How Robert Evans Really Got His Paramount Job
Far from the tale he tells in his memoir, the legendary producer and executive owed his ascent to super lawyer Greg Bautzer, "who knew everyone."
This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Robert Evans’ unlikely rise to head of production at Paramount Pictures in 1966 has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. In his 1994 autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Evans attributed his luck to “I Like It. I Want It. Let’s Sew It Up,” a complimentary article about his aggressive producing style by Peter Bart in The New York Times that caught the eye of Charles Bluhdorn, the head of Paramount parent Gulf & Western. According to Evans, Bluhdorn, a bombastic Austrian who had started at the bottom and relied on street smarts, decided he wanted the producer to work for him. Evans claimed he got a call from Greg Bautzer with the surprise news. “Pack your bags, Bob. We’re going to New York.” But as B. James Gladstone reveals in The Man Who Seduced Hollywood, Evans’ rise had more to do with the influence of Bautzer and a mutual friend, Sidney Korshack, a labor lawyer with mob ties, than it did with Bart’s article. Asked by THR, Evans says it was Bautzer who introduced him to the G+W CEO. “The Bart article happened too, but Greg was close to Bluhdorn.” — Andy Lewis
Greg Bautzer and Sidney Korshak were more business associates than friends, though they had known each other since they both worked on Howard Hughes’ abortive sale of RKO in 1952. Hailing from Chicago, Korshak had no law offices in Los Angeles; in fact, he was not licensed to practice law in California. He was a labor union lawyer with connections to the Chicago mob. Bautzer once told Variety editor Thomas M. Pryor that Korshak had gotten his start as a driver for Al Capone. A call from Korshak could start a strike or stop one. Korshak’s other function was investing mob revenue in legitimate businesses.
Bautzer had access to the inner workings of the industry, [and] when Bautzer had to deal with a problem that involved unsavory characters, Korshak would make a backroom power play. For example, in April 1955, while Bautzer was representing the brilliant but high-strung actress Susan Hayward in a child-custody battle, she attempted suicide. Confidential was planning a major exposé. Bautzer asked Korshak for assistance. Within days, Bob Harrison, publisher of the gossipy tabloid, changed his plans. The first high-rise on the Las Vegas Strip was the Riviera Hotel and Casino, which opened in 1955. Bautzer was connected to it through his law partner Harvey Silbert, an investor in the project. The nine-story hotel had 300 rooms and the largest showroom in Vegas, the Clover Room, which seated 700 people. Dean Martin, who also was a part owner of the Riviera, had his own lounge, Dino’s Den. Korshak told friends that he hired most of the entertainers at the casino and he had the power to forgive debts — such as the $43,000 that a young actor-turned-producer named Robert Evans racked up at the craps table one night.
Evans knew Korshak from the 1950s, when the two met at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs. He loved to sit at Korshak’s knee soaking up gangland tales. Korshak liked Evans so much he virtually adopted him as a son. Evans later said in his biography that he and Korshak spoke almost daily. Korshak introduced him to Bautzer, and Evans loved Bautzer’s showbiz stories as much as he did Korshak’s gangster lore. “Bob Evans used to hang around, and I never understood why Greg had faith in him,” said Bautzer’s ex-wife Dana Wynter. Perhaps Bautzer saw in Evans a version of his younger self: a well-dressed up-and-comer who made appearances at the right parties, escorting a beautiful girl, and flattering the rich and powerful. Bautzer took Korshak’s lead and started promoting Evans and took him on as a client and helped him start a fledgling career as a producer, optioning books to adapt for the screen.
“Greg forced him on Bluhdorn,” recalls Wynter. “After Greg got him that job [as head of production], I remember the whole town was falling down laughing.” Albert S. Ruddy, who would later produce The Godfather for Evans, was privy to the machinations that put Evans on top and confirms that they were not accomplished by a mere newspaper article. “Greg Bautzer’s the guy that set Bobby Evans up with Charlie Bluhdorn,” said Ruddy in 2011. “Bobby was a charming guy. He looked good, with a great tan, and he was down at the Racquet Club all the time hanging around with Greg. [Bautzer] gave Bluhdorn a line of bullshit about how this kid knew everyone in Hollywood.”
It was Bautzer who knew everyone. Bluhdorn, on the other hand, was new to Hollywood. Bautzer mesmerized him with personal tales of Crawford, Gable and Lamour. “I mean, Charlie was starstruck,” said Wynter. “And naive. And kind of innocent in that area. And he wanted a studio. He wanted ‘the business.’ You know, show business. And Greg got it for him. And he also got Bob Evans his spot.” Ruddy agrees. “Greg was known as ‘The Kingmaker.’ He was handling Howard Hughes, Kirk Kerkorian, everybody. Charlie was smart. If you’re going into the movie business, you go to Greg Bautzer.”
For his part, Evans has neglected Bautzer’s involvement in his ascent to the throne, sometimes giving credit instead to Korshak and implying that the mob got him his job as head of Paramount. The razzle-dazzle story has the cloak-and-dagger allure of one of Evans’ movies, but it is pure fiction. Ruddy laughs at the notion:
“Bob is still trying to hang on to that whole thing that Sidney Korshak and the mob ran everything and got him his job. That’s such bullshit.”
Pundits didn’t think Evans had the experience necessary to head a studio. The Times labeled it “Bluhdorn’s Folly,” and Hollywood Close-Up crudely referred to it as “Bluhdorn’s Blowjob.” But backing Evans turned out to be one of Bautzer’s greatest moves. Despite the industry’s initial skepticism, Evans moved Paramount from last place to first with The Odd Couple, True Grit, Love Story, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather and Chinatown, all blockbusters and Academy Award winners.