Robert Evans

GQ, Apr 2002

Robert Evans is Hollywood royalty. The masterly movie mogul behind The Godfather, and Chinatown has had such a blockbusting, rollercoaster life, they just had to make a movie of it.

Robert-Evans

“Breathe deeply, try to relax.”

I’m lying on the floor, face down in the carpet, listening to some guy kneeling beside me called Lou. I just met him. He said he’s a doctor and he served in Vietnam and if I had any aches or pains he’d fix them right up, so right now, he’s working my back like a lump of dough. Which is all very nice, but not quite what I had in mind.

I came out here to interview a Hollywood legend. When I arrived, barely five minutes ago, clutching my tape recorder, there was no one to be seen. I wandered through the front door calling “hello? Anybody in?” and Alan appeared, an English butler, and whisked me through the property, pointing out this and that. It’s quite a pad – a French Regency style three bedroom nestled in the heart of Beverly Hills, it is at once elegant, idyllic and blooming with roses. We passed through the airy lounge with its Versailles motifs, round the azure egg-shaped pool cooled by a canopy of 160ft eucalyptus trees, and finally into the projection room, next to the tennis court, where Greta Garbo once lived. Where I’m now prone on the floor, not six feet from Jack Nicholson’s favourite seat, apparently. Then in walks Lou, a kindly, white haired man, and like a fool I blurt something about my back and “sleeping funny”. Before you could say ‘medical insurance’, the Nam vet had me pinned on the floor. Breathing deeply. Trying to relax.

“Now what you have to realise,” says Lou, kneading me vigorously in the lumbar region, “is he’s the last of the number one lotharios.” The man of the house Lou’s talking about is still nowhere to be seen, although I can hear him shuffling around the room, humming a deep and droning warble. The lothario sounds like a distant hedgetrimmer. “Seriously, I cannot tell you how many ladies have come through this house, beautiful ladies, many of them I treated myself. I’m not talking ten, or twenty, or even forty or fifty, I’m talking…”

CRUNCH! Lou twists my spine like a roll of bubblewrap.

“… a lot of women. But after the stroke, that dissapated somewhat. Other side.”

I spy a pair of white loafers and silk silver pajamas slide into view. It’s the Hollywood legend, Robert Evans, or Master Evans, as Alan calls him . He’s mumbling “magic hands, magic hands, that Lou’s got magic hands” in a rolling cedar baritone. Apparently Lou helped Evans onto his feet after a series of near-fatal strokes, or ‘brain attacks’, in 1997, which totally paralysed his right side. He had to relearn how to walk – “heel, toe, heel, toe” – and he still has difficulty doing up his buttons. The first jolt sent him to the floor roughly where I’m now lying. He was proposing a toast to Wes Craven, at the time, a story he tells in his forthcoming book, The Fat Lady Sang: “King of Scream? He was scared shitless. I slurred into his ear, I said ‘I told you Wes, it ain’t never dull around here!’ And passed out.”

He looks good for a stroke casualty. His tan’s a little mottled, his grey hair slicked back. He looks defiant,  standing in front of a signed print of Helmut Newton’s Fat Hands With Money. “Tell him about the drugs, Lou, the fucking thinners and the coagulants and…”

“Yes, the drugs,” says Lou, obediently. “You see, it’s not just because he was paralysed, it’s the pills they put you on. They all – put your knee there, that’s fine – have so many…” CRUNCH! “Side effects.”

Electricity zaps through my vertebrae to my brain like a scene from Jacob’s Ladder. Flipped onto my back and groaning with both pain and pleasure, I look helplessly up at a grinning Evans, a sliver of drool trickling from the side of his mouth.

“Yeah, fucking side effects,” he spits. “I got three S’s in my life – sun, sports and sex. Now, the sun I can’t take anymore. I get so dizzy you can’t believe. Sports? I can hardly play tennis. One leg doesn’t move as fast as the other. And sexually, I don’t think any girl leaves here exhausted by the action. I was a stud back then, now I’m a spud. I just can’t move that well, I can’t do the things I like to do. Sexuality’s not stationary you know.

“And by the way, with the pills I’m taking, a wild bull couldn’t get it up. Everything I take gives you a great soft-on, your libido is in El Segundo.”

“And the ejaculation can be painful,” adds Lou.

“Fucking right! My three favourite S’s and they all turned into shit!”

Evans picks up a copy of his memoir, The Kid Stays In The Picture. “But hey, I’m here ain’t I?” He taps the cover emphatically. “I’m still in the fucking picture!”

