor to ever be put in such a position of power, and the odds were so big against him that no bookie would take the bet on his lasting more than a few months. Evans hung in for nine years--giving the go-ahead to and putting his energy behind such hits as Rosemary's Baby, The Odd Couple, Love Story, the two Godfathers, True Grit and Paper Moon. When he realized that the salary the studio was paying him couldn't compare to the money he could be making as an independent producer, he worked out a deal to produce several pictures for Paramount, among them Chinatown and Marathon Man.

Known as an obsessive worker, Evans has been on a fast track all his life. At 14 he was earning more money on the radio than his father was as a dentist. At 17 he was working as a deejay in a nightclub in Havana, during an era of decadence and debauchery that was depicted in The Godfather, Part II. He was discovered for movies twice: first by Norma Shearer, who thought he'd be perfect to play her deceased husband, producer Irving Thalberg, in Man of a Thousand Faces; then by producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who thought Evans could play the bullfighter in the film version of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

Evans was considered another rising young actor, but he knew that he didn't have what it took to become a major star and instead opted to rejoin his brother's clothing business, Evan-Picone. But the lure of movies was in his blood and he decided to find some properties he could produce. He came up with The Detective, which 20th Century Fox wanted, but before he could produce it, Paramount made him the bigger offer--and as a studio player, Evans quickly achieved the kind of fame that had eluded him as an actor.

Though his four marriages-- to three actresses and a former Miss America--lasted a total of less than seven years, Evans was unphased, for he had swinging friends like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty to keep up with. There were movies to make, tennis to play, coke to snort...

And then it all came crashing down. By 1980 Evans was busted for possession of cocaine, beginning a sour decade that culminated in his name coming up during the investigation into the murder of a man named Roy Radin, who wanted to be his partner on The Cotton Club. It was a convoluted story: Evans, needing financing, wound up dealing with drug dealers and gangsters; though Evans was never charged per se, his name was dragged through headlines all over the world. After the failure of The Cotton Club--and additional bad press surrounding Evans's attempted return to acting, in the role later played by Harvey Keitel in the Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes--it was generally assumed that Robert Evans was no longer viable, that he was a relic of another generation.

But Evans is a man who thrives on challenges. So he went and found a property that would bring him back: The Saint. He presented it to Paramount as a potential industry: "Think of Bond," he told them, "of Indiana Jones." Paramount bought it, gave him back his office, and made a five-year deal with him. The Saint is in the works, but his first film under the deal was Sliver, which got savaged by the critics and did disappointing business.

In a two-part interview, Evans discusses everything from his climb to the top to his fall from grace. Here, Evans chats about his Hollywood heyday, the '70s.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: Do you work more at this office or at home?

ROBERT EVANS: I work mostly here. I have meetings at night at home and work with writers at home. My house is very conducive to working.

Q: How much business got done at your house during the '70s?

A: There were more deals made in my projection room than there were at Paramount during those days. My home has made Paramount over $1 billion. Charlie Bluhdorn used my home as Gulf + Western West.

Q: Tell me about some of the people who come to your house.

A: In my screening room, Jack Nicholson comes four or five times a week looking at pictures; a lot of directors come to look at their films. The Godfather was edited there, as was The Two Jakes. I can go on and on. A couple of years ago I needed new chairs. The old chairs were there for 22 years, cotton was coming out of them, it looked like the Salvation Army. I designed a chair and got six of them made and put them in. Nicholson comes over and asks, "Where are the old chairs?" I said I was looking to give them away to the Motion Picture and TV Fund convalescent home so I could get a write-off on them. He said he wanted them. So he sent down a truck and had them picked up.

Two weeks later he comes back and says to me, "You gave me the greatest gift I ever got. Those chairs. They're the most valuable chairs in all of Hollywood history. Do you know what happened in those chairs over the last 25 years? Mike Nichols wants one, Meryl, Warren, Bernardo... everyone wants a chair." I didn't know what I owned. He said, "I may give one to Meryl and to Bernardo. I'm not giving one to Warren." Suddenly I didn't like my new chairs anymore. [Laughs] And Jack won't give me back the old ones.

Q: What has he given you in exchange?

A: Loyalty. That he's given to me like no one else.

Q: How different is the business today than it was 20 years ago?

A: Totally different. In the '70s, there were four people who ran Paramount. We had a hundred actors around. Now there are a hundred executives and four actors around. Now, it's a committee business, a distribution business--you make a picture to make a date, you don't make a picture to make it good. Do I like it? I hate it. Am I on my knees glad I'm here? I'm on my knees glad I'm here. Because this is the only game in town.

When I ran the company it was so different because it went through me, I said yes or no, and there was no one else. We made 20 to 25 pictures a year with only two people here. Now there are 50 people here and they can't get 10 pictures made. Why? I don't know. It's become a commodity rather than an art form. And everything is researched, which is nauseating. I don't believe in the way they test pictures today at all. It's totally wrong. If you preview a picture, it's an invited audience. You don't get your highs, you don't get your lows, and so you don't know how good or bad the picture is. It's no different than if you came to my house for dinner and my food is lousy but you can't say, "Send it back, I can't eat it." But if you and I went over to Chasen's and the food was lousy, you can say, "Send it back, it's no good." When you pay for it, you can criticize. When you're invited, you can't.

Q: Are films better now than they were 20 years ago?

A: They're not nearly as good. Look at some of the pictures [from the year] Chinatown was up for an Academy Award. There were movies like Lenny, The Godfather, Part II, The Conversation and A Woman Under the Influence. Each of those pictures was really extraordinary. And you look at the pictures up for an Academy Award today, it's tough to pick five. Today, distribution runs the film business. Maybe because it's so expensive, and the numbers are so big today, but it seems that it's more and more difficult to put pictures together.

Q: And yet you're still doing it. Have you always believed you could pull it off?

A: I've been a success in whatever I've done. I've never looked at things any other way. The toughest time has been the last five years. It's easy at 20 to be hopeful, but when you're approaching 60 and you're on your ass, you have two places to go: one, the Motion Picture and TV Fund convalescent home, or two, down to live in Palm Springs. When you're successful at my age it's difficult to stay there, because I'm considered too old. To make a comeback at my age... it's like getting out of the grave. To get back is much more difficult than to get there.

Q: Of the films made while you were at Paramount in the '70s, which are your favorites?

A: Filmic-wise, The Godfather and Love Story are the two for me. The reason I say Love Story is it's a total aphrodisiac. There were more pregnancies from that picture than any other ever made in the history of film. And I was witness to it. Guys would bring a different girl every night and for that night they were in love. I'm the only producer still alive who has two pictures--The Godfather and Chinatown--selected by the Library of Congress to be among the 75 films of the 20th century to be [recommended for placement] in a vault for perpetuity.

Q: Whose idea was it to do The Godfather as a period family chronicle--rather than as another gangster movie?

A: Francis [Coppola] wanted to show capitalism in America. When I hired Francis, Dick Zanuck and John Calley both called me and told me I was going to be fired from my job. Dick said, "Bob, they're going to throw you off the picture, that guy's nuts." Calley called me and said Zoetrope owed them $600,000. "Don't use him, Bob, you don't know the problems you're going to get into." He'd made only three [studio] pictures at that time: You're a Big Boy Now, which did no business; Finian's Rainbow, which was a disaster; and Rain People, which was a slow art film.

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