You can’t tell the story of the last half-century in American movies without telling the story of Paramount Pictures in the 1970s.
And you can’t tell the story of Paramount in the ’70s without telling the story of Robert Evans.
The Godfather, Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, and countless other classics from Hollywood’s second golden age may have never seen the light of day were it not for the influence of Evans, the iconic studio chief who passed away today at the age of 89.
With his high-flying lifestyle and famous joie de vivre, Evans blurred the line between reality and big-screen fantasy, and his improbable rise to power has become the stuff of Hollywood legend.
Evans’ persona and history-making career inspired an acclaimed documentary, an animated series, a beloved SNL sketch, and at least one Oscar-nominated performance.
(Dustin Hoffman’s smooth-talking movie mogul in the 1997 film Wag the Dog was based on Evans.)
And with even a cursory examination of the man’s life and times — characterized as much by excess as by achievement — it’s not hard to see why so many creative types were in awe of Evans’ story.
After starting his career as a radio actor while he was still in his teens, Evans was forced to take a year off due to a collapsed lung, and he quit show business entirely after he found it difficult to book gigs following his recuperation.
From there, he took a job in sales with his brother’s sporting goods firm, but it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling in the form of a chance encounter with movie royalty.
According to legend, actress Norma Shearer spotted Evans while he was lounging poolside in Beverly Hills and pegged him to play her late husband Irving Thalberg in a film based on the life of the famed producer.
Following his performance in Man Of a Thousand Faces, Evans enjoyed a brief career as an in-demand actor, appearing in such classic films as The Sun Also Rises.
But a string of flops — highlighted by a notorious dud entitled The Fiend Who Walked the West — put a stop to Evans’ acting and led him to pursue a career behind the camera.
In a twist worthy of a Hollywood screenplay, he soon became a wunderkind producer, not unlike the man he portrayed in his big-screen debut.
“People said, ‘That B‐actor is suddenly becoming an executive,'” Evans told the New Tork Times in 1976.
“When I came into Paramount, they thought I’d last six months.”
Instead, he continued to produce films under the Paramount banner for the next 35 years.
With his seven wives (including actress Ali McGraw) and his quotable catchphrases (“the kid stays in the picture” became the title of Evans’ autobiography, as well as the documentary based on his life), Evans soon became as famous for his persona as for his excesses, and he continued cracking wise on Twitter until July of this year.
“There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth. And no one is lying,” Evans once famously said.
“Memories shared serve each one differently.”
And few have lived lives as memorable as that of Robert Evans.