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Robert Evans’ Latest Remake

Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

When Robert Evans thinks about his life--its dizzy highs and devastating lows--the 67-year-old movie producer is confident of one thing: The saga has all the makings of a great motion picture.

Evans does more than muse about this. In the private editing room of his lavish Beverly Hills estate, he has spliced actual television sound bites into a montage that he thinks is the perfect opening sequence for a film about himself.

“First an actor, then the head of a movie studio, saved Paramount from ruin with ‘Love Story,’ ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Chinatown,’ was the toast of the town until the fall to end all falls,” a breathless announcer says as Evans and Ali MacGraw, one of his four ex-wives, appear on the screen. “A man whose life is a Hollywood fantasy. This story has it all: sex, drugs, scheming movie stars and murder.”

Which is why Evans is so sore at Dustin Hoffman.

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After all the producer has weathered--a cocaine conviction, the murder of a business partner, money troubles and the critical failure of his most recent films--he remains proud of his life story and prouder still of having survived to tell it. So it rankles Evans to think that while he dreams of making his life into a movie, Hoffman has gone out and actually done it.

“Wag the Dog,” a comedy from New Line Cinema that opened late last month, stars Hoffman as flamboyant Hollywood producer Stanley Motss. Motss wears oversized glasses and parades around in a bathrobe, just like Evans. He has unnaturally tan skin and defiantly big hair, just like Evans. He even delivers Evans’ signature lines: “The impossible is possible!”

Although Hoffman and the movie’s director, Barry Levinson, insist that Evans is just one of several models for the character, Hollywood insiders think they know better. Hoffman, it seems, has been mimicking Evans for years.

A gag reel shot during the making of the 1976 film “Marathon Man” (which Evans produced) includes several scenes of a stuttering, bespectacled Hoffman “doing” Evans. (Evans claims that before their friendship faltered, Hoffman brought 100 people--among them, his parents--to view the reel in Evans’ screening room. “He considers it his best performance yet,” Evans said.)

Hoffman, who has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in “Wag the Dog,” would not comment for this story. But his attempts to distance himself from Evans have become a regular feature in Daily Variety. (“I was not playing Bob Evans,” Hoffman told columnist Army Archerd. “I was playing my father.”)

Evans is unconvinced. He alleges that Hoffman has made a habit of borrowing his mannerisms, pointing to the actor’s role in the 1990 film “Dick Tracy.”

“He played Mumbles for scale just so he could do me and exaggerate it. Nice compliment, huh?” Evans said, his voice low and edgy. “I don’t mind if Warren Beatty plays me. But this midget? He makes his living off me.”

Evans, resplendent in a black-and-white striped dress shirt, pale yellow sweater, off-white blazer, black slacks and bolo tie, is sitting in his huge office on the Paramount Pictures lot, talking about something he can’t quite fathom: the Robert Evans Renaissance.

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“Two weeks ago, I went to the Palm for dinner and a young kid comes over to me. He said, ‘Are you Robert Evans? I’m P.T. Anderson,’ ” Evans says, adjusting his blue-tinted glasses as he drops the name of the 27-year-old director of “Boogie Nights.” Next, Anderson invited him to lunch and talked of possibly giving him an acting role in his next picture. Evans was flattered.

“I said to him, ‘You put both of our ages together, you get middle age,’ ” he says, crossing one sleek black loafer over another to reveal a bare ankle. “Before I wrote my book, he didn’t know who I was.”

Long before Hoffman inked a deal to immortalize an Evans-like character on film, Evans did his best to immortalize himself in a memoir, “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” Reviewers called the 1994 book shallow, self-aggrandizing, evasive--and impossible to put down.

Then the autobiography came out on tape, with Evans reading his own prose in his sonorous voice. Hollywood has not been the same since. Today, young agents, producers and executives play the tapes in their cars and at parties and even give them as gifts.

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More than a dozen members of what one person half-jokingly called “the cult of Evans” were interviewed for this story. Most took pride in being able to “do” Evans’ voice. All said they enjoyed his audio book for the same reason: Despite the author’s eccentricities--or perhaps because of them--he inspires by making one feel connected to greatness.

