Richard Natale and Carmel Dagan report: Robert Evans, the Paramount executive who produced “Chinatown” and “Urban Cowboy,” and whose life became as melodramatic and jaw-dropping as any of his films, died on Saturday night. He was 89.
Even though Hollywood history is filled with colorful characters, few can match the tale of Evans, whose life would seem far-fetched if it were fiction. With his matinee-idol looks, but little acting talent, Evans was given starring roles in a few movies and then, with no studio experience, was handed the production reins at Paramount in the 1960s. When he left the exec ranks, his first film as a producer was the classic “Chinatown,” and he followed with other hits, like “Marathon Man” and “Urban Cowboy.” Eventually, his distinctive look and speaking style turned him into a cult figure, and he had the distinction of being the only film executive who starred in his own animated TV series.
His life was a continuous roller-coaster. Amid the successes, Ali MacGraw left him for Steve McQueen, her co-star in the 1972 “The Getaway,” a love triangle that got huge media attention. (MacGraw was the third of Evans’ seven wives.) In 1980, Evans was arrested for cocaine possession and a few years later, was involved in an even bigger scandal: the murder of would-be Hollywood player Roy Radin during the production of “The Cotton Club.” Due to his association with Radin, Evans became a material witness in the execution-style slaying, though no proof of Evans’ knowledge of or connection to the murder was ever established.
Drug dependency and the studios’ changing corporate culture plagued Evans’ later career. When he eventually resurfaced at Paramount in the ’90s, his production track record was mostly undistinguished (“The Saint,” “Sliver”). But by then his larger-than-life persona was already the stuff of Hollywood legend. Evans parodied himself in the film “Burn, Hollywood, Burn” (1998), and Dustin Hoffman, a longtime friend, borrowed liberally from Evans in creating the character of an outrageous producer in the 1997 satire “Wag the Dog,” earning an Oscar nomination in the process.
Evans was born Robert Shapera in New York. Before the age of 18, he had worked on more than 300 radio shows and the occasional TV show and play. A collapsed lung forced him to recuperate for a year, and when he returned, he realized he’d lost his momentum. He worked his charms as a salesman at the sportswear firm Evan-Picone, co-founded by his brother Charles.
Several years later, however, his show business career was revived: In the perhaps apocryphal tale, he was spotted by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel with actress Norma Shearer, who asked him to play her deceased husband, the legendary MGM exec Irving Thalberg, in the film “Man of a Thousand Faces.” Darryl Zanuck then cast him as a bullfighter in the 1957 version of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” The other actors … (read more)