THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE: EVANS TO ME IS BEST HOLLYWOOD BOOK EVER

By Steven Travers

Having worked tangentially in Hollywood as a struggling screenwriter in the 1990s I remain fascinated by show biz, no matter how liberal and unpatriotic it is. There have been some great books written about the industry. Among my favorites are What Makes Sammy Run; The Valley of the Dolls; Easy Riders and Raging Bulls; Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild; The Duke, the Longhorns, and Chairman Mao; Coppola’s Monster Film; and Adventures in the Screen Trade.

Some of these are novels and some are true stories. The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans, written in 1994, reads like a novel because it describes events that are too wild and crazy to be true, except they are true.

The book itself was a self-prophesy in that it was written by Evans to describe his comeback in the biz, and served to be a catalyst for a bigger comeback than what he wrote about. Not only that, it turned Evans into a cult of personality. The book on tape of Evans himself reading his autobiography became must-listen in Hollywood, with tales of producers and all manner of show biz impresarios pulling into parking lots to listen to the whole tape in one sitting.

Then came the cartoon Kid Notorious, the Documentary Now! series, a slew of YouTube videos describing Evans’s role in the making of The Godfather, Chinatown, his dating life, and many other hits, as well as a few flops. Beyond that, Evans was hired by the NFL to give voice to pre-game promotions of big games, which became a whole Patton Oswalt routine in which he, as Evans, would say something that has nothing to with football, such as:

    “That’s a problem? That’s not a problem. Having three Italian actresses in the back of a limo     hooked on amphetamines, well that’s a problem!

    “GIANTS-RAIDERS ON MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL. Tune in.”

Beyond that, every actor worth his salt from Dustin Hoffman to Bill Hader has a Bob Evans imitation. Had he not written The Kid Stays in the Picture, made into a must-see 2002 documentary, his would be a faded memory of Hollywood lore. As it is he is the very personification of legend, even beyond his recent passing.

Evans was born and raised in New York City. His father was a good-hearted dentist who could have been wealthy and prominent in Manhattan, but instead offered his services to the underserved of the Bronx and Harlem, which meant the family always needed money.

Evans and his brother Charles grew up acting in local stage productions and taking in triple-features at the Saturday afternoon matinees. The elder Charles became an impresario of the women’s clothing business, bringing a teenage Bob into the company. It was called Evans-Piccone and it was a smash success, the first clothier to feature slim, sexy women’s pants. As Bob joked, “I was into women’s pants.”

Indeed he was. There is no way to exaggerate how handsome young Bob Evans was. Rudolph Valentino, Robert Redford, Brad Pitt? Bobby Evans had ‘em all beat. His look was indeed Valentino-esque, featuring jet-black, slicked down hair, always a little long for the style of the day. He featured a perpetual tan and as could be expected of a man in the clothing line, was always dressed to the nines. Charles and Bob were already wealthier than their dad.

In 1956 Bob flew to Los Angeles to promote the company’s latest line. Staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he decided to play “hooky” on the day of Dwight Eisenhower’s re-election. Super-tanned in his bathing suit, he sat next to the pool taking and making phone calls. Suddenly he was approached by an attractive, middle-aged woman named Norma Shearer. She was “old Hollywood aristocracy,” a huge star of silent film from the 1920s.

“Excuse me, young man, but are you a bookie?” she asked him.

Evans explained he was on the phone because “I have to pay my bills.”

After inquiring, Evans told Norma he had been a child actor in New York but was now a clothing executive, at which point she asked if he would be interested in playing the part of  her late husband, Irving Thalberg, currently being cast at Universal. Thalberg had been a boy wonder executive under Louis B. Mayer, too young to sign the checks, but a visionary of the industry who helped usher it into “talkies” before dying tragically of pneumonia. 

“What she saw was a young go-getter,” he wrote, adding that had he been a struggling young actor he would have lacked the bravado obtained through business success.

