As much a Tinseltown institution as the "Hollywood" sign, Robert Evans was discovered poolside by actress Norma Shearer, who suggested that the striking young actor play her late husband, movie mogul Irving Thalberg, in the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic Man Of A Thousand Faces. Evans' career as a leading man was brief and undistinguished, although he did score a major role in 1957's The Sun Also Rises. When his acting career waned, he made the nearly unprecedented jump from actor to studio head when he helped turn flailing Paramount Pictures around in the late '60s and early '70s, with hits that included Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, and The Godfather. Evans then struck out on his own as an independent producer, and his success continued with Chinatown, Marathon Man, and Urban Cowboy, among others. But in the '80s, a cocaine bust, drug addiction, and the scandals associated with 1984's disastrous The Cotton Club (which included the highly publicized murder of Hollywood entrepreneur Roy Radin) sent his career into a downward spiral. Evans began a long, gradual journey back, and though he was slowed by several strokes, he went on to produce a handful of films in the '90s, including Sliver, Jade, and The Out-Of-Towners. More importantly, he wrote a candid autobiography, 1994's The Kid Stays In The Picture, which was converted into a cultishly adored audiobook, as well as a new film that offers a one-of-a-kind look inside the mind of a Hollywood legend. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Evans about Jack Nicholson, his unique philosophy on lunch, and his stint as a speechwriter for George Bush.
The Onion: The Kid Stays In The Picture seems to be connecting with audiences. What do you think is resonating with people?
Robert Evans: It certainly has nothing to do with the film business, because usually, film pictures do not do well. It has to do, I think, with the fact that everyone can relate to it, because—take yourself, take your family, I take mine—it's tough to stay in the picture. See, literally, that was said to me by Darryl Zanuck: "The kid stays in the picture." But it's tough for anyone to stay in the picture. It's tough for a girl who is 15 years old and is dumped by the guy she's going with, and doesn't know what to do the next morning. It's tough for a guy who is 40 years old and loses his job and has to look for a job at 40. Staying in the picture in life is something everyone can relate to. This just happens to be about the film business I was in. It's like Rocky was about boxing. And I think everybody walks out and says, "I've been there." The audiences that are watching it, they feel better about themselves. They think, "Hey, if this guy can do it at his age, why the hell can't I do it? Even to this day, I should be able to do it, too." Many years ago, Darryl Zanuck told me—I was a half-ass actor, but I wanted to be a producer—he said to me, "You know, if you want to be a producer, go by one barometer: If you can make an audience cry and laugh within a two-hour period, you've got yourself a big picture." I've made movies that have cost $100 million, and I may get a laugh, I may get a cry, but in [Kid], of the 15 times I've seen it in front of paid audiences, people are crying at some point, and people are laughing. It hit some kind of a note somewhere—of sorrow, or love, or love lost, I should say—and there are some very funny things in it. I think that's what people can relate to. See, great comedy comes out of tragedy, and I can only say that my picture is a lot easier to watch than live. I'm stuck with that. I can't help it. The most basic form of emotion comes from the picture. In its simplicity, it brings out the laughter and it brings out the sadness. Because it has been that kind of a life. And let me tell you something: I didn't have a stroke because I was having a great life. My life had been too cavalier. I've always believed that rules are made to be broken, and I've broken them. I don't believe in structure, and I paid for it. Would I do it all again? Yeah. That's the way I am. I'm not a corporate guy. People see it also as a celebration of the individual, which I've always believed in. For example, I've never gone to work before 11 o'clock in the morning. I'm not good in the mornings, so I don't believe in breakfast meetings. Conversely, I have people working for me, and no one is ever allowed to go out for lunch. Because when everyone is going out to lunch [in L.A.], it's 5:30 on the East Coast. That's the most important time. While they're bullshitting at lunch here, they should be in their office, since that's the most important time to be there. To this day, I'm that way. I never go out for lunch. Once every two weeks, they're allowed out for lunch. I don't know why more people don't do it that way, but they don't. It's one of the keys to why we were very successful. From 12:30 to 2:30, everybody who works for me, including my secretaries, everyone's there. Nobody's out to lunch. I set the record. I never go out to lunch. That goes to every level of how I feel business should be done.
O: The directors of The Kid Stays In The Picture have said that they tried to direct the film like you would have yourself. Do you think they succeeded?
