Book Article

The Godfather

Robert Evans returns -- With a new book and a killer tan, the former movie capo is back in the picture

The lush Beverly Hills estate of renegade producer Robert Evans is no place for the fair of skin. No sunscreen lotion, says the butler as he spreads towels on the chaise lounges by the extraordinary, blue-tiled egg-shaped pool, ''just various kinds of oil.''

The butler — British, pale, wearing a black suit — retreats to the shade of the main house. Built in 1940, this French regency mansion once provided a hideaway for Greta Garbo. And since Evans bought the place in 1967, his backyard screening room, nestled between the pool and the tennis court, has been a focal point of motion picture history.

Here Love Story had its first preview. Here Dustin Hoffman ran rushes of Marathon Man and Jack Nicholson got his first look at Chinatown. At the moment, the pool looks like an elaborate fountain, as two dozen jets of water shoot from its perimeter. ''Gosh,'' you think, ''this is what Old Hollywood looks like.''

But then Evans emerges from the house, slicked down in the aforementioned oils, wearing revealing denim shorts; he's barefoot, shirtless, fit, 64 years old. And tan. So tan George Hamilton would turn green, or at least deep olive, with envy. Evans reclines on the chaise and positions a fan- shaped sun-reflecting device against his neck. ''No,'' you think, ''this is what Old Hollywood looks like.''

''I want you to hear something,'' he says. ''You're the first person to hear it.'' He turns on a boom box. Out comes Evans' voice. ''There are three sides to every story,'' it growls. ''Yours, mine, and the truth. No one is lying....''

This is the preface to Evans' incendiary, just-released autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture. In it, he relates his Jackie Collins novel of a life, from B-movie idol in the '50s to the savior of Paramount in the late '60s and early '70s. As the godfather of The Godfather, Love Story, Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, and more, Evans ranks among Hollywood's most important producers. The Cotton Club (1984). This disaster, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, cost Evans his house (he eventually bought it back), and his reputation took another hit when a friend, Karen (Laynie) Jacobs Greenberger, was convicted of murdering one of the film's dealmakers, Roy Radin.

Even his memoirs arrive on shelves scandal-scarred. Evans accuses Paramount of trying to deep-six the book with a limited printing after he turned in his manuscript to Simon & Schuster (then a Paramount subsidiary). Snarls Evans, ''[They] did not want the history of Paramount told from my mouth.'' Evans says he threatened to release even more of the studio's skeletons if Simon & Schuster didn't allow him to put the manuscript up for auction. A spokesperson for the publisher insists that they cooled to the book only because Evans tossed out his first version, written by journalist Charles Michener, and insisted on telling the story by himself. Ultimately, the book was sold to Hyperion, the publishing arm of Disney.

Yet Evans' headlines hardly capture the real man behind the tan. ''There's a great deal of Bob that is naive,'' says Ali MacGraw. ''He has seen it all and met them all and danced with them all, but he's often capable of a total lack of cynicism.''

What Evans calls his ''bumpy road'' began in Harlem in 1930. In 1956, he was discovered by actress Norma Shearer, who spotted him sunning (what else?) at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool and recruited him to play her late husband, producer Irving Thalberg, in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). He starred in four films, including The Sun Also Rises (1957). Evans soon realized he wanted to produce, though, and in 1966 landed at Paramount, where he was head of worldwide production until 1975.

In the early '70s, as Evans became consumed with work on The Godfather, as chronic back problems increased, and as his marriage to MacGraw fell apart (she dumped Evans in 1972 for Steve McQueen, her costar in The Getaway), Evans began a love affair with painkillers and cocaine. ''I'd be a liar to say I haven't had anything in my nose in seven years,'' he admits, but insists he never bought the drug and claims he has finally stopped altogether. But drugs and dishonor took their toll. In 1989, Evans says, he checked himself into a mental institution, but reconsidered after 24 hours and escaped by breaking past the guards and taking flight in a waiting limo.

But in The Kid Stays in the Picture, Evans does give his story a happy ending. Three years ago he landed a lucrative production deal at Paramount by tying up the complicated, sought-after rights to The Saint, the popular series of spy novels that inspired the '60s Roger Moore TV series.

He made an inauspicious comeback with last year's Sliver, but might fare better with The Phantom, an action-adventure that begins filming this fall. Expect Evans to make his tabloid comeback during the upcoming trial of Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood madam. Linked with her at the time of her arrest, Evans laughs off their relationship. ''She's a pal,'' he says. ''I certainly didn't know her for what they claim she is...I never dated one of her girlfriends because Heidi would get too jealous.''

The butler appears with a lunch of hot dogs and beer on the patio. ''I want to show you something,'' says Evans. He's off to the house, humming going in, humming coming back, and holding out a poem. It's about death, he says. He sent it to his friend Dean Martin when Martin's son died in a 1987 plane crash. He reads aloud quietly, and comes to the last lines: ''Do not stand at my grave and cry/I am not there...I did not die.''

''A TV producer was here,'' says Evans. ''I read him the poem. He burst into tears.'' He summons the butler: ''Alan!''
Butler: ''Yes?''
Evans: ''What happened when I read this to the producer?''
Butler: ''He burst into tears, didn't he?''
Evans glistens with oil and glows with pride; the man who unleashed Love Story on the world has touched another heart and wet another pair of eyes. ''Yeah,'' says Evans, smiling softly. ''He burst into tears.''

Originally posted Aug 19, 1994 Published in issue #236 Aug 19, 1994 Order article reprints