In 1999, the Library of Congress of the United States of America selected 75 films of the 20th Century to be vaulted for preservation in perpetuity. In June of that year, a congressional member, in front of a filled Academy Theatre, bestowed an honor to Robert Evans that stands alone. He is the only living producer who has the distinction of having two of his films among the selected 75 films: Chinatown, as its producer, and The Godfather as its creator.
His career has made motion picture history, spanning every facet of the entertainment industry. While swimming at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Evans was discovered by film legend Norma Shearer. She insisted that Evans was the only person she would accept to play the role of her late husband Irving Thalberg opposite Jimmy Cagney in Man of a Thousand Faces.
Three months later and three thousand miles away, Darryl Zanuck eyed Evans dancing the tango at the El Morocco nightclub in New York. “I don’t know who he is, but I want to meet him… He is Romero.”
Zanuck was referring to Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter who steals Ava Gardner away from Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn and Mel Ferrer in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Time Magazine critiqued his performance calling him, “the most exciting young man since Valentino.”
Evans, the only actor ever under personal contract to Zanuck, starred in several of his films. Following The Sun Also Rises was The Hell Bent Kid and The Best of Everything just to name a few.
Quoting Evans, “I considered myself, at best, a half-assed actor. Knowing I’d never be Paul Newman didn’t bother me. What I really wanted was to be the next Darryl Zanuck.”
Going from pretty boy actor to producer was no easy feat. Instinct dictated his only shot was to own a piece of material no other person could get. His philosophy was that the property is always the star and his saying “If it ain’t on this page, it ain’t going to be on the screen,” proved to be his main key to success. His first step was to buy an unknown author’s novel, The Detective, which became one of the year’s bestsellers. It proved to be the key to getting his foot in the door. Within four months, Evans had purchased, through various connections, a half-a-dozen properties before they hit the market. It precipitated Peter Bart of The New York Times to headline Evans in The Times’ Sunday Arts and Leisure section, calling him “the most aggressive young producer in Hollywood.” Bart Continued, “if ever there was a case of art imitating life, it is Robert Evans, who a decade ago was the only actor to ever portray Thalberg in film. He could very well be on his way to becoming him in life.”
While Evans was developing The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, Charles Bluhdorn, Chairman of Gulf & Western, acquired Paramount Pictures. With Paramount close to bankruptcy, Bluhdorn sought out Evans and offered him the challenge of running Paramount Pictures.
As production chief, Evans had singular instinct of what the public was hungry to see. He brought Paramount from ninth place to first place within 4 years. From Love Story to Rosemary’s Baby to The Godfather, Evans created iconic films that shaped a generation. A few of those landmark hits include: Alfie, Barbarella, Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Romeo & Juliet, Medium Cool, The Italian Job, True Grit, The Out-of-Towners, Harold and Maude, Lady Sings the Blues, Play It Again Sam, Don’t Look Now, Serpico, Paper Moon, The Conversation, The Longest Yard, Downhill Racer, Once Upon A Time In The West, Goodbye Columbus, The Conformist, Save The Tiger, The Great Gatsby and many others.
The diverse spectrum of the close to 300 films produced under his auspices took the dormant mountain from last place in Hollywood to first and in 1975, the studio captured 43 Academy Award nominations, a record unbroken to this day. By the end of Evans’ decade long tenure, Paramount had risen to become the number one source of revenue for Gulf & Western, contributing over 56% of its bottom line profits.
Evans’ entrepreneurial flair also enabled him to use his personal relationship with Leon Shimkus to steam Simon & Shuster away from Universal Pictures. In a whirlwind negotiation, he purchased the publishing jewel from Paramount for a paltry $11 million. Eventually, Viacom sold 75% of the company for $4 billion and still retained the rights to trade publications including fiction and non-fiction.