RE: I would say they 90-percent succeeded. They left things out that I wanted to be in, and we had a lot of fights during the making of the picture. It's very difficult to show your warts. Let me go back a bit and tell you about the embryo of how this thing happened. I wrote this book for one purpose only. I didn't care if only two books sold. I wanted my son to know who his old man really was. Because from the age of 7 to 17, he saw his old man go from royalty to infamy. You know, kids can be very mean to each other. When he graduated high school at age 18, there were 1,400 kids walking down the aisles with their caps on, and their parents were there, and that morning, my name was in the headlines of the L.A. Times: "Robert Evans Involved In Murder." I stood there like I was a foot tall. I was so ashamed of myself as a father. I was crying. Everyone was so happy, but I had to hold back my tears when people ran to their parents and put their arms around them. He ran over to put his arms around me, and I almost couldn't make it that day, let's just put it that way. So I figured I would go away and try and write this book for my kid. That's the reason why I went away for three years to write it. I didn't care if it got published. I wanted it to get published so it could be legitimized, but I didn't care if it only sold two books. It was my way of trying to leave my kid a legacy of who I was. I had nothing left to leave him, no money or anything like that. You know, he read the book, and we never discussed it. From that came the audio, and the audio caught on like you wouldn't believe. I couldn't believe it myself. It became a cult thing among the young people. But when [Kid producer and Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter first said he wanted to make a movie of it, I said, "Look, I'm not going to have George Hamilton play me. I don't want any live people in there. I don't want phony people playing real people. You can't make a movie of it." But he said he'd find a way to do it. Then he met [Kid directors] Brett [Morgen] and Nanette [Burstein], and it took them three years to do it. One thing is, it's an original. It's not really a documentary. It's really a journey, and a journey that many people have in their lives, though mine may be more extreme than others. I probably had higher ups and lower downs, but my sickness didn't really start until after the book was finished, my stroke. Look, I didn't get a stroke because I was lying on a beach in La Brea. I feel as if I'm 500 years old. I feel great, by the way. My stroke got totally cleared. [Viacom CEO] Sumner Redstone sent me a huge cake that said, "Happy 5th Birthday." I had the stroke in '98. They thought I was going to die from it, because I had three strokes in two days. And he was there with me every day, and he sent me a card. It's somewhere around here. So I feel as if I'm 5 years old now. I could say I'm 5 or I'm 72, but 5 sounds better. I feel it. I have a very busy schedule ahead of me. I'm doing a sequel to the book, by the way, called The Fat Lady Sang. It goes back into my past more. It has a very interesting structure, and if I want a deal, I already have three publishers who want it, but I don't want to sell it until it's finished. I'm shooting a picture right now in Toronto called How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey. I've never been busier in my entire life, but I'm really spending a lot of time with The Kid, taking it all over the world, because I feel that it is a shot of adrenaline for when you're really down. It allows you to get up again. This whole weekend, I was in theaters in New York going back and forth, and the fire department had to come in. In Lincoln Square, they had to make people leave, because they were standing in the aisles. There was laughter and there was tears.
O: You said earlier that you wanted some material to be in The Kid that wasn't. Can you give an example?
RE: There are some scenes I wanted in there. An example: When Paramount had its 75th anniversary, I had the biggest offices in the lot, and they shot the anniversary photo right over by it, on the lawn, and I wasn't even invited to be in the picture. Ali [MacGraw], my ex-wife Ali, ran in and said, "Where are you?" I said, "I wasn't invited." And she said, "What do you mean, you weren't invited? Without you, there would be no Paramount. This place would be a cemetery." Ali went back to take the picture, and I looked through my shades of my window and watched the picture being taken, because I wasn't invited. That's a scene I would like to have put in it.
O: Are there specific anecdotes you'd like to have added to the picture?
RE: Sure. How I discovered Jack Nicholson. It's a great story. I really wanted it in the movie badly. We were looking for someone to play a character named Tad in a Barbra Streisand picture called On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. We were looking for a kid to play the part, and finally the casting director says to me, "I got the right guy. This guy's the next James Dean." So I went in and we did a test on him, where a guy was talking to a girl. Anyway, another guy walks in and hands the guy an envelope with flowers, and walks out. I say, "Hold it. That's the guy." So the casting director says, "See, I told you he was the right guy." I said, "No, not him. The guy with the smile. Who is he?" The casting director said, "I don't know who he is." I said, "Well, find him. You hear me? Find the guy with the smile." And, by the way, I had to tell this story in front of 2,000 people at the AFI dinner for Jack. Jack wanted me to tell the story. Anyway, the casting director comes back and says, "Forget about it. The guy's name is Jack Nicholson, and he works for Roger Corman. The guy's a nut. He does the bookkeeping there, and he sweeps the floors. He acts sometimes, he directs sometimes." I said, "I want to meet him." She said, "What about the…" I said, "I want to meet him. I want to meet the smile. Find him." So she comes back and says, "You can't meet him. You know where he is now? He's in Cannes. He's shot himself two pictures. One cost $1,500, the other cost $2,000. One is House Of Horrors, the other is something else. Forget it. See, I told you the guy's a nut." I said, "I want to meet him." So I had to go to New York for some reason, and this agent calls me and says, "Mr. Nicholson is back from Cannes and on his way to New York." I say, "Who's Mr. Nicholson? I don't know who he is." The agent says, "The smile." So I say, "Oh, yeah, the smile. Have him come over." So he comes over, he sits down, he talks with me for about half an hour. I didn't know what he was talking about. He was talking a different language, almost. But every time he smiled, I couldn't take my eyes off him. So he's talking about Hoppy [Dennis Hopper] and Petey [Peter Fonda], and this and that, and motorcycles, and I guess he was talking about Easy Rider. It hadn't come out. So I told him, "Look, I don't want to hear about this motorcycle shit. How much is the most money you've ever made on a film?" He says, "Four hundred bucks." I say, "How would you like to make $10,000 for six weeks' work?" So his agent said, "Is that an offer, Mr. Evans?" I said, "Yeah." And then the agent said, "Can I call the Coast and phone it in?" Jack said, "Hold it, Bernie. Can I read the script?" Bernie says, "Quiet, Jack." And I said, "No, he has the right to ask the question." But Bernie's saying, "Come on, Jack. It's a legitimate offer." Jack says to me, "Can I speak to you alone?" So we walk to the window of the hotel, and he looks at me and says, "You don't know who I am, but I know who you are. I kind of figured something. I just got divorced, and I've got a kid. I need to pay alimony and child support. Can you make it $15?" I say, "How about $12.5?" He throws his arm around me and hugs me and kisses me on the cheek and says, "I'll never forget this." And he never has. I can't give you a better anecdote than that. I wanted that in the picture, as well, but it isn't in.