She ushered Evans to Universal where they were preparing Man of a Thousand Faces, featuring Jimmy Cagney as Lon Chaney. He was given a screen test and remarkably given the starring part of Thalberg. He performed well and gained the approval of Cagney.

“You did good, kid,” he said.

After the film wrapped, Evans went back to New York to resume his clothing career, which seemed more stable than acting. Then lightning struck for the second time.

He was squiring a model around the El Mocambo when 20th Century Fox mogul Daryl Zanuck just happened to see him. He did not know who he was, much less that he had already starred in Man of a Thousand Faces. Zanuck decided he had found the perfect Pedro Romero for the upcoming production of Ernest Hemingway’s The Son Also Rises. This, wrote Evans, was called “sense of discovery.”

He was whisked off to Mexico to perform along with Eddie Albert, Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power, Mel Ferrer and Errol Flynn. Hemingway was furious that this upstart was cast as the matador he had considered to be biographical. Later at Yankee Stadium Hemingway refused to shake Evans’s hand.

The others, with the exception of Flynn, were equally non-plussed, enough so that they wrote a letter to Zanuck demanding he be removed. Zanuck flew to Mexico to see for himself and was impressed enough with Evans that he announced on his bull horn for all to hear, “The kid stays in the picture!” Thus did Evans have his philosophy of life not to mention the title of his autobiography.

Evans became famous, interviewed by the likes of Edward R. Murrow who noted that he had an enviable career, one of “movie star on the West Coast” and “businessman” on the East Coast, but true acting stardom did not come to him. He was always self-deprecating about his career, calling himself a “half-assed” thespian at best, but his experience with Zanuck taught him his life’s lesson, which was that he wanted to be the guy behind the camera, calling the shots; not some poor wannabe begging for roles. He wanted to be the next Daryl Zanuck.

“I knew that property is king,” he wrote, meaning that he needed to control ownership of whatever book or screenplay was hot. He concentrated on novels and quickly controlled much of the best content in Hollywood. One of these was a fast-paced book called The Detective. He bought it and went into business with David Brown, another rising young producer. He was still just a kid but was the toast of the town.

This earned him some good press, in the form of a large feature in the New York Times by Peter Bart. It was 1966 and Paramount was the worst of the major Hollywood studios, recently bought up by Gulf+Western and their maverick chief executive, an Austrian emigre named Charlie Bluhdorn. All the old moguls like Zanuck, the Warner brothers, and Louis B. Mayer, had retired and sold off the big studios to corporations.

Bluhdorn read Bart’s piece and immediately installed Evans as his head of production at Paramount. The town laughed at him; still a comparative child with no real executive experience, a modest actor at best. Evans quickly realized he had been set up for a fall. Bluhdorn had bought Paramount cheap intending to sell it at a profit. He figured the inexperienced Evans would foul it up and blame could be heaped on him for the studio’s demise.

Evans brought in Bart as his right-hand man because he could read and analyze 10 screenplays per night. They put their noses to the grindstone and incredibly turned Paramount around. It was the mid-1960s and the audience had left Hollywood. The kids were hippies and drop-outs looking for something they could relate to, not the Biblical epics, cop movies, war pictures and musicals their parents liked. Evans instinctively understood the pulse of this new generation and tapped into it.

Their first big hit was based on a novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby. Evans wanted Roman Polanski to direct. Nobody knew who he was. He had directed a weird psychological thriller in Europe, where he was more famous as an actor. He had no desire to come to Hollywood, but Evans induced him with an offer to pay for his next big ski vacation, a passion of his.

Filming began and nobody understood what Polanski was doing. Plus, he quickly fell behind schedule. On top of that the film’s star, a soap actress named Mia Farrow, wanted to quit. She was married to Frank Sinatra, who ironically had bought the rights to The Detective and planned to star in it poste haste. Now Sinatra demanded that she drop out of Rosemary’s Baby immediately and begin shooting The Detective. Evans, ladies man par excellence, soothed her ego, showing her dailies and assuring Mia she was a “shoo-in” for an Oscar, which was the way to feed an actresses’ ego.