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Robert Evans is Hollywood royalty. A legendary producer between the late 60s and the mid 80s, Evans was instrumental in shaping the new cinema, just as the old studio system was breaking down. We have Evans to thank for The Odd Couple, Love Story, Godfather I and II, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Harold and Maude, Marathon Man, Black Sunday, Popeye, Urban Cowboy, Cotton Club… and about 240 others. There were no rules back then – Hollywood was yet to reconfigure into the corporate power structure we know today – and Evans, more than anyone, proved the wisdom of giving a wild gambler free rein.

He was also the leading lothario of his day bedding hundreds, perhaps thousands of women over the years – among the endless models and Playmates, an occasional Princess and at least one Miss America, his celebrity highlights include Grace Kelly, Joan Collins, Ali MacGraw, Cheryl Tiegs and Raquel Welch. He played tennis with Connors and Kissinger and Hoffman. He celebrated Passover for Polanski with Kirk Douglas as the rabbi. His consigliere was the Capone-connected Sidney Korshak and he’s best pals with Jack Nicholson. In fact Evans’ life has such a phenomenal cast that he seems to have a story – and he loves telling stories – about virtually every major figure who so much as flirted with Hollywood over the last 50 years.

True, the gambler survived some terrific losses – he fell as far as he flew; like Icarus, he got his wings singed – but they only add to the rollercoaster epic that his life has become. And after five divorces, a cocaine bust, bankruptcy and three crippling strokes, Evans is still going strong here in Beverly Hills. In fact, at 71, he’s gearing up for his latest revival – the film of The Kid Stays In The Picture which comes out this month.

The 1995 book raised the bar for unsparing autobiography, and became an immediate cult hit, particularly the audio version which Evans himself narrated in the hardboiled style of a twisted Philip Marlowe (for Evans, money will always be ‘green’ and Polanski always ‘the Polack’). The film too has been warmly received, not least by the movie industry who treasure him as the last of a dying breed. At Sundance, Evans received a 12 minute ovation. Produced by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, The Kid tells Evans’ remarkable story with old footage, stills from Evans’ immense archive and his own distinctive voiceover. It’s occasionally kitsch and hammed-up in style, but always gripping. This is, after all, the man’s life you’re watching, not a piece of fiction. But equally it’s not objective, the only voice you hear is Evans, which is why Carter describes the project as “performance art”.

“It’s not a fucking documentary, I’ll tell you that!” says Evans. “Come here, I want to read you something.” He walks me to his bedroom, the lothario’s lair for 30 years. Facing his bed is a poster-size Helmut Newton of two near-naked women romping on the grass. “Helmut shot it outside,” he says with a sly grin. “And those women are my secretaries!” He plucks a piece of paper from one of many piles and sits me down. “Listen. The voiceover they got for the movie is too glossy, it’s not right. So I made this one. You ready?” He puts on his reading glasses.

“What you’re about to see ain’t no fucking documentary. It’s one bumpy ride. Sex? Yeah. Drugs? You bet. Scandals? You name ‘em I’ve had ‘em. Is it all true? You bet your ass it is. You think it’s easy? It ain’t! I’ve been shot down, bloodied, trampled, accused, disgraced, threatened, maligned, betrayed. Tough? Sure. But I ain’t complaining. Nothing comes easy. I’ll tell you this pal.” He fixes me in the eye. “It’s a lot easier to watch it than to live it.”

When I ask him how it feels to watch his own life up on the big screen, he smiles. “They asked me that at Sundance, and you know what I said? I said ‘the first time I took LSD, I was with Cary Grant. It was 1958, I put a pill on my tongue and I hallucinated for the first time. This is the second.’” His eyes light up. “How about that!”

Evans has a way of infusing everything with drama. He cannot resist mythologising his own life and tweaking reality even as it happens, so much so that he may well inhabit a mirage of his own making. But who cares if the truth has been embellished a touch, so long as it makes for a better story? After all, Evans is a movie producer, it’s his business to create blockbusters from first drafts. Now that that he has performed the same trick on his own life story, there are those killjoys who accuse him of mythomania and narcissicism. But this is hardly the point. Mythmaking is core to Evans’ charm and The Kid is perhaps his boldest achievement. His life has always had a mythic quality, and no one knows this better than Evans himself.

For example, the film leaves no doubt about Evans’ legendary abilities with women, a gift he appears to have been born with. “You got to realise, I was always this way,” he says. “I didn’t get to 25 and suddenly become a different person.” He calls Alan. “Where’s that Susskind show, no… yeah.” Within a minute Alan scurries in with a tape. “Right,” says Evans, grinning. “Look at this. Nicholson loves this tape.”