O: You made a lot of your biggest films during the height of the counterculture. What was your relationship with the counterculture like? What did you think of the hippies?
RE: I dug them. See, I related to them, because most of my friends were hippies. I wasn't liked by my peers or the front office, but I always hung out with the writers. See, I was never a star-fucker. I always writer-fucked. And people always star-fucked. I didn't believe in that. If it ain't on the page, it ain't going to be on the screen. And all my friends, the Roman Polanskis, the Nicholsons, the Bert Schneiders, these were all people who were in the counterculture. And in my contract, I had that I never had to go to any awards shows or dinners or charity functions. I never went out to parties or events. I stayed with my pals, maybe watched a film and discussed film. I wasn't social at all. I never went out. I went to maybe three Academy Awards shows in my life. Maybe four. And they were pissed off. That goes for all the awards. That was part of my contract. That was much more important to me than the money.
O: You wrote speeches for four different American presidents. How did that come about?
RE: It happened in different ways, because I'm a very good writer, and I think I know the pulse of an audience. Like for George Bush, the speech I wrote for him was when he was fighting Bob Dole for the Republican nomination. I wrote, "Vote for the real thing." Because Bush was the real thing: He was a war hero, an ambassador to China, he was in the U.N. He's the real thing. It worked, because it was the truth. If you tell the truth, it comes out right. And my book was the truth, because I wrote it for my son. I didn't write it for anyone else. When it's the truth, for some reason, people respond. I've believed in the truth since I was a little kid. And it has nothing to do with morality, either. I believe that if you tell the truth all the time, it makes your life simpler, no matter what you say. Your voice is different, your body language is different. People may not like it, but I just spit it out and say it like it is. There is one asterisk to it, though: Omission ain't lying. [Laughs.] So I've always lived by it, and it's gotten me in trouble, but it's left me free to be my own man. It's a celebration of the individual.
O: You deal a lot with the press in…
RE: Yes, I have dealt a lot with the press. And I've always had good relationships with the press, because I've always been straight with them.
O: How do you think the press has changed since you began your career?
RE: It's very exploitative. The press has changed so very much because of television, because of MTV, because every day they look for headlines. You know, you live by the press, you die by the press. It's a double-edged sword. The press made me wealthy and the press made me infamous. I've had good press and I've had bad press, and I've never denied anything on either level.
O: Looking back on your tenure as the head of Paramount, are there any films you regret having passed on?
RE: Sure. The French Connection.
O: Why did you pass on it?
RE: Somebody underneath me passed on it. When I read it, I wanted it, and I said, "How the fuck did this get by me?" I was away for a long weekend, so that's how that happened. Another picture I wanted to make real badly—I even flew back early from a vacation to try and get it—is Day Of The Jackal.
O: Alternately, what films did you green-light that you later regretted making?
RE: Many. Paint Your Wagon, Darling Lily, The Molly Maguires, WUSA with Paul Newman. Distribution made me make these pictures because they had big stars. They wanted stars up the wazoo, and I wanted to give it to 'em up the wazoo for wanting them. Stars don't make pictures, scripts make pictures.
O: How do you think the role of the producer has changed since you started?
RE: Well, there are more producers credited on a film than there are actors these days. Everybody's a producer. The cousin to the male star is a producer. The guy who finds the script, his mother is a producer. I mean, it's a joke. The title is diminished to the point where it has no integrity anymore. There are some great producers out there, wonderful producers out there. But being a producer is all about money now. Now Darryl Zanuck, he was a producer. But when the director hires the producer, watch out. Because the producer is the one who is on the project the longest: He finds the property, then hires the writer, hires the director, hires the actors, is involved in making the picture on through to post-production and the marketing. He still gets no respect for it at all. A director can do five bad pictures after one good one, and an actor can make three or four, but if a producer makes a big hit, it doesn't mean anything. They're still asking, "What do you have for me tomorrow?" Do I like it? No. Do I live by it? I've been in the business for a long time. I don't like the process, but I love the art and the thrill of what I went through last weekend—where I saw people laugh and cry—and it makes up for everything. I'm not a wealthy man at all when it comes to money, but I'm a very wealthy man in life. I've been touched with a bit of magic, and I see that other people are touched by it, too.