The Kid Bows Out: Movie Producer Robert Evans Dies At 89

Oct 29, 2019
Originally published on October 29, 2019 9:39 am

Robert Evans – the once vice president of production at Paramount who was responsible for critically acclaimed films such as The Godfather parts 1 and 2, Chinatown, and Serpico – died Saturday at the age of 89.

While Evans was known for his string of '70s cinema hits, he was also convicted of cocaine possession in 1980. He detailed his own rise and fall in the industry in his 1994 memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture.

Evans was born Robert J. Shapera in New York City in 1930. Growing up, he had dreams of being an actor, but ended up working with his brother's successful fashion company until his mid-20s. Evans got his big break when the actress Norma Shearer spotted him by a pool and thought he'd be perfect to play her deceased husband Irving Thalberg in the movie she was working on, Man of a Thousand Faces.

That started a short-lived career as an actor, but led to a much longer career as a producer. By 1966, Evans was the head of production at Paramount — all before ever releasing a single movie.

During Evans' tenure as Paramount's head of production between 1966 and 1974, the studio released era-defining movies like Rosemary's Baby, Harold and Maude and The Godfather.

Evans, who was Jewish, told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1994 that there hadn't been a successful mafia movie until The Godfather, because until then, everyone who wrote and directed them was Jewish.

Evans with his then wife, actress Ali MacGraw, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the 1972 New York premiere of The Godfather.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

"That's why we gave Francis Coppola his assignment to do it. And by record, he had only made three unsuccessful films before that ... And when I hired Francis to do it, everyone thought I'd lose my job over it."

By the end of 1974, Evans stepped down from head of Paramount and became an independent producer at the studio (where he had an office until this past summer).

It was in this period that Evans became addicted to cocaine, and was eventually convicted for possession.

Then came the production of The Cotton Club, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Evans struggled to find funding, and was introduced to producer Roy Radin, who invested in the film. In 1983, a year before the film came out, Radin was murdered. Four people were eventually convicted of the murder, including Karen Greenberger, who was Evans' girlfriend at the time. Evans was never charged with a crime, but his reputation took a major hit.

He continued to work here and there, with his last movie being the 2003 rom-com How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

Robert Evans was married seven times throughout his life, including to Ali MacGraw — with whom he had a son, Josh Evans, who survives him.

This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Even for Hollywood, Robert Evans was over the top. The flamboyant movie producer bridged the golden age of Hollywood with the rebellious spirit of the '60s and '70s. Evans died this weekend at the age of 89 with dozens of movies behind him, some probably among your favorites. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this appreciation, which does include some strong language.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: He created mythologies, most especially about himself. Here's Robert Evans boasting about his heyday in a 2002 documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE")

ROBERT EVANS: I was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, with no plans to slow down. With six pictures in development and two in production, I felt invincible.

ULABY: Robert Evans was already a wealthy businessman when his looks landed him a role in a movie. Soon he was in a 1957 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" as a bullfighter. But Hemingway hated him, as did most of the cast. Still, the mogul behind the movie supported Evans, at one point yelling...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE")

EVANS: The kid stays in the picture, and anybody who doesn't like it can quit.

ULABY: At that moment, Evans knew he did not want to be an actor; he wanted to be a producer, and for a while, he was an amazing one. From 1966 to 1974, when Evans worked at Paramount Pictures, he produced some of the era's most definitive movies - "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown," "The Godfather," "Love Story" and many more. Evans basically saved the studio by taking huge risks. He hired an obscure Polish director, Roman Polanski, for "Rosemary's Baby," about a woman pregnant with the devil's child.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROSEMARY'S BABY")

MIA FARROW: (As Rosemary Woodhouse) What have you done to its eyes?

ULABY: Star Mia Farrow was then in the throes of divorcing Frank Sinatra. In the Evans documentary, he imitated her distress.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE")

EVANS: I love him, Bob. I love him so...

ULABY: But Evans sat her down, showed her the footage and said...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE")

EVANS: Mia, you're brilliant. You're a shoo-in to win the Academy Award.

ULABY: She did not, but Robert Evans' movies racked up nominations. He made stars of Jack Nicholson and Ryan O'Neal and hired the unknown Francis Ford Coppola to make "The Godfather." When Coppola turned in a version Evans found too short, the producer says he said...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE")

EVANS: The pictures stinks, Francis. Got it? You shot a great film. Where the [expletive] is it, in your kitchen with your spaghetti? It sure ain't on the screen.

ULABY: Evans continued...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE")

EVANS: Now go back and give me a movie.

ULABY: At the time, Robert Evans was a bigger star than some of his stars. He was a flagrant womanizer who married seven times, says film critic Carrie Rickey.

CARRIE RICKEY: First of all, he was very good-looking.

ULABY: With a signature style.

RICKEY: Big tinted glasses, bolo tie.

ULABY: He wore bathrobes and turtlenecks and a decadently dark tan.

RICKEY: I mean, he just looked like he was on the griddle a little too long.

ULABY: Evans' world crumbled in the mid-1970s. He lost his wife Ali MacGraw to her co-star Steve McQueen. He tumbled into debt. And as he said in the documentary, he became acquainted with cocaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE")

EVANS: It was my first experience into the world of white.

ULABY: Evans was busted for drugs, and the seamy side of Hollywood engulfed him. When one of his business associates was murdered, Evans fell briefly under suspicion. He became a pariah. But his 1994 memoir "The Kid Stays In The Picture" became a bestseller, and his audiobook became catnip for comedic imitations. Here's Patton Oswalt in a YouTube clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATTON OSWALT: You know, back in the early '70s when I was producing "The Godfather" films, I had a whirlpool bath installed in my trailer that I would fill with apple juice...

ULABY: But something about that voice transcended parody.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE")

EVANS: Bet your house, it ain't been dull. I've either done it or gotten it. You name him, I've met him. Well, almost. I've either worked with him, fought with him, hired him, fired him, laughed with him, cried with him

ULABY: And probably told him all about the mythology of Robert Evans.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.