Robert Evans, Hollywood Superproducer Behind ‘Chinatown,’ Dead at 89
Robert Evans, the legendary Paramount Pictures exec and consummate Hollywood producer behind films like Chinatown and Marathon Man, died on Saturday, October 26th, in Beverly Hills, Variety reported. He was 89. A representative for Evans confirmed his death, though no cause was given.
Evans’ career stretched across decades and was filled with an array of glitzy highs and brutal lows. He was best known for running and revitalizing Paramount in the late Sixties and early Seventies, overseeing hits like The Odd Couple, Rosemary’s Baby, The Italian Job, Love Story, and The Godfather. As a producer, he worked on Chinatown — for which he earned his sole Oscar nomination — as well as Marathon Man, Urban Cowboy, Popeye, and, more recently, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
Evans also led a life filled with excess and scandal befitting his giant personality. He was married and divorced six times, and a seventh was annulled after nine days; he was arrested for possession of cocaine; and, most infamously, he found himself wrapped up in the murder of theatrical producer Roy Radin, who was trying to break into the film industry with a movie based on the famed New York nightclub the Cotton Club. In 1994, Evans published an autobiography about his life, The Kid Stays In the Picture, which Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein turned into a widely acclaimed 2002 documentary of the same name.
Evans was born June 29th, 1930, in New York. He moved up the ranks in the entertainment industry as a radio actor, with occasional appearances on television and in plays. Despite his prolific output, serious success eluded Evans as he grappled with medical issues and even briefly worked as a salesman for his brother’s clothing company. His big break came when he was tapped to star in The Man of a Thousand Faces after actress Norma Shearer saw him at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool and asked him to play Irving Thalberg, her late husband and head of MGM. In 1957, he was cast as a bullfighter in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and while others on the film were reportedly upset about the decision, producer Darryl Zanuck sent out a telegram that read, “The kid stays in the picture.”
Despite this vote of confidence, Evans’ acting career eventually faltered. He briefly returned to the garment industry with his brother, and after the pair sold the company, he used the money to return to Hollywood as a producer. For his first project, he purchased the rights to the Roderick Thorp novel The Detective, and turned it into a highly successful film starring Frank Sinatra. The film helped Evans garner the attention of executives at Paramount Pictures, where he was soon hired. While Evans’ Paramount tenure started with a handful of flops (Paint Your Wagon, Darling Lili), the studio was soon churning out an array of box-office hits and Oscar winners.
In the Seventies, starting with Chinatown (1974), Evans began to work more as a hands-on producer than as a studio head. But while Chinatown and 1976’s Marathon Man were hits, his next few films failed to live up to expectations. As the flops mounted, Evans’ drug use intensified and his personal life deteriorated, a spiral that included his arrest for cocaine possession in 1980 (he pleaded guilty) and the so-called “Cotton Club murder” in 1983. While there was never any proof that connected Evans to Radin’s murder, he was a material witness in the case and stood behind the Fifth Amendment when he was called to testify.
Evans struggled to regain his footing after the murder. The Cotton Club film, released in 1984 and directed by Francis Coppola, was another box-office bomb, as were various projects he produced throughout the Eighties and Nineties.
In spite of these failures, Evans’ status as a Hollywood legend was solidified in 2002 with the release of the Kid Stays in the Picture documentary. The film even prompted Evans to produce and star in a short-lived 2003 Comedy Central cartoon, Kid Notorious, that took his life and exploits to absurd extremes. That year, Evans scored his first major hit in decades with the Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey rom-com How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
How to Lose a Guy would prove to be Evans’ last film. While he remained a fixture on the Paramount lot, the various projects he worked on failed to launch. In July this year, Evans’ deal with Paramount finally expired and was not renewed, ending a 45-year partnership.
In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Evans reflected on his lengthy career with the kind of Zen outlook that comes with decades of extreme success and abject failure: “I’m still alive,” he said. “A little battered. But I like myself. For not selling out. There are people who have bigger homes, bigger boats. I don’t care about that. No one has bigger dreams.”