In a desire to put his own signature on his films, Evans set up an exclusive production partnership with Paramount Pictures, which is still in effect today. His first independent production, Chinatown, was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won the Golden Globe award for best picture of the year. In addition, it won more international best picture awards than any picture made in Hollywood that year. His winning streak continued with such hits as Marathon Man, Black Sunday, Urban Cowboy, Popeye, The Cotton Club, The Saint, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, The Kid Stays In The Picture and many others.
The easiest way to understand the arc of Robert Evans’ career is that in 1958 as an actor, he was voted the Most Popular Newcomer of the Year, receiving his award on the nationally televised Steve Allen Show. Forty-four years later, in May of 2002, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame outside of the Chinese Theatre. His star is adjacent to his closest friend, Jack Nicholson.
Robert Evans’ flamboyant, controversial, and daring exploits read like fiction. Continually making headlines in every major publication and journalistic television show, Evans’ mystique looms larger than ever.
Gracing the cover of The Los Angeles Times, the headlines read, “The Last Original – Robert Evans has lived nine lives, not all of them charmed. But today, he is a hero to the junior moguls of the new Hollywood who idolize him.”
Best illustrating his rebirth in success was The Wall Street Journal’s front-page, six-column article in a story about his phoenix-like career that appeared in October of 2002.
The recipient of worldwide humanitarian and industry awards, Evans is the only one in the industry to ever receive the Gold Key to the City of New York – an honor that is reserved strictly for the heads of state and in May of 2008, Evans was honored by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an “Academy Salute”, a rare occurrence, in front of a packed house of more than 1100 people.
He chooses to rarely appear on entertainment television shows, and rightly so, but he does enjoy talking on the elitist of hard news shows: From Chris Wallace to Hardball with Chris Matthews to Anderson Cooper to Power Lunch. Don Dahler, who interviewed Evans for Nightline’s Close-Up said, “His life is so extraordinary we, for the first time, have devoted two full segments that illustrate how fact can be stranger than fiction.”
In February of 2003, the Producers Guild of America unanimously voted Robert Evans to be the recipient of the David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award. Evans looked upon Selznick as the greatest producer in history of Hollywood. He was introduced by Dustin Hoffman, whose speech mesmerized the audience to the extent that it was reprinted in many periodicals throughout the world. Upon receiving the award Evans quipped, “I stand alone in the industry of Hollywood as being the only guy who started out as head of a studio and ended up in an animated cartoon!” He was referring to his critically acclaimed series “Kid Notorious”, which he produced and starred in for Comedy Central.
Evan’s 1994 autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, was translated into eight languages and became an international bestseller. The audio version of the book became a phenomenon and a cult classic. Graydon Carter, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, was so enthralled with the flamboyant journey of his autobiography that he convinced Evans to allow him to produce a film version. Carter’s instincts, as usual, proved to be on the money. The Kid Stays in the Picture was internationally awarded, screening at prestigious festivals such as Sundance and Cannes. It opened on July 26, 2002 to the best reviews of any film that year and broke box office records in many cities throughout the world.
At present, he has several films in development at Paramount, which has been his home for forty years, the longest tenure of any active producer at a single studio in the history of Hollywood. He is also penning the sequel to The Kid, The Fat Lady Sang, slated for publication in 2012.
More than 58 thousand books are published each year. Less than one-tenth of one percent are chosen by the libraries of America to be enshrined perpetuity. They will never be publicly sold, thus allowing future generations the opportunity of reading its text. In March of 2004, a decade after its release, The Kid Stays In The Picture, joined this most elite club. In the same year, an even greater accolade was paid to The Kid when Publisher’s Weekly selected it as the greatest Hollywood memoir ever written.
In a rare half-hour interview with a Hollywood personality, Nightline’s Ted Koppel simply stated, “More often than not, Evans far out-shadows the stars in his films. Even if you’re not privy to anything connected with Hollywood, chances are you have heard of Robert Evans.”
Surprisingly Evans considers his finest hour as being appointed a full professor and member of the faculty at Brown University, a position he held for four years. He made Ivy League history being the first full professor without credentials of a Ph.D, M.A. degree nor, for that matter, a high school diploma.