“People who have listened to it are just crazy for it,” said Julia Dray, a producer and vice president at the Robert Simonds Co., who said the tapes made her eager to get into her car each day. Evans, she said, represents “a huge chunk of Hollywood history. These amazing movies were getting made and this guy was there.”

A creative executive on the Warner Bros. lot agreed but withheld his name for fear of appearing too media-friendly.

“He’s amazing,” said this executive, who donned a white turtleneck, a smoking jacket and Gucci sunglasses to go as Evans on Halloween. “You hear him read, the way he talks about Ali MacGraw curled up at the Houston airport, saying, ‘Don’t ever change, Evans.’ . . . He is a legend.”

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Some movie stars and directors apparently agree. Evans’ book on tape has introduced him to a new generation of A-list talent, from actors (Billy Bob Thornton, Cuba Gooding Jr.) to directors (Alex Proyas) to screenwriters (Andrew Kevin Walker).

Slash, the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist, describes Evans as a father figure. The two are planning to collaborate on an album, with Slash playing music from several of Evans’ films, including “The Godfather.”

“He’s as real as they come,” the 32-year-old musician said of Evans. “He’s one of those people who takes a vision and goes for it. In the weird generation I was born into, he’s an icon.”

Val Kilmer, the actor who worked closely with Evans on last year’s “The Saint,” says he’s been warned about the producer.

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“Virtually everyone I respect has pulled me aside and said, ‘Stay away from that man. He’s crazy.’ That’s like telling me, ‘Don’t go to the movies,’ ” Kilmer said.

“What he’s gone through--what he did to himself and then what the business has done to him--would kill anybody else. Why did Evans survive? Because he’s got that child in him. He is in awe of what it is inside a film that makes it able to affect your life,” the actor said, his voice suddenly Evans-like. “There’s no one like him.”

In some circles, “doing” Evans has become a competitive sport. Evans likes to tell of a recent poker game at which actor Steve Martin, playwright Neil Simon, producer Norman Lear, director William Friedkin and media mogul Barry Diller abandoned their cards to compare their Evans impressions. Instead of bridling at being mocked, Evans seems tickled.

“Roman Polanski called me from Paris. He said, ‘Bob, I just scratched my car because I was listening to your tape,’ ” Evans said. “Spike Lee has called. Liam Neeson calls me and imitates my voice. Hulk Hogan comes to me and asks for help. . . . None of my pictures got me this kind of acclaim.”

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“Roll over, L. Ron Hubbard,” said a headline in the August issue of Details magazine, which called Evans Hollywood’s “guru du jour.”

Evans welcomes the attention, even as it confuses him. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that he was a pariah.

“A guy my age doesn’t get a second chance. But I did,” he said. “My life reads like fiction. Cheap fiction. I was the lawless. But I came back from Jesse James-ville.”

In the 1970s, Evans was Hollywood’s golden boy. The youngest-ever production chief of Paramount, he had movie star looks (he had been discovered as a young actor by actress Norma Shearer at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel). He also had a knack for backing successful and prestigious films.

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Under his reign, Paramount made “Rosemary’s Baby,” “True Grit,” “Love Story” and “The Godfather.” As an independent producer, he went on to make the classic “Chinatown” and then “Urban Cowboy.”

Evans lived life to the limit, taking delight in the luxuries that success afforded him. He rented cars for aspiring starlets--as many as 14 at once. His bedspread was a patchwork of mink pelts. His romantic conquests were legion--Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Lana Turner and Joan Collins, among many, many others.

His dark hair slicked back, his clothing impeccable, Evans (whose brother, Charles, had founded the Evan-Picone clothing line) brought glamour--and a bit of danger--to Hollywood’s executive suites. He called Sidney Korshak, the powerful attorney identified in congressional testimony as the liaison between Hollywood and the Chicago mob, his godfather.

(Nevertheless, Evans says he got death threats from the mob during the making of “The Godfather.”)

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On the night that Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson, Evans says, he was invited to her home for dinner. At the last minute he decided not to go.

“I’m stuck, baby,” he says he told Tate. “Count me out. Sorry.”

The closer Evans skated to the edge, the more invincible he felt. He was wild, crude, impulsive--and seemingly unstoppable.

