The Dark Side of Fame: Robert Evans Pt. II
Last month, Robert Evans talked about his Hollywood heyday as a studio exec and producer in the '70s. In the decade that followed, Evans's life and career went into a tailspin that reads like a primer about why you might want to never succeed in show biz. Here, Evans talks about everything from drug busts and public humiliation to thoughts of suicide and his visit to a loony bin. Along the way, he gives a glimpse or two into what went wrong with Popeye, The Two Jakes, and The Cotton Club.
In recent years, Robert Evans has been making more headlines than movies. Headlines about drug busts. Headlines about murder trials. Headlines about wronged investors. Headlines, even, about disappointing movies. When I met with him to talk for this interview, days before his most recent film, Sliver, was due to open, it was at his palatial home above Sunset Boulevard, not far from the Beverly Hills Hotel. When I arrived, his butler took me through the main house and into the projection room, which is sandwiched between his oval swimming pool and the tennis court. Evans was late, so I had ample opportunity to admire the Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec prints, and the nude drawings by Jean Negulesco. I looked at the framed pictures from every decade of Evans's many careers: clothing executive, contract actor, studio head, moviemaker, starlets' husband. And when he arrived, Evans showed me another snap: a Polaroid of his caricature from The Palm restaurant, a nearby show biz watering hole, with the words "The Robert Evans" next to it.
"I'm the only one who has that," he said, about the "The." "It might work as a title to your piece. It's just a thought."
Though he has weathered more ups and downs than any other denizen of contemporary Hollywood, you wouldn't know it from his company: Evans is a man of boundless energy. He likes to hum, and during the next seven hours he went between his house and the projection room at least a dozen times, humming as he walked.
During our first talk we concentrated on his tenure as vice-president in charge of production at Paramount between 1966 and 1974. After that he became an independent producer (a word he doesn't like: producers are "dependent," he insists) and over the next six years he produced six films for Paramount. Three were hits (Chinatown, Marathon Man, Urban Cowboy) but three were not (Black Sunday, Players, Popeye).
By the end of the decade, Evans was clearly going downhill. He was busted for cocaine possession. He failed to make a comeback as an actor in his ill-fated sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes (the movie started, then stopped, and when it finally was released--with a different cast working under a different director--nobody cared).
Then he got involved in trying to make The Cotton Club, which turned into a huge nightmare that almost destroyed him. One of the people he was involved with served time for hiring others to commit murder. Evans was cleared of having anything to do with it, but the association certainly tainted his name.
In spite of the failures, Evans has seemingly beaten the odds and managed to stage a return to the spotlight. He was given back his old office at Paramount, and a sweetheart of a deal. Though his first picture since his Phoenix-like rise, Sliver, was far from a smash, he's now working on a franchise-type endeavor based on The Saint. Evans remains a man loaded with ideas, running on a full tank, hoping to catch the magic once again. And he's not afraid to say what he thinks in an industry that usually prefers to keep the lid on what goes on behind-the-scenes.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: You were an actor before you were a studio executive or a producer. Tell me why an actress is more than a woman and an actor is less than a man.
ROBERT EVANS: The man who told me that was Henry Kissinger. The easiest girl to get to, to fuck, is the wife or girlfriend of an actor, whether he's the biggest movie star in the world or an extra. Because invariably the woman he's with becomes his mother--he's that involved with himself, and he can't help it. It's no one's fault. As an actor, you need protection, and the woman you're with becomes your old lady. And after a while, when she's depended upon to do everything including tying his shoelaces for him, the woman gets bored with it.
Conversely, a woman needs that same protection if she's an actress. Really, they're both the same. But in a woman it's attractive, it gives a man a macho feeling to give her that umbrella of protection. Actresses are so unsure of themselves, so insecure, that they come to the man for protection and it makes him feel good. So on a man as an actor, it's unattractive, but on a woman, it makes her man feel good.
Q: When you were young, did you have ambitions to get into the movies?
A: I was a kid actor for many years. When I was 11 years old, I acted on the radio. I was assigned to a Universal picture when I was 17, called City Across the River, but my lung collapsed and I couldn't do the part.
Q: For years, you've had the reputation of being a notorious playboy. How wild was your life as a young actor?
A: I led a wild life as a kid. My parents always backed me in whatever I wanted to do, against their friends' advice--in those days when a kid wanted to be an actor he was looked at as very peculiar. But I always had a good voice, and I did accents very well, so I played Nazis during World War II on the radio. Dicky Van Patten and I used to work together a lot. Dicky's father was a bookie, and we used to go up to the Red Rooster in Harlem. There was a whore house upstairs and gambling downstairs. We went for the fascination, because all the girls would pick up their tips with their pussies. And in the eyes of a 15-year-old kid, that was something!
