Robert Evans Pulls His Own Strings (Autograph)

Robert Evans is wearing a white bathrobe over his clothes as he walks me into his dining room. The table is filled with oversized photos by Helmut Newton. Some are of naked women, others are of Evans with Jack Nicholson, Evans with his son Joshua, and one is of a particularly attractive woman sitting in a seductive pose. I’m wondering what this woman is thinking and who she is in relation to Evans, a fabled ladies man who has married seven times. I look at the picture closely and throw out one of his favorite sayings, “Any man who can read the mind of a woman is a man who knows nothing.”

Evans smiles again at me. “That’s true,” he says. “And I have a picture to prove it. It’s the most important picture of my life. And that’s saying a lot.” Considering  that he was the head of Paramount Studios during the  late sixties and early seventies, when they made some of their most important pictures, like  Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, the two Godfathers, The Odd Couple, True Grit, Paper Moon, and Chinatown that’s saying a whole lot.

He leads me to the hallway between the main entrance of his house and the kitchen, where hundreds of framed pictures take up every inch of space. There are photos of Evans at all stages of his life, from the handsome young bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises to the shots with him and Ava Gardner, Norma Shearer, James Cagney, Roman Polanski, Francis Coppola, Sumner Redstone, Brett Ratner, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Henry Kissinger, Alain Delon, Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier, Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Charlie Bluhdorn, Bob Hope, Sharon Stone, Faye Dunaway, Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood and the Queen Mum. The picture that speaks 10,000 words though, the one he wants to show me to illustrate how a man can never penetrate the mind of a woman, is one of him and his then wife, Ali McGraw.  It was taken at the St. Regis Hotel in 1972 after the first screening of The Godfather. It was, he says, the highest moment of his life. McGraw had flown in on a private jet to be with him. She has her arms around his neck, her hands extended, her face nestled in his. She is so proud of him. She is with her husband, the man of the hour, the producer of what would eventually become the American Film Institute’s Greatest Film of All Time.

“Would you believe she was madly in love with another man, and I had no idea?” Evans says.

“Steve McQueen,” I say, knowing the story from a previous conversation we had fifteen years ago.

“That’s right. She wanted to be with me like she wanted to be with a leper that night.” Of course, you could never tell from that picture. Which is why Evans believes so strongly in the impossibility of ever understanding the opposite sex. “A man couldn’t do that to a woman; but a woman can do that to a man,” he says. And yet, when I ask him if there was a fire in his house and he could only grab one picture among the hundreds on the wall, he immediately points to this very shot.

“The one that broke your heart,” I say.

“No, it didn’t break my heart; it broke my spirit.”

I don’t ask for details.  Some things are just too personal to press.

On the way back to the dining room we make a detour to his bedroom. He wants to show me two of his proudest possessions. One is a golden key to New York City now framed on the wall by the side of his bed. It was given to him by then Mayor Abe Beam in 1975, the year when Godfather II came out. “I’m the only person in the movie business ever to get this,” he says. And in the adjoining room he shows me what he’s most proud of. It’s not any award he received. It’s not even about the movies. It’s the framed 1976 certificate from Brown University granting him a full professorship. “I didn’t go to college, I didn’t get a B.A., I didn’t get an M.A., I didn’t get a Ph.d. I didn’t even finish high school. You can’t become an Ivy League professor without a Ph.d, but I got one. They gave it to me. If only my parents could have been around for that, because I was like the bad seed of the family. No one ever would have thought that I’d be sitting among the professors of Brown talking education. My life’s a fairytale. And this means more to me than if I got the Thalberg Award at the Oscars.”

Never one to miss an opportunity, Evans had 500 8×10 photos made of him as a Brown professor and used them when he met young women. “I’d give them the photo and say ‘Don’t tell your mother and father that you’re going out with some dirty old producer.’  Spoken like a true academic!

He opens a closet door where many of the scripts, books, scrapbooks, and magazines featuring him are stored and picks up an old copy about Universal films, opening to a picture of him with James Cagney. Then he notices the binding of a Great Gatsby script. “Warren wanted me to play Gatsby,” he says. “I told him he should do it and I’d direct.” He stands in his white robe looking back on a lifetime of projects, some executed, most not. It’s a closet filled with dreams and memories. “I’m looking for these pictures of this girl, this porno star, they were in here. I think someone must have stole them.”

Evans leads me back to the dining room where he wants to sit, his back to the outside circular pool which looks more like a small pond. Surrounding it are high rising jets of water that arc into the center of the pool. I stare at that fountain and smile to myself because it is raining outside, one of those rare L.A. storms. And yet the fountain remains on. I don’t ask Evans about it….because some things are just too personal.

You’re still the only living producer to have two films selected by the Library of Congress for permanent preservation, The Godfather and Chinatown. How close to immortality is that?

I don’t know if anything is immortal.

Well, if movies endure, then you have helped create something that will last long after we’re gone.

