July 1, 2004
The Kid Still Stays in the Picture
Tommywood was expecting a Hollywood moment. Publicity guru extraordinaire Michael Levine had arranged for me to meet legendary Producer Robert Evans at his longtime lair, Woodland, the former home of Greta Garbo. I turned north of Sunset Boulevard and, like William Holden, wondered what I was getting myself into.
It's not that I didn't appreciate Evans' accomplishments. Evans, the former head of production at Paramount, was responsible for "Love Story," "The Godfather" and "Chinatown" among many other classic films. He is the only producer to have two films on the national preservation list.
His best-selling autobiography, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," was chosen by the Library of Congress as a required text for every branch. The audio version of "The Kid" voiced by Evans has become a cult sensation, passed from hand to hand, making Evans an idol to a new generation.
When I listened to it, I often had to pull over to stop from laughing. The book begat a very enjoyable documentary of the same name and even an animated cartoon, "Kid Notorious," which ran on Comedy Central and which director-savant Brett Rattner has committed to turning into a feature-length animated movie.
So I had read, heard and seen Evans, past and present.
Just check out young Evans in the Lon Chaney biopic "Man of a Thousand Faces" playing MGM's Irving Thalberg. One watches agog at the surreal performance of an actor who will one day run a studio, playing a studio head. Hard to imagine that ever happening again.
I knew that many had fallen under Evans' spell. Kissinger, in his Henry the K days, camped out at Woodland. More recently, Rattner bivouacked there.
Perhaps Kissinger, like many a politician, wanted some of the Hollywood fairy dust. Perhaps Rattner was in search of a father figure, or maybe Evans had a certain sophistication he desired. But for me, at this point, Evans held little appeal, save camp curiosity.
Recently, when Evans appeared on Chris Matthew's "Hardball" to discuss the legacy of Ronald Reagan, Evans said of the former president's qualifications: "Why not an actor?"
Why not indeed, I thought as I pulled into Evans' long, narrow driveway, shaded by thick, gnarled trees that made me think of a Louisiana swamp, past a tennis court and the burned-out shell of a building (Evans' pool house had burned down, the victim of an exploding plasma screen TV). I had left the real world behind.
Once inside, I was asked to wait in the living room. There were two couches facing each other. A coffee table piled with books. A baby grand. Art on the wall: a Bernard Buffet, a Rembrandt sketch -- a giant photo from the late Helmut Newton, inscribed: "To my Bobbie, the last tycoon." A Beverly Hills version of a Park Avenue apartment -- the vibe was from another time, yet timeless, elegant, yet mannered. A stage set where every knickknack, every tchotchke, was perfectly placed.
Evans appeared. Although it was past 2 p.m., Evans was still in his bathrobe. He shuffles a bit, but he stands tall, tanned, his hair long, his glasses tinted. Considering that he suffered a triple stroke a few years ago, he looks terrific.
We sat and talked. And talked. And talked. What was supposed to be 20 minutes turned into two hours. We discussed some of his current projects -- Evans still has a film deal at Paramount with "more projects than ever." He's also considering several reality series -- either as subject or judge.
There's even the possibility of a one-man show, "An Evening With Robert Evans," if you will, where between clips, he would tell anecdotes about his life and the famous lives he's known (not unlike the programs Cary Grant or Gregory Peck put together in their last years ). Finally, Evans is completing his second volume of autobiography, "The Fat Lady Sang," which begins with the stroke that doctors felt he would never survive.
What surprised me was that Evans' rap was unexpectedly deep, philosophical, even spiritual. Yes, famous names came up (Sumner Redstone, Jack Nicholson, Cagney to name a few) and famous anecdotes told, including one about dropping acid with Grant. Yes, there were allusions to Evans' many sexual conquests -- a word rhyming with wussy was mentioned, the implication being that there was still no lack thereof. But those were just passing references.
Strangely enough, what Evans wanted to talk about -- what lured me to enter his bedroom and get up on his bed with him to watch a video -- was, I kid you not, a film he had made about Pope John Paul II.
Let me explain: The 1980s were for Evans not unlike the 18-minute gap on Nixon/Rosemary Woods' tape -- a period for which we can only imagine the worst, and that the principals wish were forgotten.
Somewhere in between the scandals, and as Evans own life careened out of control (mountains of cocaine were involved), as he lost most of what was dear to him, Evans saw a story about the pope going to meet Ali Agca Mehmet, the man who had attempted to assassinate him, to forgive him. Evans spent $2 million of his own money making a documentary about the pope -- even managed to get Donna Summer to sing with a choir on the soundtrack.
Evans had a certain insight into the holy father. "Who is the pope?" Evans asked me. "Do you know what he did before he became a priest? Before the war?"
"Karol Woytila was," Evans said with a certain satisfaction, "an actor!"
Evans convinced the Vatican to allow him to use the footage of the pope meeting with Mehmet. The resulting ecumenical film, "The Planet Is Alive," was made, Evans said, "as a present for the pope."
The film has not been shown in this country. Although he's had offers from American networks, Evans insists the documentary be aired commercial free.
In Russia, the documentary was first shown in its entirety on Christmas Day 1991 -- and has been aired every Christmas since. Evans believes the documentary has contributed to the massive explosion of religious expression of all faiths, including Judaism, in the former Soviet Union.
Although Evans' parents were Jewish -- they only attended services on the High Holy Days -- Evans rarely went, never received religious instruction and never was bar mitzvahed. In fact, as a child actor, he was much criticized for playing a Nazi in a radio play. In later years, the closest he came to observance was hosting a Passover seder at his home, with Kirk Douglas officiating, to woo Roman Polanski to direct "Chinatown."
In fact, Evans is quick to offer that he blames religion for pitting people against each other, rather than bringing them together. Part of what moved him so about the pope's act was that it showed the healing power of forgiveness. A power that Evans did not know he would have to call upon.
However, Evans feels that making that film is the reason that he is alive today. Why, despite the best doctors' diagnosis to the contrary, he survived his three strokes. He believes in God -- not religion.
Evans screened the 12-minute trailer for the film. Evans said that of all the films he has made, it is the one of which he is most proud.
It was incredibly compelling to see the pope walking down the prison corridor to his assassin's cell and incredibly powerful to see the pope conferring with Mehmet. I was moved.
Evans, the master seducer, had won me over. At that point, I was ready to move in and never leave Woodland. All I wanted was to hear more.
Later, I tried to figure out what had happened. For some reason, what came to mind was Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Remember the opening scene -- Dracula appears in a cloak, exuding old world charm, and his voice, his home, all contrive to cast a spell. It was like that. I was hypnotized.
Perhaps, like Dracula, Evans offered in his anecdotes, in his home, the promise of a world where time stopped, where the dead lived on, where past transgressions were forgiven, where God exists to heal, where sex (or the life force) is eternal, where even the living need not die, where, like Evans, one could live beyond death itself and live to write about it.
Yes, I wanted to move in. Or at least come back next week to pitch some projects.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.