More tan than George Hamilton, as suave as Warren Beatty, and almost as handsome as Robert Redford, Robert Evans was the kind of character who feels like a Hollywood invention. The fact that he was a real, living, breathing person is just short of astounding.
Evans started out as an actor, finding only modest success despite his rakish good looks and expansive personality. What he had in appearance and charm he lacked in the most essential asset to an actor’s success:Talent.Recognizing this, Evans turned to production. After making a name for himself behind the camera with the Frank Sinatra crime film, The Detective, Evans elevated himself to wunderkind status by taking over Paramount Studios despite being all of 38 years old.
Paramount was in the doldrums when he got behind the big desk. It was only the 9th largest studio in Hollywood. In short order, Evans turned the beleaguered film company around. Just look at the films he shepherded to the big screen from 1968 to 1976:
Barefoot in the Park
The Odd Couple
The Italian Job
Harold and Maude
The Godfather Part II
and for chrissakes, Chinatown!
Even with all that success, Evans was still restless. He wanted to be where the action was. On the set as a hands-on producer. Over the next four years, Evans rolled out four more hits as an independent producer:
Popeye (people forget that Robert Altman’s supposed folly made a lot of money)
and Urban Cowboy
Evans’ hot streak ended suddenly with Francis Ford Coppola’s financial and critical disaster, The Cotton Club in 1984. A film that might not have been the death blow to the auteur era that Michael Camino’s Heaven’s Gate was, but it most certainly lit the corpse on fire and shoved it out into the lake on a celluloid raft.
While it looked beautiful, Coppola’s tale of a jazz musician (a miscast Richard Gere) dealing with gangsters and squiring Diane Lane, suffered from massive overruns that were compounded by a drubbing from the critics. Coppola has recut the film multiple times (most recently this year), but it still remains problematic despite a number of eye-popping sequences (chief among them, the dance number with the Hines Brothers).
Evans didn’t produce another film for six years when he reached back into his glory days to poor effect with the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes.
He followed that misfire up with two sexually explicit psychodramas, Sliver in 1993 and Jade in 1995. Of which the less said the better. Then came The Phantom starring Billy Zane and The Saint with Val Kilmer. A remake of The Out of Towners fell flat, but his final production, 2003’s How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days was a hit – albeit one that did little to burnish his legacy.
However, Evans did find a second life in Hollywood as a personality. Which stands to reason since he was fifteen in spades when it came to that trait. A natural bon vivant who often named names when telling impossibly outlandish stories, he sort of became his own cottage industry. The 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture is almost as wildly entertaining as his autobiography of the same name from 1994.
2003 brought what was probably his strangest production, a nine episode animated series based on his own adventures titled Kid Notorious. Evans created, produced, and of course, voiced the Kid. It’s one of the more oddball pieces of television in existence. It’s also pretty damn funny. I suppose it could be said that Evans had four careers in Hollywood. As an actor, a studio head, a producer, and then finally, and perhaps most fittingly, as himself.
The last hat of that quadrant is the one he wore best.
Robert Evans died today. He was 89 years old.