She stayed on and Rosemary’s Baby became a big hit and a classic. Farrow divorced Sinatra and insisted Evans buy an ad in the trades comparing her film’s superior box office to Sinatra’s film. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” wrote Evans.

Suddenly the trades were filled with photos of Evans with Clint Eastwood at the L.A. Coliseum for the Super Bowl; hosting dinner parties with Kirk Douglas; and squiring the most gorgeous models and actresses in the world around town. Norma Shearer had shown him a beautiful home near the Beverly Hills Hotel called Woodland, and Evans bought it, turning it into the party spot in L.A.

Success saved Evans’s job but he was still in the hot seat. He continued his streak with The Odd Couple and True Grit, but Paramount had begun re-structuring plans before he took over and this was a monolith rolling downhill. The board was ready to sell off the studio like spare parts. Variety featured a headline showing Evans was about to be fired. Evans reached Bluhdorn who told him if he was fired he would already know it, but the studio was ready to be dismantled. Evans insisted on a face-to-face with the board in New York.

He flew to the Big Apple without a change of clothes, joking he was unable to “keep up with the style of the room.” He brought with him a film containing highlights of future Paramount projects, narrated by himself. At Gulf+Western he addressed a roomful of unsmiling stuffed shirts, but told them Paramount had two bona fide hits in production, Love Story and The Godfather. Each was based on the two biggest novels of the past decade. The studio had bought the books before the authors had even finished them, “spurring them on” to write the books in such a way as to make them exciting for the movie screen.

Afterwards Bluhdorn just smiled at his protege and told him he and only he could have turned that room around. He found Arthur Hiller to direct Love Story when he got a call from Ali McGraw, a little known actress who had originally bought an option on Erich Segal’s novel. She assumed this meant she would star in the film and she would have some creative control.

“The audacity of you, Mr. Evans,” she scolded him. Evans calmed her down, inviting her to meet him at Woodland, which she did, dressed like a sexy hippie in bell bottoms and a head band. Evans was immediately in love.

“I’d have made the phone book with her,” he wrote.

But “little Miss Snot Nose,” as he called her, pretended not to be affected by his charms, throwing in little digs about how “in love” she was with some blonde male model, and how Evans should never go to Venice unless he was “madly in love” with somebody. Then Evans began to smolder, laying it on Ali, and before long they were making love in his egg-shaped swimming pool. Soon after that they were married, and Love Story was a mega-hit, Ali a huge movie star.

This would have been enough to make the Evans legend but he was just getting started. The Godfather was next and, despite the novel selling off the charts, nobody wanted to make the movie. The argument was that Sicilian mob movies failed. Evans countered that they failed because “they were made by and starred Jews. I want to make a movie that is Sicilian to the core. I want the audience to smell the spaghetti.”

This meant not just Italian actors, but an Italian director. In 1969, the only one when with a semblance of credibility was Francis Ford Coppola, but he had made a couple of art house failures. He was considered “brilliant” because he had written a draft of Patton, but that film had yet to be made. On top of that, when approached Coppola turned down the job because he did not wish to “besmirch his Italian heritage.”

But  Evans and producer Al Ruddy persevered and soon Coppola saw the “cheap, pulp house novel” as being something “operatic, epic and Biblical, a family saga,” or as Evans himself saw it, “a cultural phenomenon.” Then Coppola suggested it was a “metaphor for capitalism in America,” which was a decidedly liberal take. Evans, the former businessman, was a Republican, a Richard Nixon voter, and friend of Henry Kissinger. Bart assured Evans that despite any political differences, he could work with Coppola. 

The production ran into more problems than can be listed here. At one point, behind schedule and over budget, Coppola was ready to be fired. According to legend, the hammer was to come down right after the 1971 Academy Awards, but when Coppola won for Best Screenplay for Patton, they could not fire him. 

