“Whatever indiscretions I’ve had in my life, I’ve paid for them pretty good,” says Robert Evans, sitting in his elegant dining room in Beverly Hills. “To live the life I’ve led and still be here …” He lowers his voice to a whisper. “Let’s just say, I’ve paid my car fare.”
At 83, Hollywood’s most notorious film producer is back from the dead — and not just by the town’s usual standards of box-office failure. Fifteen years ago, Evans flatlined in an ambulance taking him to the Los Angeles Cedars Sinai hospital after he’d suffered the first of three strokes. He had been hosting a party for horror director Wes Craven when he keeled over — with characteristic dramatic flair — mid-toast, cocktail still in hand.
Evans’s power as a seducer is irresistibly apparent in person. He may only be “90 per cent recovered” from his paralysis, but his handshake pulls you right into his power-tanned orbit, as does his purring coil of a voice. His inordinate gift for friendship is evident in the star-studded photographs in his mansion. There he is, wall after wall, decade after decade, with everyone from Warren Beatty to Snoop Dogg to John McEnroe to Slash of Guns N’ Roses.
Jack Nicholson, he says, rang just the day before to say how much he enjoyed Evans’s answers in the Proust Questionnaire in this month’s Vanity Fair. (“What is the quality you most like in a man? Resilience. What is the quality you most like in a woman? Willingness.”)
It’s a rare gift to be able to sustain friendships for that long in this town. “In any town,” he says, right back. “I always say friendship is being able to go through thin and thin together.”
The Fat Lady Sang is the long-in-the-works sequel to The Kid Stays in the Picture, his rollicking 1994 bestseller, which catapulted Evans from flamboyant Hollywood survivor to global celebrity. The book covered his rise from the New York rag trade (“Even then I was into women’s pants”) to pretty-boy actor (“unspeakably bad,” said The New York Times) to studio head at Paramount.
For eight years, he presided over the making of such classics as Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather and Chinatown. The first book covered his many operatic falls, too. Most famously, his second marriage, to Ali MacGraw, ended when she ran off with Steve McQueen in 1972 in Texas during the making of The Getaway. Evans discovered the truth while he was in Rome overseeing dubbing on The Godfather.
As the story exploded across the tabloids, Henry Kissinger, of all people, called to offer his assistance: “If I can negotiate with the North Vietnamese, I think I can smooth the way with Ali.”
“Henry,” replied an inconsolable Evans, “you know countries, but you don’t know women. When it’s over it’s over.”
It was cocaine that proved Evans’s undoing when he entered the next phase of his career, breaking with Paramount to become an independent producer.
His runaway production of The Cotton Club in 1984 ended in box-office failure and a murder trial. Prosecutors wrongly believed Evans had paid two hit men to kill a theatrical promoter after a drug deal went wrong. “How could I get busted for something when I’m 3,000 miles away?” he protested. “My nose ain’t that long.”
Overcome with drug addiction and depression, he even briefly checked into a psychiatric clinic. His attempted comeback in 1990 with The Two Jakes, a belated sequel to Chinatown, ended in disarray and that seemed to be that.
Except the audiobook version of The Kid Stays in the Picture, which Evans narrated, became a must-have item in Los Angeles, thanks in part to the majestic velvet rasp of his voice. It’s a complex voice to describe — both gravelly and smooth, and thick with the sweet rot of sybaritic pleasure. Standup comedian Patton Oswalt said: “It’s like listening to Lucifer dictate his memoirs on a Sunday afternoon lying on his couch in his bathrobe with a martini.”
In The Kid Stays in the Picture, Evans listed his failures with as much hard-boiled delight as his successes. Even now Evans gets letters from fans from around the world, ensnared by his singular mix of ring-a-ding-ding chutzpah and tear-sodden wound-bearing.
The book spawned a documentary in 2002, which opened at Sundance to a 20-minute standing ovation, and an animated series, Kid Notorious, featuring Evans and his long-serving English butler, Alan Selka.
Selka, who wears a gold waistcoat and spectacles, is a firm part of the experience chez Evans. He could have been plucked from a classic farce, but he and Evans have unabashed rapport. “Names changed to protect the guilty,” says Selka, waving a hand over another corridor of star-studded photographs.
They quibble lightly over dates — “We’re both wrong!” — before Selka deftly reminds Evans to mention his latest movie projects, a biopic of carmaker John DeLorean and an adaptation of a racy S & M memoir, Whip Smart.
“Let me tell you something,” says Evans. “Alan only had two positions before here.” He lowers his voice to a growl. “He saw more here in two months than he saw in his entire f--- life!”
“I said, I gotta get this guy to lose his cool. I was in the bedroom with two girls and I told Alan, ‘Please bring some champagne and glasses.’ He walks in the bedroom …” Evans impersonates Selka entering with a tray and tripping over with shock. “That’s what bonded us. Alan and I have travelled the world together,” he says with feeling.