Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The New York Times

September 3, 2006

No Kid, but Robert Evans Still Stays in the Picture


THE new broom swept unusually clean at Paramount Pictures over the last year or so. Gone are high executives like Sherry Lansing and Jonathan Dolgen, studio fixtures like the superstar Tom Cruise and the producer Scott Rudin, and legions of underlings, all cleared out as a new chief, the former talent manager and producer Brad Grey, took charge.

But one thing remains somehow unchanged on the company’s Hollywood lot.

Across a bright green lawn from the executive office building, under a familiar brown awning that would be at home on Park Avenue, the production company named for its owner, Robert Evans, still holds sway.

Having overcome financial misfortunes, a cocaine addiction and a series of debilitating strokes, Mr. Evans, 76, has also survived something as manageable as corporate regime change. His durability surely says something about the power of myth in the movie world. A boy wonder who ran Paramount in the early 70’s, he embarked on a personal odyssey that brought him back to the studio as a producer 15 years ago. But he was never quite as large as he became with the success of a 2002 documentary based on his autobiography, “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”

“ ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’ did more for me than all the films I’ve done since I returned to Paramount,” he said during one of a series of recent interviews at his Beverly Hills home.

Mr. Evans’s professional survival — at a time when most of Hollywood is chasing youth and trimming overhead — also speaks to the power of personal loyalty, an enduring value in moviedom. “It is important that Bob keeps his deal,” said Sumner Redstone, the 83-year-old chairman of Paramount’s corporate parent, Viacom, and a close friend of the producer. “Though I can’t guarantee it, I would like to think he would be at Paramount forever.”

Mr. Evans certainly gives that impression, though his company — the contract for which runs to 2008 — doesn’t appear to be at peak productivity. Mr. Evans’s last feature credit was “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” a 2003 film on which his role during production, said Lynda Obst, another of its producers, was to act as a cheerleader. He says he has no films in active development.

Still, his gift for self-promotion remains formidable. “I’m a vital force to be reckoned with. I still have great ideas. Call your article ‘Evans Reloaded,’ ” Mr. Evans declared at his home in August.

Mr. Grey, in a phone interview, said Mr. Evans’s personal saga had been a factor in his own decision to sign on as Paramount’s chairman. “Part of taking this job was thinking how romantic it was the way that Bob Evans did it when he was running the studio,” he said.

Seconding the notion that Mr. Evans can stay as long as he chooses, Mr. Grey, who said Mr. Evans’s presence improved his own morale, noted that Paramount also had deals with the producers David Brown, who is 90, and A. C. Lyles, who is 88. “Evans isn’t the oldest producer on the lot,” he said.

Mr. Evans for his part strongly rejected the idea that he was being coddled because he knows so many of the movie industry’s secrets. “I’ve been back at Paramount since 1991. The only ones back then who could have cared about buried bodies are dead and buried themselves,” he said.

A significant preoccupation of late has been “The Fat Lady Sang,” a second memoir that he says he has submitted, unsuccessfully, to three publishers in the last several years. The latest version of the manuscript is chock full of bedside scenes of him lying near death after his stroke in 1998 and being comforted by Mr. Redstone, who Mr. Evans says was one of three key participants in his rehabilitation.

The others who were vital to his recovery were Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, who was also a producer of the “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and Brett Ratner, a film director half Mr. Evans’s age who is a frequent visitor to his home.

Mr. Redstone said his own loyalty to Mr. Evans grew from a time when the producer took Mr. Redstone under wing. “In 1967 I owned a lot of movie theaters in the Northeast, but I didn’t know anyone in Hollywood,” he explained. “When I came out here, the only one who took the time to explain the Hollywood side of the business was Bob. He asked for nothing in return.”

Mr. Carter said in a phone interview that he got to know many associates of Mr. Evans while producing the documentary. When Mr. Evans returned to the film business in 1991, “he had an enormous reservoir of good will,” Mr. Carter said. “Even his competitors were happy to see him back. I challenge you to find someone who would say that Bob did anything below the belt while he was running Paramount.”

(When asked why his magazine did not publish an excerpt of the original memoir, Mr. Carter paid tribute to Mr. Evans’s ability as a myth builder: “We were offered the chance, but I declined because Bob’s work defies fact-checking. If you’re going to publish him, it’s best to go with the unvarnished Bob rather than the unvarnished truth.”)

While “The Kid” chronicled how Mr. Evans made his bones by backing young writers like Robert Towne and directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski and Hal Ashby, “Fat Lady” laments his forced pairing with the director William Friedkin , a movie veteran, on the box-office bomb “Jade” in 1995. But Mr. Evans also goes to great lengths to describe his friendship with and admiration for Mr. Ratner, a well-known figure on the industry party circuit who’s had mixed success since he hit the radar with “Money Talks” and the “Rush Hour” series almost 10 years ago.

Mr. Ratner returned Mr. Evans’s flattery in a phone interview last week. “ ‘The Fat Lady Sang’ will be made into a film with me directing,” Mr. Ratner said. “I want either Johnny Depp or Hugh Jackman to play Bob, who I consider not only one of the greatest producers of our time, but one of the greatest philosophers. ‘The Fat Lady Sang’ will be my Oscar picture.”

Stuart Fischoff, a psychology professor who recently retired from teaching at California State University, Los Angeles, and who has written about and for Hollywood, said that Mr. Evans may be serving a purpose far beyond his utility as a producer at Paramount: he is becoming the town’s institutional memory.

“No one becomes a legend unless people need the legend and legendary figures to explain why what happened once isn’t happening anymore,” Dr. Fischoff explained.

Even so, Dr. Fischoff said he found the extraordinary attention Mr. Evans has garnered in his later years a bit of a puzzlement. “Anyone who would identify Evans more than Coppola with ‘The Godfather’ is like a golf-ball manufacturer focusing on the ball rather than on Tiger Woods to explain Woods’s success.”

It was getting dark in Beverly Hills as Mr. Evans, whose gait still bears the traces of those strokes, shuffled to a dining room window that offers a handsome view of his pool and tennis court. (His fabled backyard screening room was gutted in a 2003 electrical fire.) Mr. Evans has been angry all day — and energized — about the previous night’s episode of the HBO series “Entourage.”

Portions of the episode had been filmed at Mr. Evans’s home. He was paid $30,000 for a location fee, but said he was not present during shooting, nor was he aware of the content of the scenes to be shot. So he was surprised when he watched those scenes to find the actor Martin Landau playing an aging, forgetful and washed-up producer named Bob Ryan with a butler named Alan in the scenes shot at his home. For years, Alan Selka has been Mr. Evans’s butler. (A spokeswoman for HBO said that the Bob Ryan character was not based on Mr. Evans.)

As the day wore on, Mr. Evans’s displeasure with Mr. Landau’s “Entourage” character lessened, as did his stamina. Though he says he’s still asked to play roles of men in their 50’s, Mr. Evans looks his age as his wobbly right foot slows his gait.

Asked if he might write something new about his seven wives (he’s been divorced from six of them; the seventh marriage was annulled) he replied curtly, “I don’t want to talk about them.”

The financial success of “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” the 1991 memoir by the producer Julia Phillips, is mentioned.

“I thought Julia was a very good writer,” Mr. Evans said, “but writing that kind of stuff is not good for your mental health. Besides, no one would read my book if I did what Julia did,” he added, smiling wanly. “If I wrote the truth of what I know, the book would be 10,000 pages.”