“If Evans were a racehorse,” said screenwriter Robert Towne, who worked with Evans on “Chinatown,” “they’d have called him Caution to the Winds.”

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Then came the 1980s. Evans says persistent back pain led him to try cocaine, and in 1980 he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor possession charge. (Sentenced to probation, he recruited his famous actor friends to participate in an anti-drug television film, “Get High on Yourself.”)

Evans threw himself into making “The Cotton Club,” a film with Francis Ford Coppola. But in 1983, Evans’ business partner on the project, a theatrical promoter named Roy Radin, was found murdered. A year later, when the film opened and promptly flopped, Evans was despondent. Things would only get worse.

A former girlfriend of Evans was tried for Radin’s murder, and though Evans was never charged, the trial testimony--which stretched into 1989--sank him deeper into despair. There were allegations of cocaine use and links to international drug trafficking and prostitution. What’s more, Evans was broke.

“I had $15 million in 1979, when no one had money. In 1989, I didn’t have $15,” he says. “During the razzle-dazzle decade, I went from a millionaire to a thousand-aire.”

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Evans was a producer--"in name only,” he says--of the 1990 sequel to “Chinatown,” “The Two Jakes.” It was a critical and box-office failure. Evans’ only income, he says, were monthly payments from a cosmetics company that used a photo of him in its ads.

He sold his beloved house--a 16-room French Regency that had been one of Greta Garbo’s hideaways--to a neighbor, then rented it back month to month. He says he also considered suicide.

Evans credits his friends with convincing him to stick around. In 1991, then-Paramount Communications President Stanley Jaffe reinstated Evans as a producer on the lot, giving him the same huge office he’d had when he headed the studio. Nicholson helped Evans buy his house back. According to a tale Evans loves to repeat, the actor traveled to Monte Carlo, got down on his knees and begged the new owner to sell.

“The guy looks at Nicholson on the floor and said, ‘You people in show business are just crazy,’ ” Evans recalled happily.

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They remain the closest of friends.

“Sometimes Evans and I sit up at his house alone,” Nicholson said, “wondering if we’re the last ones left who feel the main artery pumping blood into Hollywood is glamour, excitement and fun.”

Ultimately, however, it was Evans’ story--and his inimitable telling of it--that seems to have saved him from himself. His memoir prompted more than one observer to compare Evans to Norma Desmond, the character in “Sunset Boulevard” who clings pathetically to days gone by.

And to be sure, the roughest years left him with some lasting quirks. Evans refuses to drive, for example--for fear, he says, “that some cop will stop me and throw something in my car because they want to arrest me. Paranoid? No. I have reason for it.”

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Yet somehow, Evans harnessed his past to create a future. Today, many see him as one of the film community’s few links to a vital era when movies were magical.

“The established figures of Hollywood tend to be more dismissive of Bob than younger people, who I think sense what is true: Evans does not have any kind of hardening of the arteries, creatively speaking,” said Towne, who still turns to Evans for advice on his work. “No man loves movies more.”

Actress Beverly D’Angelo, who describes herself as “a friend and supporter” of Evans, agrees:

“Today, everybody knows how much ‘Titanic’ cost. People in Columbus, Ohio, know that the airport [in a movie] is really Dallas when it’s supposed to be New York. As the mystique of movies has been destroyed, Evans personifies something that is unknowable.

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“The guy ran a studio. He produced films that are cultural determinants. He’s looked into the dragon’s mouth and he’s proud to talk about the burns.” She paused. “Who else is there?”

Evans is relaxing in his famed screening room. Dressed this evening in a black turtleneck and another bolo tie, he occupies the black leather chair (next to the one where Nicholson always sits) in which he still views as many as five movies a week. As a fire crackles on the hearth, the producer sips a Bellini--a mix of champagne and the juice of white French peaches--and tells a visitor how best to tell his story.

“You could write this down: I’m [photographer] Helmut Newton’s favorite male model,” he says, offering the first of what will be many suggestions. “Helmut says, ‘You know, Robert, you have a regal decadency in your bone structure that I can’t find anywhere else in the world.’ It’s a good line.”

