Robert Evans, Producer Who Brought Paramount Back From the Brink, Dies at 89

Robert Evans

The charismatic former actor rescued the studio in the 1960s by greenlighting such game-changing films as 'Rosemary's Baby,' 'The Godfather' and 'Chinatown.'

Robert Evans, the feisty and flamboyant producer and studio chief who resurrected Paramount Pictures in the 1960s by squiring such classics as Rosemary's Baby, The Godfather and Chinatown to the big screen, has died. He was 89.

"Our son, Joshua, and I will miss Bob tremendously," his ex-wife, actress Ali MacGraw, said Monday in a statement, "and we are so very proud of his enormous contribution to the film Industry. He will be remembered as a giant."

He died Saturday. No other details of his passing were immediately available.

In 1966, the former actor and co-owner of a women's fashion company was named head of production at Paramount at age 36, and he rescued the teetering studio during a magical nine-year tenure, catapulting it from ninth and last place among the majors to No. 1 at the box office.

As the first studio head since Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck allowed to produce his own films, Evans also shepherded such classics as The Odd Couple (1968), Goodbye, Columbus (1969), True Grit (1969), The Italian Job (1969), Love Story (1970), Harold and Maude (1971) and Lady Sings the Blues (1972).

Francis Ford Coppola paid tribute to Evans on Monday afternoon. "I remember Bob Evans‘ charm, good looks, enthusiasm, style, and sense of humor. He had strong instincts as evidenced by the long list of great films in his career," the filmmaker said in a statement. "When I worked with Bob, some of his helpful ideas included suggesting John Marley as Woltz and Sterling Hayden as the Police Captain, and his ultimate realization that The Godfather could be 2 hours and 45 minutes in length; also, making a movie out of The Cotton Club — casting Richard Gere and Gregory Hines, and bringing Milena Canonero, George Faison, Richard Sylbert, and many other talented people to work on the film. May the kid always stay in the picture."

Chinatown writer Robert Towne said in his own statement on Monday, "The thing that I remember very vividly, and I think it would make him happy, [was when] we were in his living room. He was on one sofa and I was on the other. We’d been on the stage working with Jerry Goldsmith and some of the musicians on Chinatown. We’d been at it all night long and by then it was around four in the morning and it was tough because we didn’t know how much time we’d have with it. I said something about it, expressing something about hoping it’d be all right. And all I remember is Evans sitting there, turning to me and saying, 'Fuck it. I just want it to be good.' And I thought, that’s really from the heart, that’s all he really wanted. When push came to shove, he didn’t care about the publicity or the deadline or anything. 'Fuck it. I just want it to be good.' It was said with such feeling. And it coincided with what I wanted too. He was wonderful and infuriating and I loved him very much."

During his celebrated reign, the handsome, dark-haired Evans came to epitomize the wheeler-dealer, glamorous Hollywood producer — tanned and always hopping in and out of limousines with beautiful women.

He was married seven times, with his wives including Love Story star MacGraw, Catherine Oxenberg of ABC's Dynasty and former Miss America Phyllis George. None of his marriages survived more than three years; his union with Oxenberg lasted a little more than a week.

MacGraw left Evans after an affair with Steve McQueen that began on the set of 1972's The Getaway.

After being demoted at Paramount in a reshuffling that saw Barry Diller eventually assume control, Evans produced such standouts as Marathon Man (1976), Black Sunday (1977) and Urban Cowboy (1980) for the studio.

On the other end of the success spectrum, Evans plummeted from the peak of his powers into a self-admitted paranoid haze of cocaine addiction and personal destruction.

At the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, following the premiere of The Kid Stays in the Picture, the documentary about his career (and the title of his 1994 autobiography), Evans was asked what single thing he would change about his life. "The second half," he answered.

Evans also was associated with but never directly implicated in a hit-style murder surrounding his six-year obsession/odyssey to bring The Cotton Club (1984) to the screen, a project he ultimately renounced after an internecine war with Coppola.

The son of a dentist, Evans was born Robert J. Shapera on June 29, 1930, on New York's Upper West Side. He took early acting courses but went into the fashion business, partnering with his older brother Charles in the company Evan-Picone, which is credited with making pants fashionable for women.