It’s an 80s chat-show, hosted by Daniel Susskind, and he’s interviewing a group of ex-showgirls, who worked at the Copacabana and the Latin Quarter nightclubs in New York in the 1940s. The celebrity models of their day, the girls swap stories about their heyday, how guys would give them mink coats and buy them cars just to win them over. And when Evans’ name comes up, it turns out that four of the five girls had dated him. He used to fuck them between shows. Evans was such a popular showgirl lay that three girls clubbed together to keep an apartment just for him. He was only 17. “You know what they called me?” he giggles. “The between-shows-fuck-of-the-year!”

“Oh I remember Bobby Evans,” says one of the girls, “he had such lovely manners.” The other girls agree heartily about how he was ‘so sweet’ and so on.

“Has anyone here not dated Bob Evans?” asks Susskind.

“That guy didn’t like me,” says Evans pointing to the host. “He wanted the girls to say something bad about me, but… Listen.”

“I was actually engaged to Bobby,” says another girl, “he used to give me such lovely gifts.”

Evans laughs out loud. “I’ve never been engaged in my life! Only married and divorced, five times each. And I never gave her anything! I was a kid, I didn’t have $20!”

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It’s fitting then, that the born ladies man and gambler made his first fortune, quite literally in women’s pants. The son of a New York dentist Evans and his brother Charlie became partners in the Evans-Picone clothing line, where they promptly took a huge risk. Though no one thought it would catch on, the brothers Evans bet on women wearing trousers and by his early 20s Robert was a millionaire.

He became an actor at 24, simply because he looked the part. (Evans’ image would precede him throughout his life, playing a major part in both his rise and his downfall – was there ever a more Hollywood fable?) He was discovered by the pool at the Beverly Hills hotel and offered a lead role opposite James Cagney, as MGM’s boy-wonder production head, Irving Thalberg in A Man Of A Thousand Faces. The offer came from none other than Thalberg’s widow, Norma Shearer who had been watching him on the phone – a typical Evans pose – and was smitten by what she saw as the living spirit of her late husband. So Evans turned to acting and ‘the ink’, as he calls his press clippings began – “NY Businessman dives in pool and comes out movie star!”

The role was a harbinger of destiny. Not only would Evans, like Thalberg, become a boy-wonder production head in years to come, but in 1980, he would even be up for the Irving Thalberg award. By that time, however, his image had been tarnished. He was busted for cocaine possession in 1979, although he pleads innocence to this day: “I was 3,000 miles away!” These uncanny conjunctions of fame and infamy, of awards and scandal, of good fortune and bad, recur time and again in Evans’ life. He offers me this advice: “suck it up and enjoy the good things, kid, because the bad breaks are going to happen.”

He won his second role because he looked the part too. This time producer Darryl Zanuck saw him dancing at a latin club – picking up women again – and thought him perfect to play bullfighter Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises, an adaptation of the Hemingway novel. The rest of the production, Ava Gardner among them, thought otherwise and signed a petition saying that the movie would be a disaster unless Evans was removed from the lead. Even Hemingway signed. So Zanuck arrived on set one day, and told them all – “the kid stays in the picture, and anybody who doesn’t like it can quit!” Evans saw his calling at once. “I wanted to be Darryl Zanuck, not some half-assed actor shitting in his pants, desperate for a nod of approval.”

When his break came, yet again his image beat all the odds. Seduced by Evans’ press, Charlie Bluhdorn, the CEO of Paramount’s parent company, Gulf & Western, thrust him into the top job at Paramount as not only the youngest ever head of production at a major studio – he was 36 – but the first ever actor. It was a ridiculous hire on the face of it. Never had one so grossly underqualified sat in such a lofty and rickety perch, and never has a studio head had to endure such cynical jeers from his peers. The whole town was laughing at him. The New York Times called it “Bluhdorn’s Folly”, Hollywood Close-Up called it “Bluhdorn’s Blow Job”. “No one thought I’d last three months,” says Evans, “but fuck ‘em, I’m betting on myself. And I won.” When the lothario turned up, Paramount was 9th on the studio list and composed only five percent of Gulf & Western stock. When he left, in 1975, it composed 75%, and Paramount was number one.

An instinctive producer, who went with his gut, there were some wild bets among the hits. As Brett Morgen, one of the directors of The Kid, says, “he was a blind gambler. Who else would have greenlit Saul Bass to direct a film – ‘Phase IV’ – in which there are two actors and 3,000 ants?” The days when such things were possible are sadly gone. “Ah, the movie business today, the suits have taken over,” says Evans. “The talent is buyable and it’s all about money, believe me. These guys would buy from Hitler if he was still alive.”

