The kid is back in the picture

Robert Evans, the infamous movie producer who, by his own count, is on his fourth life, talks about breaking the rules and brushes with death.

By Dimitra Kessenides
Published July 30, 2002 7:28PM (EDT)

Hollywood can play rough. Sure, it'll scoop you up and smother you with kisses when you're on -- you look good, you say the right things, you make somebody else rich, and it doesn't get any better. But you blow it, and it'll blow you off. One false move -- you're used, abused and left for dead.

But if you leave big, there's always room for a sequel. Robert Evans is proof. The legendary producer was, in his first life, the leading man of a classic Hollywood saga: A handsome young actor, perfectly at home in the business called show, gets discovered not once, but twice, and, at the tender age of 35, is handpicked to lead production for Paramount Pictures with little more than a couple of acting credits to his name. As head of production at Paramount Pictures he rolled out "Love Story," "The Godfather," "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby." A burst of extraordinary moviemaking, fueled by a binge of dangerous merrymaking, follows and then screeches to a dramatic halt after a drug bust in the early '80s, followed by a link in the press to the murder of an investor in one of his films. (It was "The Cotton Club," and Evans eventually was cleared of any connection to the crime.)

Dumped and disgraced, Evans withdrew from public view for a good long while. He hit bottom in 1997 when, after three strokes in two days, he says he "died" for a moment or two. Then, Hollywood being what it is, or Robert Evans being who he is, or both, a miraculous recovery set in.

Evans is now 72 -- or, by his reckoning, a mere 5 years old counting forward from his brush with death -- and he is back. His 1994 autobiography, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," sparked a conflagration of cultlike celebrity in the industry, especially when the taped version of the book -- read by Evans in his supersuave growl -- began making the rounds and generating giddy buzz, particularly among the younger ranks of actors and others aspiring or thriving in the biz. A filmed version of the book, which just opened in New York and Los Angeles, will roll out nationally over the next three weeks, bobbing along happily on a growing wave of critical acclaim.

Evans the senior citizen remains perfectly suited for stardom: He's got the tan, the shades and the voice -- as sweet and low as it ever was. And in the voice, a new cavalcade of swank and frank utterances. He's delightfully old school, and the crowd loves it. "My own life makes a better job than the job itself," he says when asked about being scooped up and smothered with kisses all over again. "I'll tell you something else, it's a lot more fun looking at it than living it."

Captured briefly on the phone, Evans reflects on his rekindled romance with Hollywood, and imparts the wisdom of a man who has been there and back.

You're riding a whirlwind. Has it been fun?

I'm tired, but I must tell you, tired good, not tired bad. It's been a very exciting experience.

Is it different -- the whirlwind, that is -- the second, third, fourth time around?

Well, let's put it this way. You look at it differently when it's your own ass on the line. I've never in my history -- I've been in this racket for 40 years -- had a response to a film of my own life. My own life makes a better job than the job itself. I'll tell you something else, it's a lot more fun looking at it than living it.

That can't be true.

That is true. The lows can be very low, baby.

C'mon, watching it can't come close to some of the real experiences.

Well, I can say I've led a very adventurous life. I have broken all the rules. I believe in breaking the rules, that's the way you move forward. If you live by the rules you stay still, and by breaking them you get in a lot of trouble. I keep moving, and I feel as though I'm 5 years old, even though I had a stroke five years ago. They thought I wouldn't live and here I am talking to you.

So you still feel like a kid?

I celebrated my birthday on June 29, and Sumner Redstone made a big cake and a huge card that said, "Happy Fifth Anniversary Kid!"

Any drawbacks to the attention you're getting right now?

No, it's all a high. Because I'm not only doing it for this. I have another movie going right now, with Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. I'm writing a sequel to my book called "The Fat Lady Sang," and I'm going to do the story on Sidney Korshak called "Power."

Busy as ever.

I want to keep busier.

But really, does Hollywood take someone of your age seriously? This is a young person's world, especially in Hollywood.

The thing is, they're taking me more seriously than ever. Not my peers, but the young people, like [director] Wes Anderson. He's a pal of mine. And David O. Russell's a good friend of mine.

Maybe it's because I'm a rebel, because I don't go by the rules. I believe they have respect for me. Whereas some of my peers don't because I don't play by the rules. I don't show up to the office -- even when I was head of the studio -- before 11:30 in the morning. I'm not a good morning person. I learned that from Darryl Zanuck many years ago. He never showed up till 2 in the afternoon. I ain't a breakfast guy.

What's the best time of day for you?

Starting at around 4 in the afternoon till 4 in the morning.

Quite a stretch.

Then I get six or seven hours of sleep, have breakfast and I'm off for my day. I never make luncheon dates either. Because while people are at lunch on the West Coast, I'm doing business with the East Coast. I don't allow any of my people to go out to lunch because when they're out to lunch, we're on the phone to New York. Let the others eat, we do business.

You probably couldn't have lived the life you've had anyplace but California, wouldn't you say?

Well I love it out there, it's kept me sort of alive.

What's the scariest experience you've ever had?

It doesn't get more scary than dying. I had three strokes in two days, and they didn't think I'd make it, and they said I'd never walk again. I went through three years of therapy to learn how to walk. I couldn't pick up a fork for six months.

Your recovery seems unbelievable then. What do you attribute it to?