Yes. But you want to know something… I had more gratification from the audio of my book, The Kid Stays in The Picture, than if I would have made Titanic. It not only gave me pleasure, but quite frankly celebrity. When the movie of it came out, which Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, produced, it won all kinds of awards. It won at Sundance, at Cannes. We had twenty-one parties at my house for it. I got the longest standing ovation of my entire life after the screening at Sundance.

Graydon Carter said that he didn’t publish an excerpt from that book in Vanity Fair because “Bob’s work defies fact-checking. If you’re going to publish him, it’s best to go with the unvarnished Bob rather than the unvarnished truth.”  How many of your stories and anecdotes are exaggerated or bend the truth?

My stories are not only not exaggerated but they’re underplayed. Because if I told the truth, no one would believe me. That’s how bizarre it is. I often wonder how I’m alive. And you know something? I’ve paid for my roller coaster ride, because it reads like fiction and the facts are scarier than fiction could ever be. If I wrote exactly how things happened people would think I was hallucinating.

The Kid Stays in the Picture was a bestseller. In February 2004 Publisher’s Weekly included it on a list of the six best books. The others were: Albert Speer’s The Battle With Truth; Democracy in America by De Toqueville,  The Prince by Machievelli, A Midnight Clear by William Wharton, and F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned. They called it one of the best Hollywood memoirs ever written.  Did it change your life in any way?

It was the most remarkable experience of my life, but it was not cathartic. Writing it was terribly painful. It’s difficult to write about your [screw] ups, because you have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. There wasn’t a day I didn’t cry at night, and I wrote it over a three-and-a-half year period.

Knowing that you were going to write a sequel, did you seek to continue to screw up because you knew it would make good material?

Oh no. No. My second book starts with me dying. Because I had a triple stroke. If you want to read a few pages to get an idea of it.

I’d be happy to, but not now. I’d rather talk to you about it.

I didn’t think I was going to pull out. I was totally paralyzed from one side of my body. My whole right side was paralyzed—from my eye to my tongue to my fingers. The doctors all thought I was crippled.

How quickly did they catch it? Because if you don’t catch a stroke immediately, you usually don’t make it.

That’s true. Here, I have the manuscript of my book….read what happened. It will give you an idea of what I went through.

I can imagine. It had to be awful. But if I read it I’m taking from your book, when I’d rather we talk about it.

Here. (Opens to the first chapter). Read.

(I Read) ‘8:06 P.M. May 6, 1998. “Wes Craven has just arrived, Mr. Evans,” whispered my major domo through the intercom. “Shall I escort him to the projection room?” “Try to stall him, I’m running late. Give him the A tour of the house. Anything.” I’m on the phone with my fucking agent. There are these three offers for the book and he’s pressing me to take one of them. I don’t like any one of them. I’m holding aces not deuces. But he doesn’t agree. It’s divorce time. “Get me on the 8 o’clock flight to New York tomorrow morning.”

‘I made my entrance into the projection room where dinner was to be served a full half hour late, a perfect way to start with a wrong foot forward. There awaiting me was the King of Scream himself, Wes Craven, accompanied by the strikingly attractive president of his company Mariana Madelena. My coterie was there as well…..

‘A mixture of fresh peach juice and champagne was being served in tall glasses. ….Standing around the circular table making chit chat and apologizing for my late arrival I lifted my glass and made a toast to my guest of honor. “To you Wes. One of the few directors in town who is an above-the-title star. But the only director in town who has taken a year off to write a novel, the subject of which just happens to be my number one priority to get to the screen. Dear Wes, I drink to your success as a novelist.”

‘My champagne flute slipped from my hand. A bolt of lightning shot through my body. Like a pyramid of wooden matchsticks I crumble to the floor. I was dying.

‘Lying flat, my head facing the ceiling, I wasn’t scared at all. Not in pain. I was smiling. Not scared. In the distance Ella Fitzgerald was singing “It’s a Wonderful World.”  Wes stood ashen beside me. The King of Scream, he was scared shitless. He bent down toward my motionless body to see if I was still alive. My eyes were open. I slurred into his ear, “Told you Wes, it ain’t ever dull around here.” Then passed out.’

Keep reading, so you’ll see what happened.

The ambulance was called, you were rushed to the hospital…..and?

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t talk. My eyes didn’t close. I couldn’t spread my fingers. Nothing. I felt I’m a freak of nature. The doctor said, ‘Get used to it Evans.’ The more he said, ‘You’ll have a different life,’ the more I said to myself, ‘[Screw] you, you prick.’  I can’t tell you about it as well as I’ve written about it.

You’re calling the sequel The Fat Lady Sang. Why that title?

Because the fat lady sang and I died. But luckily for me she forgot the last verse.

Is the book done?

No. My problem is I have writer’s cramp. I haven’t finished the last part of the book. I don’t know why. It’s been two years since I put it aside.  It’s the weirdest feeling. I came back to life after being dead, then worked hard to write what I wrote so far.  I’ve been terribly remiss in this. I put so much work into it. It’s painful.

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