Peter Bart Reminisces On The Contradictions Of Robert Evans And The Resurrection Of Paramount

After covering the Watts riots and writing the occasional Hollywood piece early in his career as the Los Angeles correspondent for The New York Times, Deadline columnist Peter Bart made a temporary exit from journalism to leap into a Paramount Pictures job offered him by actor-turned-Robert Evans. This was when the hit-starved studio lot was floundering and in danger of being sold to be turned into a graveyard. Here, Bart recalls why he gave up one of the best reporter jobs in journalism for a leap with Evans at the onset of an auteur era in cinema. 

Robert Evans, who died Saturday at his home at age 89, became famous as a forceful Hollywood studio chief with a vivid life style. But at various stages of his life he seemed a man at war with himself.

While his regime at Paramount Pictures was responsible for hits like The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II and his producing career embraced films like Chinatown and Marathon Man, he also lived much of his life under a cloud of drug abuse and at one time was even a murder suspect.

“I spent too much of my life in conflict with my alter ego,” he once explained to me. His alter ego went public as the narrator for his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, a ‘dees and dos” character who rarely abided by the rules.

The Bob Evans I first got to know in 1964 and 1965 was, by contrast, an impeccably polite, ambitious young man eager to segue from Evan Picone — the clothing business he’d started with his brother Charles — to a producing career. He had scored some acting jobs, but confided to me that he knew he did not have the talent to become a star.

Having forged a friendship with Richard Zanuck, then the top executive at Twentieth Century Fox, Evans was optioning novels and searching for material to start his producing career in his quest to become a producer at Fox.

At the time, I was a reporter for The New York Times and was covering the Watts Riots and other racial crises in Los Angeles and San Francisco, in addition to writing an occasional piece about Hollywood. Evans felt there was a movie in the racial conflicts of the time and sought me out for background information. Our growing dialogue, in turn, led to an article I decided to write about striving young producers like Evans– I mentioned how Evans had optioned some promising novels only to be rebuffed at the studios that wanted his material but not his producing talent, opting instead for the entrenched filmmakers.

Charles Bluhdorn, who had just taken over Paramount, coincidentally read my piece and was impressed by Evans’ ambition and by the positive feedback from attorneys he was getting to know in Hollywood.

The Bob Evans Bluhdorn first met in a subsequent meeting was impeccably groomed and looked more like an Ivy League product than a Hollywood producer.

Bluhdorn was impressed by his energy and ambition. Evans was astonished when Bluhdorn offered him a job, first as chief of production in London, then in Los Angeles, as the studio boss.

It was when he came back to Los Angeles that Evans contacted me to come to Paramount. He explained that he had few credentials for his post; I had even fewer, he said, and therefore could not ever second guess him.

I surprised myself when I accepted. I was not a film buff and I didn’t really know the intricacies of the studios, or of dealmaking. But this much I understood: The studio system of old had lost its audience. A bold new energy was overtaking Hollywood – the sort of energy that would give rise to Easy Rider and Bonnie And Clyde. I felt that if Evans and I could find strong material, and wed it to the brilliant young directors emerging in Hollywood, we had an opportunity to shake up the establishment.

Once Evans established himself as a studio chief, he adopted an outwardly conservative life style, acquiring his elegant Tudor Beverly Hills home, replete with butler and screening room and imposing objets d’art. Though he would be an innovative studio chief, Evans would retain the gloss of Hollywood’s past.

Hollywood liked his style and his lavish parties. At the same time, hints were emerging of his alternate personality. Gossip columnists wrote about the girls and the glitz. Further, much as he coveted an aura of “class,” as he understood it, Evans also venerated gangster movies and sought out the company of law-breakers — usually from a safe distance. He welcomed a close friendship with Sidney Korshak, a famed ‘fixer’ with close ties to the underworld, even anointing him his ‘godfather.’

In 1969 when Evans and I were debating whether or not to option The Godfather, Evans was passionate about the subject matter but also frustrated by the failure of a new film titled Mafia, which he felt presented a false “Hollywood’ depiction of mob figures. He ultimately signed off on the decision, asking me to follow my instincts: With his approval, I made the deal to acquire the then incomplete novel by Mario Puzo, to nurture a screenplay and to approach a reluctant Francis Coppola to direct.

Evans and I were drawn to the same material – original scripts like Chinatown, Love Story or Harold & Maude, novels like Rosemary’s Baby. We also were drawn to the same young filmmakers, such as Roman Polanski, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, and, of course, Coppola.

If I focused more on material, Evans had a genius for casting. When Mia Farrow was bullied by her then husband, Frank Sinatra, to withdraw from Rosemary’s Baby, Evans talked her back into the movie.

The youthful Bob Evans, now a rising studio chief, rarely drank and never smoked pot but became enamored by cocaine, principally as a remedy for his back pain. Cocaine dependency ultimately took over a considerable sector of his life, manifesting itself in his erratic behavior on films like Marathon Man and Cotton Club. The narrator of The Kid Stays in the Picture effectively had begun to take over the ‘other’ Bob Evans, with dire results.

I have often been asked, what was it like working with Evans on a day to day basis as his second-in-command? The Evans of the Paramount years was thoughtful but intensely driven. Bluhdorn was a tough boss; he and Evans shouted at each other over deals night after night, often past midnight. Evans wanted to make a deal for Funny Girl; Bluhdorn felt Julie Andrews was a bigger star than Barbra Streisand and demanded the studio instead commit to Darling Lili. Evans submitted now and then to his boss’s decisions but burned over the occasional defeats – disasters like Paint Your Wagon.

Some of the failures, however, stemmed from Evans’ own decisions. The Great Gatsby represented a triumph of glitz over substance. Coppola had written one strong version of the script, and Brando had indicated an interest. Instead, a weaker script starring Farrow and Robert Redford and directed by Jack Clayton was green lighted, greeted by bad reviews and meager grosses.

The fabulous success of The Godfather gave Evans the surge of confidence he needed to win his arguments with Bluhdorn and hammer through the slate of films he and I wanted to make. But success, too, proved a mixed blessing. The glare of the spotlight fortified his ego, but also encouraged the alter-ego. With great success also came a new fusillade of problems.

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