Life & Culture

Remembering Robert Evans, Maverick Producer of The Godfather and Chinatown

The flamboyant film producer, who died last week aged 89, epitomised the rebellious sprit of Hollywood’s golden age, as Paul Moody explains

Had Robert Evans not existed, it’s unlikely anyone other than the maverick producer himself would have dared make him up. Strikingly handsome with a permanent tan, and always immaculately dressed – in his 70s pomp he had a fondness for pairing open-necked shirts and suede trousers with his trademark large-frame spectacles – he produced a string of classic films including Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Chinatown and Marathon Man.

Yet it could be argued that Evans’ greatest creation was his own public image. The archetypal smooth-talking hustler, and an inveterate ladies’ man – he was married seven times – he stood out as a larger-than-life character in a town not known for attracting wallflowers. “Neither instinct nor style can be bought, taught or acquired,” he once remarked. “Either you have it or you don’t.”

Born in Depression-era New York as Robert Shapera in 1930, the son of a Jewish dentist in Harlem – ‘Evans’ was an adaptation of his mother’s maiden name – his first big break came while working for his brother Charles’ clothing company, Evan-Picone. Fond of telling friends that he was “in women’s pants”, the fashion-conscious Evans intuitively saw the advantages in dressing well, once commenting: “Background makes foreground. If I was paid too many compliments on a tie I was wearing, it would immediately go into a shredder. The tie is there for me to look better, not for me to make the tie look better.”

Having overseen the launch of the company’s trouser suit range, a revolutionary addition to the female wardrobes of America, he claimed to be a millionaire even before a chance meeting provided him with a way into Hollywood. While opening an Evan-Picone boutique in Los Angeles, Evans – then 26 – was spotted poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel by the actress Norma Shearer, who recruited him to star alongside her in – suitably enough – Man of a Thousand Faces in 1957.

However, despite his looks and charisma, Evans was unconvincing as an actor, and by the mid-60s he had moved to the other side of the camera. Promoted to the head of production at Paramount Studios in 1966 by studio boss Charlie Bluhdorn on the advice of his French wife, Yvette, who told her husband, “He’s gorgeous. We’ve got to get a good-looking guy, real sexy, to run the company,” Evans was an instant success.

Living in a 16-room house with an egg-shaped pool in Beverly Hills protected from prying eyes by 100-foot-high eucalyptus trees, he wined and dined his film star clientele, his laid-back manner and taste for the high life perfectly suited to dealing with the whims of pampered stars.

“Evans was a great packager, a stoker of talent,” wrote Peter Biskind in his definitive account of the era, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. “He gave his actors, writers and directors parties when they got married or divorced, he got them lawyers, he got them laid, he babied them, solved their problems.”

While the producer happily took the credit for a string of successes, his casting decisions weren’t always on the money. He was adamant Al Pacino shouldn’t play the Michael Corleone role in The Godfather films, describing him as “that little dwarf”, while director Francis Ford Coppola was exasperated by his hands-on approach during filming, reportedly remarking, “This guy’s an idiot – 90 per cent of what he says is stupid.”

While Evans’ winning steak continued with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Marathon Man (1976), the producer’s chaotic personal life proved to be his undoing. By 1980 he’d been convicted of cocaine trafficking, while his involvement in gangster musical The Cotton Club in 1984 saw him implicated in the murder trial of his business partner, Roy Radin. With Evans now a pariah among the Hollywood fast set, his career went into freefall.

“My life in the 80s went from royalty to infamy,” he later said, and it wasn’t until the publication of his scandal-filled 1994 autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, that Evans was allowed back into the Hollywood fold as the archetypal comeback kid – if only as a reminder of the way things used to be.

While he continued to produce in his later years, even managing the occasional hit, it was Evans’ outspoken ability to play himself which fuelled his legend. Still giving good copy to journalists in his dotage, he was acutely aware of Hollywood’s golden rule – that being boring is the worst crime of all. “It’s been said that when people stop talking about you, that’s the time to worry,” he told one reporter in 2002. “I wouldn’t know, it’s never happened.”