PICKIN' ON FILM: Producer got start in front of camera

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A few weeks back, I wrote about “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” chronicling the career of Robert Evans, who was one of the most legendary producers in Hollywood history.

Evans got his start in show business as an actor.

After playing a few bit roles, he ran into famous actress Norma Shearer at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1956. Shearer wanted him to play the role of her late husband, Irving Thalberg, the “Boy Wonder” of Hollywood producers.

At the time, Evans was a businessman selling women’s slacks with his brother Charles under the banner of the Evan-Picone clothing company. Shearer noticed Evans at the pool and launched his future career.

Having gone through a few minor roles, Evans played Thalberg to a “T” and was eventually cast as the great matador Pedro Romero in the film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Sun Also Rises.”

The only issue with his casting was that no one, including Hemingway, Ava Gardner and others, thought Evans should be anywhere near the role he was given. One of the few people who sided with him was the great Errol Flynn.

After fight upon fight, Daryl F. Zanuck, one of the greatest producers in history who left Warner Brothers in an effort to found 20th Century Films (later re-named Fox), watched Evans study his role and realized he was the perfect man for the job.

Evans played the part of Romero after months of training and played it well.

After a few more roles, each of which floundered, he realized he was a poor actor. What he really wanted was to be Zanuck himself.

There was no life left for Evans in acting. Producing was where his life would meet fame.

Evans was given the reins to the faltering Paramount Pictures after the Gulf & Western Company and took over the entity, being the only actor before or since to ever run a studio. Before he was 40, he took over Paramount, the ninth largest studio in town. Under his watch it became No. 1.

It was time for a new Hollywood.

Gone were the days of stereotypical musicals, cheap Westerns and slapstick comedies. What the American cinema viewers wanted was a different type of film.

Evans then embarked on an unknown journey developing movies that had never been seen before.

He brought in new stars who were devoid of the old Hollywood hierarchy, even though at all times those who controlled the studio were wishing him to fail and bet every cent upon it.

His genius relied in what he knew to be the only way to succeed.

He himself had to own the rights to the films he wanted to produce. Refusing to follow old norms, Evans began to purchase the rights to the films he wanted to make.

Did it pay off? You bet. That doesn’t mean it was easy.

He fought hard and fast, working 18-hour days to build Paramount into a juggernaut, all the while being threatened losing his job at every turn.

Evans developed “Love Story,” starring Ali McGraw (his short-lived wife) and Ryan O’Neal, a film that became one of the highest grossing films of its time.

He discovered and nurtured the career of his dear friend Jack Nicholson and became great friends with the great statesman Henry Kissinger.

Another one of Evans’ great efforts was “Rosemary’s Baby.” He hired Mia Farrow to play the lead in the film, much to the chagrin of her then husband, Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra wanted her to play a part in a movie he was producing at the time and threatened to take her off of the film.

Evans was able to persuade her to stay with “Rosemary’s Baby” even though Frank served her divorce papers on the set. Once she saw the dailies, she didn’t care one bit.

The last film I’ll bring up in the life of Robert Evans is “The Godfather.”

Evans worked with Mario Puzo to develop the story from a small book treatment into a great film.

Being threatened with losing his job, Evans was able to option the book into one of the greatest movies ever made.

No one wanted Al Pacino, James Caan or Marlon Brando in the film. On top of that, no one wanted Francis Coppola to be the director. Evans personally fired Coppola four times, all the while thinking he was going to get the axe himself.

In my opinion, he did it to inspire greatness. Who wouldn’t be challenged by four firings?

When Evans saw the cut Coppola put together, he remarked “Where the hell did you leave the movie, in your kitchen with your spaghetti? You shot a saga but turned in a trailer.”

If anyone was great at being himself, it was Evans.  

Evans forced the picture into re-editing and what emerged is one of the most famous films ever made.

Robert Evans, in my book, is one of the most fascinating producers in history. The man is full of infamy, mystery and with few regrets. MP
Tagged under  Entertainment, John Bragg III, Media History, Movie, Pickin on Film

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