There are two fictional movie producers to whom many real producers compare, even unwittingly. The frantic Sammy Glick, from Budd Schulberg’s Run Sammy Run, who is forever chasing some elusive fame or fortune, and the more stylish Monroe Stahr, from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, whose being somehow above the scramble seems to hold the operation together. Evans is a bit of both. His persuading Henry Kissinger to come to the Godfather Premiere was pure Glick. But when Paramount was on the verge of closing, and the board was ready to rubber stamp its demise, Evans pulled a move that smacked more of Stahr. With a showman’s elan, he enlisted Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate and Catch-22) to direct him in a short presentation to the board. It features Evans making a heartfelt case for the movies that Paramount would make were it allowed to survive, and how Love Story would bring romance back to cinema. It saved the studio.

“They still show every Paramount executive that video,” says Evans, full of pride. “It shows that if you believe in a project, you got to be passionate about it. That was a big gamble I took. I signed off $300,000 of my own money there, but I bet on myself, and I won.”

To the public, however, Evans’ legend lay less in his producing style as his lifestyle. The ultimate bachelor, and a regular on the ‘most eligible’ lists, Evans did more for the glamorous image of Hollywood than any of his peers. His press clippings teem with comparisons to Jay Gatsby. He had such a dizzying stream of women on his arm, it was said that no sooner had you learned the blonde’s name than an equally scorching brunette would take her place. And rumours abounded about the prolific casanova – in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind says that his maid would place the name of last night’s girl under his breakfast dish in the mornings, in case he forgot.

“That book’s full of fucking shit,” says Evans. “Listen, more people in the 70s and 80s came out to Hollywood to be me, than went to Washington to be Kennedy. But all these young guys, they don’t know the hours I put in, the shit I had to take, the duplicity, the deceit. I worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day. Pussy was always on the side.”

It wasn’t a decadent time?

“Not at all, I’ve seen ten times more decadence in London than I’ve seen here. First of all, everyone was on drugs, not just actors. And people work too hard here. I haven’t had a vacation in 11 years, you call that decadence? Nah.

“Am I a player? Yeah. Do I like pussy? Yeah. Do I go to parties? Never! Did I use drugs in front of people? Never! Did I use them with girls? Yeah, I did. It was the greatest leg opener I knew.”

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Evans describes the Godfather premiere as “the best night of my life”, which for Evans means bittersweet even so. Despite the intoxicating triumph of Kissinger’s presence, Ali MacGraw on his arm and a clutch of Oscars, he was stung when Coppolla omitted to thank him when receiving his award. Evans and Coppolla would clash repeatedly in Godfather II and The Cotton Club, and The Kid is typically forthright in his memoirs. He has many Godfather stories – like Pacino (or “the midget”) needing to borrow cab fare to get to the premiere and Brando begging for a screen test –but his favourite is how Coppolla turned in a structural shambles of a film, and it took Evans many late nights to fix it. “That fat fuck shot a great film,” he says, “but it ain’t on the screen… It cuts together like a Chinese jigsaw!”

His quintessential memory of the night, however, is captured in a picture of him and Ali MacGraw, then Mrs Evans, dancing in an embrace. He leads me into a corridor, whose walls are filled with pictures of his past, and points it out. “Look at that,” he says. “I had no fucking idea, but she was in love with Steve McQueen. Crushing? It only put me in a depression for three years!”

Depression was one of many setbacks that afflicted Evans in his years of exile. Besides the coke bust, he was caught up in the so-called “Cotton Club murder” of Roy Radin in 1983, and though fully exonerated – he wasn’t even charged – he had a toxic reputation. Even Paramount turned its back on him – at the studio’s 75th anniversary, Evans was not invited to be in the company photo. “That was one of the saddest days of my life,” he sighs. Driven to bankruptcy and near suicide, he committed himself to a mental ward only to eventually escape, literally run for freedom.

His friends, however, remained steadfast though his darkness. In the fabled snakepit of Hollywood, Evans has a reputation for warmth and loyalty – Robert Towne, who wrote Chinatown, once described him as “the standard for every kind of human generosity, one I have yet to see matched in this town”. He has long been great pals with Warren Beatty, who helped him to walk after his stroke, Dustin Hoffman who bought him an umpire’s chair and based his turn as a producer in Wag The Dog on Evans, and most of all, Jack Nicholson who got Evans his house back. He’d been forced to sell up when The Cotton Club drained him – “that’s one big fucking gamble that didn’t come off” – and on his return to the game, he wanted to buy his home back again. But the new owner wouldn’t sell. In the end, it was Nicholson who begged the guy to relent. There’s a framed card on his TV now which says, “Bobbi, back home beautiful, Jack”.