Q: At 14 weren't you earning $1,500 a week as a radio actor?
A: Some weeks. Some weeks less. Then everything dropped out under me. After my lung collapsed I couldn't get a job. I became a disc jockey--first in Palm Beach, then in Miami, then in Havana, Cuba. It was a show in the lounge of the Copa Cabana Hotel. I gambled there, and probably would have stayed a professional gambler if it wasn't for not wanting to disappoint my family. You know, this business is made up of gamblers: the Louis B. Mayers, the Schencks, Harry Cohn. Darryl Zanuck was busted because of gambling--he had to borrow money from Howard Hughes. You have to be a gambler to be in this business, to be in a position to put up $20 million on the seat of your pants, because there's no closeout value. Unlike a car, which you can close out if it doesn't sell, a film is like a parachute: if it doesn't open, you're dead.
Q: Havana during that time must have been a wild city.
A: It was the wildest place in the entire world. It was like The Godfather, Part II. I had to make a very quick exit from Cuba, because I was witness to something I shouldn't have been, which I cannot get into to this day. I don't want to talk about it. I was brought into a room, blindfolded, taken out and put on a sea plane, which landed in Miami on a desolate beach. I was given $10,000 and told never to come back again.
Q: Was this the government kicking you out, or a private party?
A: I'm not saying who did it. I was 17. I had a gun to my head. I shit in my pants, but I didn't talk. That's the truth.
Q: So what did you do when you returned to New York? Is that when you joined your brother Charles in the clothing business?
A: No, my brother was out of a job at that time. I took a job as a male model in a clothing firm. I wanted to get into films. I wound up out in California handling a clothing line and got signed by Paramount Pictures. I was under contract for six months and they dumped me. My brother by then had started a little company called Evan-Picone and we decided to go into the pant business instead of making skirts. That was my job: to start women wearing pants in America. I'm very proud of it. In the '50s women weren't allowed to wear pants. It was taboo. I started a fashion that's a lot more important than most of the movies I ever made, and it's something that will remain far after I'm dead.
Q: Let's talk about your acting career. Why didn't Ernest Hemingway like you for the 1957 film version of his novel The Sun Also Rises?
A: He wanted a real bullfighter, and I was a laugh. I don't blame him. No one wanted me in the picture, and yet I got all the reviews. [Takes down a framed Time review which says a "handsome" Evans displayed a "fierce intensity."]
Q: Though everyone wanted you fired from that film, Darryl Zanuck came to your defense. Why?
A: It's called sense of discovery. There's an ego involved with it. Not that I was the best person for that part, but he found me. I was his. When we were making The Sun Also Rises in Mexico, a telegram went out to Darryl Zanuck, who was in London. The telegram read: "If Robert Evans plays Pedro Romero, The Sun Also Rises will be a disaster. Signed: Ernest Hemingway, Henry King, Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power, Mel Ferrer, Eddie Albert, Peter Viertel." Errol Flynn refused to sign it. Word comes back that Zanuck is flying in, and I'm told to report to the corrida to do my quitas and veronicas. I was sure I was going to get fired.
So I walk into the arena, there's Zanuck on one side, on the other side is Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power, and everyone else. I go through my motions with a fake bull, bow to him, and Zanuck takes a megaphone and says: "The kid stays in the picture. And anybody who doesn't like it can quit." Then he put the megaphone down and walked out. That's what a producer is: the boss.
Q: Was that an epiphany for you? You saw all the actors, and you saw the power of the producer...
A: Exactly! I wanted to be him and not me.
Q: Why, after only four films, did you decide to quit acting?
A: Because I had to make a choice. The parts I wanted I didn't get, the parts I was offered I didn't want. Meanwhile, our business, Evan-Picone, had grown very big. My brother and his partner came to me and said, "Look, you're spending nine months of the year in California. Either sell out your interest in the business or come back and work for the company." They were right. I looked at myself in the mirror--and this was as tough a decision as I've ever had to make--I said to myself, "You ain't good enough to make it all the way. You ain't gonna be Paul Newman. You're not that good an actor." So I gave up my contract, turned down the two pictures I was supposed to do--The Chapman Report and The Longest Day--and moved back to New York selling ladies' pants. It was the single best decision I ever made in my life. I'd be working as a waiter at Hamburger Hamlet now if I'd stayed an actor.
Q: You then took a big chance and became a studio executive. [See Robert Evans interview, Part I, in the August issue.] Later, when you became a producer, you kept taking chances. One of the biggest chances you took was producing the 1980 movie musical Popeye, which didn't meet the expectations many had for it. Didn't you want Dustin Hoffman, with Hal Ashby directing, until you and Hoffman had a falling out?
A: I had Dustin, and we had a falling out because he wanted to fire Jules Feiffer as the writer and I refused. He had an epileptic fit with me, he was furious.