Staying in the picture. The will to live. I could have been a cripple, I could have been paralyzed, but I worked eight hours a day on physical, occupational and speech therapy. The whole right side of my body was paralyzed. I couldn't move my toes. I had to learn to walk. Still, to this day when I get up I do heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe, because my right leg was totally gone. From your brain, when it closes up, the motor nerve doesn't go to your leg. They definitely thought I'd be in a wheelchair.

You still have a great voice. What would you say it's gotten you??

Yes, I have my voice. It's gotten me a lot. I was a radio actor as a kid, I was a disc jockey when I was 17 in Miami, Palm Beach and in Havana. But my voice wasn't as deep when I was 14. It doesn't do me bad with girls. Especially if I talk low.

If there's anyone who subscribes to the belief that there are no second acts in life, they've never met Robert Evans.

I'm on my fourth act. I lived a three-act story but when I died, I got my fourth act. And I'm now 5 years old. I may only live till 7, but for now, I'm 5. I'm going to stay at this for a while.

Tell me about success and some elements of success. How much does looking good matter?

If you look good, you feel good, you act good. Most people think they don't look good. Looking good is to make everything background be background, and make you foreground. It's how you look, not what you wear.

How about charm?

Charm and seduction totally differ. One gives you an attack of the heart and the other gives you a heart attack.

Honesty, do you need that for success?

I believe I've been the most honest person of anyone I know. For one reason: It has nothing to do with morality, it just makes life easier. You never have to remember what you've said. It gets you in trouble at times, but I can walk into a room three years later, and see people I haven't seen and say the same thing. It makes body language easier, verbal language easier. However, there's an abstract to it. Omission isn't lying.

Dishonesty comes back to bite you in the ass. And the worst thing is a half-truth because it carries with it a veracity you can believe, and the rest is made up. So success is easy when you tell it as it is, when people question you and requestion you and requestion you.

Sincerity and insincerity -- how much or how little do you need of these?

These are subjective. Because if I believe in something, I can be Elmer Gantry. If I don't believe in it, I will not allow myself to fake it, I don't know how to fake things.

And the power of persuasion?

I have great power of persuasion when I believe in something. I have none when I don't believe in it, and that goes for everything.

Do you need to have connections to powerful people?

You don't need it. It doesn't hurt. I've always had it. I've had connections to people of power, but I've had it all my life. I didn't have power, I gained power through giving. I've gained power for inventing things. It was never handed to me. I gained power by meeting people of power through giving as well as taking. I've always believed in giving more than taking. That to me is power.

Also, power is being remembered; that's far more important than money. And don't take yourself too seriously. In order to have power, you should be able to make fun of yourself and be self-deprecating. People who aren't sure of themselves boast. People who are very rich don't talk about their money.

I think self-deprecation is one of the greatest attributes in the world. I'm that in my own way, because I have a lot to be self-deprecating over. I'm a lousy businessman, I'm a bad executive. I don't live by the rules, I live to break them.

Should you really be going on the record as saying you live to break the rules today, when the news is filled with the terrible fallout from so many people breaking the rules?

There are different ways of breaking rules. I'm not speaking of breaking the rules by being dishonest; I'm speaking of breaking the rules about your own habits and how you live your life. I mean, I've been married four times and I've never paid $1 of alimony for one reason: Every wife ended up making more money than me. And I helped them make it.

Are they paying you alimony?

No, but we're all great friends. Breaking the rules also is showing up at work at 2 in the afternoon, and getting the job done better. Breaking the rules is in my contract. I never, ever had to go to any awards or events, I would only go to what I wanted to. I didn't believe in a social life, I believed in making films. This is my contract. Breaking the rules is going and giving up my job unless I had total autonomy. That's what I call breaking the rules. Breaking the rules is a celebration of the individual.

How important is it for people to develop a personal sense of style? You've got one -- the clothes, the glasses.

I don't believe in labels. I don't believe in wearing Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein; I certainly wouldn't wear pants with their name on the outside. I mean, that's not me. I'm like Popeye the Sailor, I am who I am, that's all that I am.

That's not today's world.

Well, it isn't, but it's mine.

We're talking about all this stuff, success and style and how people react to you, how you treat people. Any thoughts on Michael Ovitz and his seeming meltdown in a recent issue of Vanity Fair?

I have no opinion of it, I don't wish to give an opinion of it.

Any opinion of people who talk out of school?

I don't want to know them. One thing I've learned, I learned this from a very important guy, my godfather, Sidney Korshack. Continued silence is the greatest insurance policy for continued breathing.

What gives you great pleasure in life?

The greatest pleasure is to see a woman blossom. So many women underestimate themselves because they make the wrong choices. To give them the opportunity in making the right choices and see them blossom is a great feeling for me. And I helped make that happen for many, because I like women. Most men don't. They like to lay them, parlay them, relay them, have them on their arm. I like a woman's brain, I like a woman's instincts, I like a woman's focus and I like a woman's strengths.

Do you think you've figured women out?

Any man who thinks he can read the mind of a woman is a man who knows nothing.

Any regrets?

The second half of my life. A lot of it. I went from royalty to infamy in one day. Royalty pays and infamy stays. So I'll live the best in the world of infamy and enjoy it.

Dimitra Kessenides

Dimitra Kessenides is a New York writer and a senior editor at JD Jungle magazine.

MORE FROM Dimitra Kessenides

Related Topics ------------------------------------------