His ex-wives, too, have been spectacularly amicable by Hollywood standards. “Five divorces and I haven’t paid a cent in alimony,” he says proudly. “And you know why? Because I love women. I give them a high opinion of themselves, which is very important.” Certainly he split with Phyllis George (number three), a former Miss America, on such good terms – after a paltry six months – that she left him with the antique rosewood piano in his lounge, which is worth over $1m. It’s featured in a book called Only The Best, A Celebration Of Gift Giving In America (by Stuart Jacobson) and holds the distinction of being the only ‘divorce present’.

As a fan of both women and presents, I ask Evans for some tips on seduction. Which might be like asking Al Green how to sing – you’ve either got it or you haven’t – but you never know what you might learn from a master. Evans just smiles. “Yes, seduction.” And then he hobbles off to his projection room, humming. “Let me tell you about Nikki and the magic of film.” It’s story time with Evans again. Alan appears and offers a drink. Evans gets a whisky.

“Right. Now I was in love with this girl who was one third my age – she was 22 and I was 66 and she was in love with me. But she couldn’t tell her parents, because her father would go crazy. Big fucking guy, six foot five. He was the chief warden of the Vacaville fucking prison, where they keep Manson! She was worried for me not her.” Nikki is a beautiful mixed race girl, a law student at UCLA and her doting, hardcase father is 15 years Evans’ junior. So his coup, a high-stakes roll of the dice, was to make a film about her using all the photos he could gather, the dissolve feature and a sentimental soundtrack. Evans then held a luncheon for 25 of Nikki’s extended family to celebrate her graduation, and played the film to them all, reducing the family to tears. “And you know what, his father said she was lucky to have a guy like me who loved her so much. He wanted to hang out, come up to the house, play tennis!” His eyes sparkle behind his specs. “That’s the magic of film.”

Nikki and Evans would be wed today were it not for his stroke. They were together until the day before. But it wasn’t Nikki who fled the critical lothario, she remained devoted. Evans dumped her and married the 38 year old Catherine Oxenberg, better known as Dynasty’s Amanda Carrington, for all of 12 days.

“Fucking psychopharmacologists!” he growls. “I was out of my mind on the drugs! They make you irrational. I was watching her play tennis here one day, and I saw her strong legs, how healthy she was, and I said to Lou, ‘I’m going to make her my wife.’”

Lou, sitting beside Evans, shakes his head sadly. “It could have killed him,” he says. “His brain was all swelled up, and to get married at a time like that, just weeks after his stroke… Well. It could have easily have triggered another attack.”

“I said, ‘this will be your first marriage, and my fifth,’” continues Evans. “’Yeah it sounds like it won’t work, but that’s exactly why it will! Marry me, heal me, save me.’ I was crazy.” She was in a four year relationship at the time, but Evans’ powers of persuasion were undimmed and they were married within days. He picks up a copy of The Fat Lady Sang, a work in progress about his stroke, and reads the chapter about their honeymoon. It’s tragic tale of how he was so ill, he could barely walk, let alone function on his wedding night. How a little blue pill rescued him the first time, but on the second night, after sex, Catherine rolled away from him and quietly wept.

As Evans returns to his bedroom, he cuts a lonely shuffling figure circling his pool – heel toe, heel toe. Instead of a wife, he has five staff at the house to look after him – a butler, a secretary, two assistants and two housekeepers – though his house alone, gives him strength. After all, Woodland is the only constant relationship he’s had since he bought the place for $290,000 in the mid 60s (it was valued at roughly $6m a few years back). He continues to work, as is his obsession, the phones don’t stop chez Evans, stroke or no. As Tennessee Williams said, “you endure by enduring”. He has 3 movies on the go at present – Power (about his consigliere, Sidney Korshak), A Portrait of Dorian Gray and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, starring Kate Hudson and Matthew McConnaughey. But it is his own myth that occupies most of his time these days. Visitors to Woodland are treated to readings from his memoirs. A meticulous archivist of his own press and pictures, Evans seems to have always known that his greatest creation has been himself.

Tomorrow he’ll be in Cannes to show The Kid at the festival, and a couple of days later he will be honoured by having his handprints immortalised in cement on Hollywood Boulevard – right next to his pal Jack Nicholson. Though the Kid is a classic three act saga of rise, fall and resurrection, it stops years before Evans’ stroke and so misses act four. And this year, act five is already well underway – his second resurrection is only beginning. Would he consider capping his revival with marriage number six?

“Well at the Vanity Fair party, Selma Blair said she wanted to marry me. She hasn’t called yet,” he says, “but then neither have I.” There’s a glint in his eye. “Not yet!”