July 18, 2002
The ‘Kid’s’ Staying Power
The life of actor-producer Robert Evans could rival any Hollywood script.
Every day during the summer of 1942, 12-year-old Robert Evans set out with a copy of Radio Registry under his arm and hit every audition room in New York.
"I [made] up one story after another about my brilliant career," the legendary producer recalls in "The Kid Stays in the Picture," a juicy new documentary based on his 1994 tell-all memoir. After months of rejection, he capitalized on his uncanny knack for accents and landed a gig that appalled some members of his Jewish family: playing a Nazi concentration camp colonel on "Radio Mystery Theater."
"[There] I was, a 12-year-old Jewish kid ... labeled the top Nazi in town," he says with a laugh.
It's the kind of outrageous chutzpah hijinks one would expect of Evans, whose roller coaster of a life is chronicled like a Hollywood epic in "Kid." The doc recounts his discovery as an actor by silent movie star Norma Shearer, his ascension to Paramount production chief in his 30s, his penchant for bedding actresses such as Ava Gardner and Raquel Welch and greenlighting such hits as "Love Story" and "The Godfather." It also describes how Evans -- perhaps the last great producer of the pre-Jerry Bruckheimer era -- was busted for cocaine and linked to the notorious Cotton Club murder case in the 1980s (he was never indicted). And how his very public fall from grace bankrupted him and made him a pariah, though he's since reclaimed the spotlight with his memoir and the documentary, directed by Oscar nominees Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein.
"I've been from royalty to infamy and back again," the 72-year-old says in his famous purr-growl while reclining on his fur-covered bed at his Woodland Drive mansion.
Morgen agrees: "Bob's life is like a movie. He's also a tragic figure in the sense that he almost lost everything because of his transgressions." Morgen, 32, who attended Jewish studies classes at Amherst, adds that the producer "in a way reminds me of King David. Just as David had his love for Bathsheba, which was his big transgression, Bob had his addiction to excess and to cocaine."
Even the way the producer (ne Shapera) became Robert Evans sounds like a scene from a Hollywood melodrama. Evans says it happened late one night in 1942 when his dentist father, Archie, tearfully asked young Bob and his brother, Charles, to adopt Archie's dying mother's maiden name. "It was a means of exacting revenge against [Archie's] father, a gambler who would step out for a newspaper and return home, broke, three weeks later," the producer says.
Cut to 1956, when the strikingly handsome Evans -- then a millionaire partner in Charles' clothing firm, Evan-Picone -- caught Shearer's eye while sunning himself by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Shearer said his confident manner reminded her of her late husband, the Jewish movie mogul Irving Thalberg, and would Evans like to play him in the James Cagney flick, "Man of a Thousand Faces"?
Evans did, and some months later -- in a completely unrelated incident -- he was "discovered" by mega-producer Darryl Zanuck while dancing the tango with a countess at a posh supper club. Zanuck decided to cast him as Ava Gardner's Latin lover in the 1957 film version of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" -- but the author (and Evans' co-stars) disagreed. "Everyone on the set knew [Hemingway's] thoughts about how this Jewboy would ruin the film," Evans says. "But he couldn't convince Zanuck."
Instead, the stogie-smoking Zanuck observed Evans' bullfighter shtick, put a bullhorn to his lips and proclaimed, "The kid stays in the picture. And anybody who doesn't like it can quit."
Evans recalls: "It was then that I realized I didn't want to be some actor sh--ing in his pants to get a role, but the guy who gets to say, 'The kid stays in the picture.'" After finagling a three-picture deal at Fox, he was named head of production at Paramount in 1966.
During his tenure there in the late '60s and early '70s, Evans hired the Polish-born Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski to direct the classic films "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "Chinatown" (1974). He resorted to a typically Evans-esque stunt when Polanski wanted to leave the "Chinatown" set to attend a seder in Poland.
"Bob said, 'Roman, I'll throw you the best Passover you ever had,'" Morgen says. "He ended up with Kirk Douglas leading the seder with Polanski and Walter Matthau in attendance."
Evans went on to bring the quintessential 1960s Jewish American film to Paramount, though not without his share of tsuris. He wanted a Jewish actress to star in "Goodbye Columbus," based on Philip Roth's biting novella, and was appalled when filmmakers instead cast Ali MacGraw. "Ali MacGraw, an 18-year-old spoiled Jewish American Princess?" he shouted incredulously at producer Stanley Jaffe on the telephone. "She's a 28-year-old over-the-hill shiksa." The actresses' luminous screen test convinced him otherwise, however, and, "I fell in love with her while watching the dailies," Evans recalls. In October 1969, they were married.
But the producer didn't want to talk about MacGraw -- who left him for Steve McQueen three years later -- or the Cotton Club case when Morgen and Burstein arrived to film him in early 2000. It didn't matter that Morgen had studied Evans' movies as a cinema-obsessed kid (the poster to Evans' "Popeye" hung over his bed) or that he had attended Crossroads School in Santa Monica with the producer's son, Josh. ("There were rumors that Josh's dad was possibly involved in a murder," Morgen recalls.)
Evans, who narrates the film, says, "It's difficult to make a picture that shows your life, warts and all, and we had very big fights about it."
Not that Evans didn't try to put on the charm, instructing his butler to prepare caviar omelets for Morgen and Burstein and regaling them with stories beside a vast swimming pool. "We knew that Bob was trying to 'seduce' us," says Burstein, 30, who grew up Reform but attended an Orthodox grade school in Buffalo, N.Y. "And we, in turn, were trying to 'seduce' him."
Evans is glad they did. During the "Kid screening at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, he received a 12-minute standing ovation and he's now back on the Paramount lot, making movies with directors such as Wes Anderson. "I hope the film inspires people to know that when you're down, it ain't over," he says, sounding like the chutzpah kid who reinvented himself as the "Jewish Nazi" in 1942. "Sometimes it hurts, but you've gotta stay in the picture.