Suddenly, a waistcoated butler whom Evans calls his major-domo interrupts on the intercom. A woman is on the telephone. Evans puts her on speaker.

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“Do me!” he barks at the youthful-sounding woman, whom he will later describe only as “an old friend.” “Do me when I want a reservation at Spago!”

And she does. “Uh . . . uh . . . This is Evans calling, and I’ve got a beautiful lady coming in with a beautiful friend,” she begins, her voice dropping several octaves, her delivery at once halting and purposeful.

Evans howls. “Good work, kid,” he says, hanging up. “People take themselves too seriously. If I took myself too seriously, I’d be 22 feet under.”

Undeniably, Evans is still kicking. Though his most recent films (“Sliver,” “Jade,” “The Phantom” and “The Saint”) have been disappointments, he continues developing projects. There is “Go Lightly,” a coming-of-age story about a young woman fascinated with the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” “Jimmy the Rumor” is about a thief who steals only from other thieves.

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Evans, who has been called the reigning Dorian Gray of the movie business, also wants to do a remake of the classic Oscar Wilde story about an evil man who remains youthful as his portrait ages. In Evans’ film version, set in the 21st century, the protagonist would be a woman.

“Bob has a terrific track record, terrific instincts and terrific ideas for movies,” said Sherry Lansing, chairwoman of Paramount’s Motion Picture Group. She offered an example: “He came into my office one day and said, ‘I have an idea for a remake: “The Out-of-Towners” with Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin.’ It was brilliant.”

(The movie starts shooting this month, with Evans and Scott Rudin producing).

Insiders note that the studio no longer lets Evans work alone. Said one: “His wings are clipped. He’s got the so-called position, but he doesn’t have the weight, the muscle, that he had.”

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Sometimes, that chafes.

“I would say they don’t take particularly kindly to me here [at Paramount],” Evans said the other day. “If they do, they ain’t telling me about it. It’s easier to get a health care plan through Congress than it is to get a picture made today.”

But instead of stewing, Evans keeps moving. He’s working on a second book, tentatively titled “Seduction.” He has designed a line of greeting cards that feature women in Vargas-like poses. Inside are phrases that Evans has had copyrighted (among them: “Instant gratification takes too long”).

Evans, who owns more than 100 pairs of eyeglasses, has also invented an unusual pair that rests on the forehead and cheekbones, but does not grab the nose. (“These are a necessity for anyone who’s had plastic surgery,” he says of the design, which he has patented). He says he is working on a deal to get them manufactured.

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“I’m busier now than I was when I was 25, 35, 45, 55. Do you know why? I can’t afford not to be,” he says giddily. Which is why, after years behind the camera, he is considering appearing in front of it more often.

The Coen brothers asked Evans to play a mobster in their latest film, “The Big Lebowski.” He turned them down and did the same when Disney wanted him to be the voice of Hades in its animated “Hercules.” But he played himself in Joe Eszterhas’ “An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn,” to be released by Disney late next month. And he’s weighing other offers.

“I’m offered more gigs now as an actor than I was when I was with Zanuck. I’ve just been offered a role, against a very, very famous actress. I can’t say who,” he said, adding quickly: “Meryl Streep.”

On a windy afternoon last month, Evans arrived with a 12-person entourage at New Line Cinema’s screening room across from the Ivy restaurant. After hearing so much about “Wag the Dog,” he had finally agreed to see it.

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Sitting in the dark, he couldn’t keep from laughing as Hoffman’s character appeared on the screen in a white tuxedo shirt and oversized spectacles.

“I have that shirt. I have 12 of them. He’s stealing from my closet, I think,” Evans whispered. “I want my glasses back, Dustin!”

When Hoffman complained that there is no Academy Award for producers, Evans yelped: “I say that! I do to this day. He’s using my exact lines!”

“I like this film. Don’t write that,” Evans commanded. But when Hoffman’s character described his against-all-odds success as a producer--"They told me I couldn’t remake ‘Moby Dick’ from the point of view of the whale,” he says--Evans vowed to get even.

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“My next gig as an actor, I’m going to play him,” Evans said, pausing deliberately. “Walking on my knees.”


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