Robert Evans, the legendary head of Paramount Pictures and larger-than-life producer of “Chinatown” and “Marathon Man,” died Saturday at the age of 89. An aspiring actor, the tan and good-looking Evans claimed that actor Norma Shearer spotted him poolside and asked him to play her former husband, the legendary MGM exec Irving Thalberg, in the film “Man of a Thousand Faces.” As an actor, Evans never achieved great things.
He would make his mark as a top executive at Paramount, mentoring and clashing with up-and-coming directors such as Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich.
With him goes a vital link to Hollywood’s golden age and to the “young turks” who ushered in a bold new period of moviemaking in the 1970s. Bogdanovich spoke with Variety about Evans’ life and legacy. It was Evans who bought Bogdanovich’s first picture, the 1968 suspense thriller “Targets,” and later collaborated with him on 1973’s Oscar-winning “Paper Moon” and on 1974’s “Daisy Miller.” Here are Bogdanovich’s reflections (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).
“He brought a fresh kind of attitude to the movies. He had very good taste and he produced movies of his own that were damn good.
I loved Bob. He was friendly and amiable and charming. He was a movie fan too. It’s rare to have executives that really like movies. Not all executives are like that. He was really enthusiastic, and he encouraged talent. He was good Hollywood, not bad Hollywood.
He made a huge difference in my life. I remember he called me up and said, ‘You ruined my night.’ He put on my first film, ‘Targets,’ and he just meant to look at a couple of reels, and he couldn’t turn it off. So Paramount bought the film from Roger Corman, and it changed my career.
We talked about a lot of different pictures over the years. He offered me this and that, but the next project came to be ‘Paper Moon,’ which was originally known as ‘Addie Pray.’ It was a big success. When they offered it to me, I had a contract with Warners to do a big Western with them. Larry McMurtry wrote it, and it was called ‘Streets of Laredo.’ It became ‘Lonesome Dove.’ It was going to be for Duke Wayne, but he passed and we didn’t have a picture. So I said OK.
Peter Bart was his associate, and I said, ‘I want to shoot it in black and white.’ And he said, ‘Here we go again.’ [Ed. note: ‘The Last Picture Show’ was filmed in black and white.] I never heard another word. They got it. Bob was chic, and I told him that with Ryan and Tatum [O’Neal] it would look like a Disney movie. They were blue-eyed and blonde-haired, and this was Depression-era Kansas. He understood.
He offered me [‘The Godfather’] right after ‘Last Picture Show.’ I just wasn’t interested in doing a mob picture. Francis [Ford Coppola] did a great job. I wish we’d done more movies together, but I was picky.
I liked his book [‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’] very much. It was candid, much like Bob, and funny, but not abrasive.
He was kind of a go-getter, but he also respected the medium and the people that made the movies. He was rather glamorous in the old Hollywood tradition.
Bob was the last of a breed. He connected to the Hollywood of the ’50s. They made fun of him because he was an actor who became a studio head. But why not? He played the part very well.”
—As told to Brent Lang
Peter Bogdanovich is the Oscar-nominated director of the “The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Mask.”