Robert Evans, the Hollywood producer who proved to be a character as memorable as any of those in the string of classics he oversaw as head of production for Paramount Pictures, has passed away at the age of 89. Though his work was mostly concentrated in the 1970s (classics like The Godfather, Chinatown, The Great Gatsby, and The Italian Job dot his IMDb page), Evans’ larger-than-life persona cemented him as an enduring icon of the Hollywood producer class. That persona was reinforced by his seven marriages (including to actresses Ali McGraw and Catherine Oxenberg), his infamous battle with cocaine addiction (“Bob ‘Cocaine’ Evans is how I’ll be known to my grave,” he once quipped), and his autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, which lead to a self-read audiobook that has achieved cult status (and a 2002 documentary adaptation).
Despite attaining his best success behind the cameras, his career in film actually started in front of it. The story goes that while on vacation in Los Angeles, Evans, then working as a salesman in fashion, was spotted lounging at the pool by the actress Norma Shearer who thought he’d be perfect to play her late husband, the legendary producer Irving Thalberg, in the 1957 film Man of a Thousand Faces. After a few more roles, Evans decided that he’d be better suited for a role as an actual movie producer as opposed to acting as one on screen. He retreated back to the fashion industry, but reemerged in Hollywood after buying the movie rights to the novel The Detective. Paramount Pictures’ parent company sent shockwaves through the industry by picking the still in-experienced Evans, then in his thirties and with little practice in the industry, to head up production at the then struggling studio. Under his watch, Paramount emerged as the most successful studio in Hollywood during a decade that shook the cinematic status quo.
Evans reveled in the success. He cut a singular figure thanks to his trademark dark-tinted glasses, perfectly shellacked head of hair, seemingly permanent tan, and penchant for bejeweled bolo ties and expensive suits. His Beverly Hills home became a party hotspot, and he often organized private screenings of new releases. Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson were amongst his posse of party friends.
Tempted by the possibility of making more money, Evans decided to go independent as a producer in 1976, setting up his own shingle under Paramount. His career and personal life soon began to dovetail. In 1980 he plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cocaine trafficking but never served jail time. A few years later, he struck a deal with the theater promoter Roy Radin to co-produce Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, but Radin was murdered in 1983. Evans was never directly implicated in the murder, though the cocaine dealer, Karen Greenberger, who had introduced Evans and Radin was eventually convicted of second-degree murder. Evans produced few movies during the decade, and claimed to have made basically no money in the 1980s.
The release of his autobiography in 1994 reestablished Evans as a public figure. He continued to occasionally produce (his last film was 2003’s How To Lose a Guy in 10 days), but mostly coasted along his reputation on persona (he even had a line of glasses with Oliver Peoples in 2008).
Evans was also frequently spoofed within Hollywood. No less than Orson Welles was the first to do so by including a character based on Evans in his uncompleted film The Other Side of the Wind. Both Dustin Hoffman’s character in Wag The Dog and Martin Landau’s in Entourage were said to be based on Evans as well. He was also sent up by Bob Odenkirk in sketches on Mr. Show and in frequent bits by stand-up Patton Oswalt. Evans got in on spoofing himself directly by starring in an animated series based on his life, which aired on Comedy Central.
Whether in praise or in parody, Evans may be best remembered as the personification of a certain era of Hollywood. One where the old school star system was dying, but where bold new directorial emerged. Though also one where the drugs flowed freely, women were treated as arm candy and conquests (almost all of the most notable films Evans produced were directed by white men), and it was hard to tell whether the parties or the egos of those invited were bigger.
Related: Bob Evans Stays in the Picture