Robert Evans, 1930–2019
The producer who lived a Hollywood fairy tale
Tanned, toned, and fueled by mountains of cocaine, Robert Evans was the archetypal Hollywood producer. It’s show business lore that when Evans’ housekeeper brought him his breakfast each morning—black coffee and cheesecake—it would include a note with the name of the woman sharing his bed, just in case he’d forgotten it. But for all his high living, what Evans cared about most was spinning cinematic gold. After taking over production at faltering Paramount Pictures in 1966, Evans rolled the dice on up-and-coming talent and risky scripts, backing films such as Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Godfather that were critical as well as commercial successes. “We went for original,” Evans said. “We fell on our asses on some of them, but we also touched magic.”
Born in New York City to a homemaker mother and dentist father, Evans spent his teens “chasing (and catching) Broadway showgirls” and acting in radio shows, said The Washington Post. At age 20, he became a partner in Evan-Picone, a women’s clothing line co-founded by his brother, and was on a sales trip in Los Angeles when he was spotted lounging beside a Beverly Hills pool by Norma Shearer, the widow of legendary Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Irving Thalberg. Shearer thought him a dead ringer for her late husband and insisted he play Thalberg in the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). After an unremarkable acting career, “Evans went back to fashion and made a fortune when Revlon bought Evan-Picone,” said The Guardian (U.K.). Intent on becoming a producer, he began buying the rights to hot novels, and his vision soon caught the attention of execs at Gulf & Western, the conglomerate that had recently bought debt-laden Paramount.
Hollywood was shocked by the 36-year-old novice’s hiring, said the Los Angeles Times, but Evans silenced the doubters by taking Paramount “from last place to No. 1 among the major studios.” His personal excesses eventually proved his downfall: Evans became a industry pariah after an ex-girlfriend—a cocaine trafficker—was charged in the 1983 murder of Roy Radin, an investor in Evans’ 1984 flop The Cotton Club. Still, Evans made a brief comeback as a producer in the 1990s and in 2002 narrated an acclaimed documentary about his exploits, The Kid Stays in the Picture. His final Twitter post was a kiss-off to his critics: “I bet your ass I’ve done more in the last month than you in your entire life.” ■