Robert Evans Remembered: "Even in Repose, He Always Knew How to Make an Entrance" (Guest Column)

Robert Evans - Getty - H 2020
J. Emilio Flores/Getty Images

A Canadian documentarian recalls a weekend with the late producer — "outrageous, thrilling and a little bit sad" — that began at his famous house in Beverly Hills (the one that just sold for $16 million) and ended up on a cashmere-covered bed in Toronto's Four Seasons.

When I heard that Robert Evans' legendary house in Beverly Hills was sold last week — for $16 million, to Discovery president David Zaslav — the most vivid memory screened in my head in Technicolor.

“Robert Evans is on the line.” Most probably the best words you can hear when you are an aspiring filmmaker. He was inviting me to his house and I was already intoxicated by his voice, which sounded like a blend of weathered leather and cognac. Like that often-quoted piece of dialogue, he had me at hello.

It was 2004 and he agreed to be interviewed for my film, The Last Mogul, a documentary on Universal Studios titan Lew Wasserman. He insisted that we shoot the interview at his legendary home and, to quote yet another line of dialogue, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. He hung up without giving me the address, as if everyone knows where Robert Evans lives, and they do.

As the gates opened, I drove up the steep drive way past the famed tennis court were Evans once played night games with neighbors such as Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman. His butler, English, opened the large doors and showed me in. “Mr. Evans is in bed, will you join him?” What?

English brought me into his opulent bedroom, which had something I’d never seen before: suede-covered walls. Once I peeled my eyes from the massive black-and-white framed Helmut Newton photograph of two women doing unmentionable things to each other, I saw him splayed out in bed wearing white silk pajamas, holding a martini glass and barking orders to his butler and taking calls. He once said to me, “Kid, you choose in life whether to be the foreground or the background, and trust me, being the foreground is way more fun.” Even in repose, he always knew how to make an entrance.

The shoot at his house was scheduled for an hour but lasted six. When it was over, Bob regaled me stories of his films and other Hollywood adventures, and I knew I had to do something else with this iconic yet inexplicable fading character. So, I pitched him the idea of producing a one-man Broadway show about his life. He loved the idea — although he demanded no previews or tryouts — and for the next few months we worked on concept as I tried to raise the money.

The play never got off the ground, but while working on it I got what I thought was another brilliant idea: arrange for Bob to win a lifetime achievement award at a charity event during the Toronto International Film Festival. Being Canadian, I had enough connections to make it happen. Naturally, Bob was elated. He said, “My boy, let’s go to Toronto!”

Those 48 hours together turned out to be outrageous, thrilling and, to be honest, a little bit sad. Evans flew to Toronto for the gala on a private plane with former New Line Cinema honcho Bob Shaye. The minute they walked into the Four Seasons, I knew something was up. Shaye threw me a dirty look and said; “Barry, he is your problem now.” Apparently, Evans had taken sedatives on the plane and was a bit of a mess. He strolled into the hotel lobby in a startlingly white Puma sweatsuit and velvet loafers and demanded to see the manager; he had a list of demands. The manager listened attentively as Evans told him he needed a doctor to administer vitamin B shots twice a day; a large-screen TV so that he could watch the U.S. Open; a full-time bartender; and a makeup artist skilled in applying full-body tanning spray. I followed him into his suite and watched as the hotel staff unpacked two vintage steamer trunks that looked they fell off the RMS Lusitania. Among the contents: dozens of vanilla-scented purple candles, 10 cashmere throws, a mink bedspread and enough wardrobe changes to last a month.

We were staying two nights.

That first night we attended a lavish dinner in his honor at the opulent private home of philanthropist and Best Buddies charity co-founder Daniel Greenglass. A few hours into the meal, Evans was well lubricated and feeling amorous. He was seated next to a glamorous socialite who caught his eye earlier in the evening and he was now apparently determined to make her his sixth wife. Although happily married, the striking blonde found him charming and agreed as a joke to make her husband, seated across from them, jealous by sneaking off for a moonlit ride in her Porsche. But the joke was on Evans — the husband didn’t even notice they had left.

The gala was the following night. I picked Evans up in the hotel lobby. He was two hours late, but he was definitely “in the foreground,” dressed in black velvet Givenchy, a white cashmere turtleneck and a white-gold bolo necklace. The lobby seemed to freeze in time as he floated past the front desk and into a vintage Rolls Royce that Greenglass had arranged. Suddenly, before we pulled out of the driveway, the car’s back door opened and Brett Ratner jumped in. He, it turned out, had other plans for Evans. “Screw that event you are going to, I have us on the guest list of the InStyle party that is packed with beautiful models,” Ratner said. Evans liked the idea and replied, “Okay, let’s go to that.” I held my temper and reminded Evans that we had a room of 700 people waiting to see him receive his tribute. I looked at Ratner and was ready to kill him. Evans seemed disappointed, but we carried onto the gala with Ratner pouting in the back seat like a petulant child.

Greenglass was waiting anxiously on the red carpet with the press. Evans got out of the Rolls like a rock star. We reminded him at the door that he was getting the award from Best Buddies and to ensure he made the connection in his speech. His response; “I love the buddies, don’t worry, Barry, I don’t need a script.” During the gala, Evans was pure Evans, drinking and flirting heavily. By the time he got onstage to receive the award from presenter Norman Jewison, who needled him for never hiring him as a director, Evans was a little wobbly but was still dazzling. The audience hung on every one of those cognac-soaked words as he rambled on about his life. I was sure he would never mention the charity. I leaned over to Greenglass to prepare him.

But then suddenly he remembered the charity — sort of. He told a beautiful story about taking a car ride with JFK, eating hot dogs and being given a letter by the president on the power of supporting someone less fortunate. He then went on to say that the charity he loved was Big Brothers.

He had thanked the wrong organization! Even with the glass award in is hands, with the large Best Buddies logo designed by Keith Haring right in front of his eyes, he messed it up. Twenty minutes later after a standing ovation, Evans and Ratner took the Rolls and vanished.

The next day, the manager of the hotel called and said that Evans would not check out. They needed the room for Sandra Bullock and he had to go. I went down to see him. He was lying in bed dressed in white silk pajamas splattered with chicken gravy from his lunch. He said he wanted to stay for another week. I told him it was impossible, the hotel was booked, as was every other hotel in Toronto. He then told me he had the flu, which he clearly didn’t. Despite his objections, the staff packed him up and he left for the airport. When his plane was forced to land in Denver due to bad weather, he called me in panic, demanding that the Four Seasons get him a private plane. But, in the words of Bob Shaye, he was no longer my problem. He’d have to find his own way home.

Despite the Denver snafu, we remained friends and spent the next few years trying to get that Broadway show mounted. I even successfully found the funding, but then Evans scared off the Broadway executive with a string of outrageous demands. We kept in touch for the next decade and I would see him when I visited Los Angeles, even having dinner with him and his new bride of the moment. I always loved returning to Woodland and watching one of the last Hollywood icons in his element. The last time I visited him, he was in that same bed, wrapped in a camel-colored cashmere bathrobe with a drink in one hand and pitching a new project to Paramount on one of those old speakerphones. If only the walls of Woodland could talk, they would tell so many delicious and salacious stories about an unforgettable era of dealmaking and dream-spinning in the best setting ever.   

Barry Avrich is the Canadian documentarian who made The Last Mogul, Blurred Lines and Prosecuting Evil.