Then, according to Evans, Coppola cut his film by 45 minutes to satisfy the corporate demand for a two-hour film that could be ready by Christmas. Evans claimed he insisted the extra scenes (Sicily, the “mattresses” scene in the kitchen, family love) be included no matter how long the film was because it was “a saga, not a trailer.” He also insisted he was the reason the film did not come out for Christmas, because the extra scenes pushed back the release date to March, 1972. Barry Diller, a Gulf+Western executive, came up with a brilliant strategy, which was to flood the marketplace with The Godfather rather than the old method, which was to show it in one location per city, slowly fanning out to other theaters over time. Diller’s idea created the multiplex and the blockbuster.

Evans himself admitted memory serves ones’ personal sense of reality; that each memory is different yet legitimate. Either way, Coppola took great exception to many of the memories Evans shared over the years, especially in The Kid Stays in the Picture, both the book and the documentary. Others tended to side with Coppola’s version of events, although none of it makes Evans’s recollections any less colorful. Despite insisting Al Pacino not be cast, he was and it was Evans who went to bat for him when he had to get him out of another contract to shoot a comedy.

On the face of it, he was the king of Hollywood and his was the life of all lives. However, under the surface something was amiss. While he was married to the amazing Al MacGraw and they had a son, Joshua, the bloom was off the rose. Ali had told him, “I’m a hot woman, Evans. Don’t let me out of your sight, not for a minute. Not for two minutes.” She was right and he was wrong.

She had gone to Texas to film The Getaway with Steve McQueen. Evans was so consumed by The Godfather he failed to visit her, and when he did she was with McQueen. 

“Any man who thinks he knows a woman, knows nothing,” he wrote.

That said, at The Godfather premier in New York, Ali showed up and looked radiant – on the surface – as she danced on Evans’s arms throughout the evening. On top of that, Henry Kissinger put off the mining of Haiphong Harbor for a day to attend the soiree. The marriage dissipated shortly thereafter.

Back in L.A. Evans was on top of the world. He continued to put out big hits, even quirky little movies like Harold and Maude, and continued to be a master judge of screenplays. He could not understand The Great Gatsby, which Ali had desperately wanted to perform in as Daisy Buchanan, but did understand Robert Towne’s Chinatown, another quirky story that Towne said was about “a third rate shamus caught up in water and incest.”

Paramount did not wish to make it but Evans understood its brilliance. To this day Towne’s script is considered the greatest original screenplay of all time. He wore both producer and head of production hats, the first to do so since his idol Daryl Zanuck. The hits kept coming in the form of Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman, but Evans thought he would finally make what he called “f—k you money” with Black Sunday. Arab oil men tried to buy his points, worth almost $1 billion, but he kept them and the film failed to produce at the box office as the others had. He still made Popeye and Urban Cowboy, but as the 1980s faded into the sunset, so did his good luck.

He was wading through the women of Hollywood with a chainsaw, and also getting hooked on cocaine. It affected his judgment. He decided against better wisdom to work with Coppola again on The Cotton Club, dubbed “Godfather in Harlem.” But he had difficulty raising money and decided to raise it privately. This brought him to a potential business partner named Lanie Jacobs, who was a major cocaine dealer. A deal she did with a shady businessman named Roy Radin went bad and she was convicted of his murder. Evans’s name, while tangential, was brought up during the trial and made headlines. His coke addiction was made public and he lost the embrace of Bluhdorn and Gulf+Western.

The rest of the decade was a massive failure. Addicted to drugs, bankrupt, down and out, Evans almost committed suicide and sold his Woodland estate. Then his old pal Jack Nicholson, who had gotten his start in the business after being discovered by Evans, bought his house back. Another old friend who owed his career to him was elevated to a high position in the industry and called to tell him, “From now on the life of Bob Evans is gonna be a good one.”

His own loyalty and friendship had come around and saved him. He was given an office at Paramount from which he began producing movies in the 1990s. Then he wrote The Kid Stays in the Picture. His subsequent movies were not blockbusters but they made money. As a younger generation discovered him, he became a kind of cult hero, and lived at that elevated perch until his passing a short time ago.

Steven Travers is a former Hollywood screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.

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