(Evan-Picone, which made Evans a millionaire in his mid-20s, was eventually bought out by Revlon founder Charles Revson, who paid a then-remarkable $10 million in cash for the firm in 1962.)

While visiting Los Angeles to open an Evan-Picone boutique, Evans was spotted at the Beverly Hills Hotel's pool by actress Norma Shearer, who recruited him to play MGM studio head Irving Thalberg (Shearer's late husband) opposite James Cagney as Lon Chaney in 1957's Man of a Thousand Faces.

Evans quickly became known in Hollywood, but his lack of an acting background ruffled feathers. After seeing him dance at a New York nightclub, Fox chief Zanuck offered Evans the role of bullfighter Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises (1957) over the strong objection of the film's director, Henry King. Only after shooting began and Evans acquitted himself well in early scenes with Ava Gardner was his part guaranteed.

"The kid stays in the picture," Zanuck announced gruffly.

At the time, Evans was a business tycoon on the East Coast and a movie star on the West Coast. In June 1957, Edward R. Murrow interviewed him on CBS' Person to Person and referred to the New York bachelor as having "the most unusual and successful double life of any man I have interviewed since the war."

Evans, though, never considered acting a serious venture. With cash in his pocket from the Evan-Picone sale, he became intent on producing and pursued rights to literary material.

His first acquisition, for $5,000, was a novel titled The Detective from first-time novelist Roderick Thorp. It went on to become a best-seller as Evans sold the rights to Fox and landed Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick and Jacqueline Bisset to star in a 1968 film adaptation.

As Evans quickly acquired other novels — including Rosemary's Baby, Love Story and The Godfather — his vision attracted the attention of Peter Bart, a New York Times writer who profiled him in the newspaper. The highly favorable article from the future editor of Variety made Evans a hot Hollywood property.

Gulf & Western had just acquired the debt-laden Paramount, and G&W chairman Charles Bluhdorn, impressed by the Times article and what he'd heard about Evans, sought him to run the beleaguered studio. Evans accepted the job and soon ditched the musicals, old-fashioned Westerns and light comedies that had been Paramount staples.

Although Rosemary's Baby and Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet were box-office hits in 1968, the G&W board of directors thought Paramount was not worth future investment and mulled shuttering the studio. But Evans filmed a soliloquy, directed by Mike Nichols, and showed it to the executives in New York, pointing out the films Paramount had in production including Harold and Maude, The Odd Couple, Love Story and Godfather. The studio survived.

Throughout his Paramount tenure, Evans battled with directors (most notably Coppola), forcing edits and rewrites, tweaking scores and delaying releases until he was satisfied.

"Bob forces you to come up with alternatives," Coppola told Time magazine in 1974, two years after Evans had convinced the director to add a half-hour to restore "warmth and humanity" to The Godfather. "He pushes you until you please him. Ultimately, a mysterious kind of taste comes out — he backs away from bad ideas and accepts good ones."

Every film produced by Evans at Paramount reportedly made money.

At perhaps his zenith, the studio entered the 1975 Oscar ceremony with a then-record 43 Academy Award nominations, led by Chinatown (for which Evans received his lone Oscar nom) and the Coppola pair The Godfather Part II and The Conversation. (All three were best picture nominees; the Godfather sequel won.)

Evans made other golden decisions for Paramount. In 1967, his strong relationship with Lucille Ball helped the studio purchase the Desilu production company, giving it all of the I Love Lucy episodes and the ABC series The Untouchables. Another prophetic investment, instigated by Evans, was the acquisition of publisher Simon & Schuster in 1975.

In 1991, Evans signed another exclusive contract with Paramount and produced such films as Sliver (1993), Jade (1995), The Saint (1995), The Phantom (1996) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003).

Most recently, Evans voiced the title character in the 2003 Comedy Central animated series Kid Notorious; did a Sirius Radio show, In Bed With Robert Evans; and befriended the likes of producer Brett Ratner. He was not always the best role model, he admitted.

In November 2013, It Books released his latest memoir, The Fat Lady Sang, which detailed his recovery from a near-fatal stroke suffered while he hosted a dinner for director Wes Craven in 1998. He credited media tycoon Sumner Redstone for convincing him he could recover.