Robert Evans, Legendary Producer of ‘Chinatown’ and Paramount Executive, Dies at 89

He was also a producer on “Marathon Man,” “Silver” and “Popeye”

Last Updated: October 28, 2019 @ 12:36 PM

Robert Evans, the legendary Hollywood producer of “Chinatown” and many more and the head of Paramount Pictures between 1967 and 1974, has died. He was 89.

An individual from Evans’ camp confirmed the news to TheWrap. He died on Saturday.

While at Paramount, Evans led a string of box office hits and critically acclaimed smashes that helped turn a struggling studio around, putting out classics such as the first two “The Godfather” films, “Harold and Maude,” “Serpico,” “Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Great Gatsby,” “True Grit,” “The Conversation” among many more.

In 1974, Evans stepped down from the head of the studio to serve as an independent producer, including a hot streak that included “Marathon Man,” “Black Sunday,” “Players” and “Urban Cowboy.” He later produced the “Chinatown” sequel, “The Two Jakes,” “Silver” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”

Born in New York City, as Robert Shapera, Evans got his start by working for a fashion company founded by his brother, Charles, as well as doing voice work on hundreds of radio shows. In 1956, he broke into Hollywood after being spotted by actress Norma Shearer, who pushed for him to play her late husband, MGM studio head Irving Thalberg, in the James Cagney movie “Man of a Thousand Faces.”

The one-off role became an acting career after being spotted by producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who cast him in the 1957 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” But while Evans’ good looks earned him several roles, his performances were panned by critics.

In the 1960s, Evans shifted to taking a job as a producer starting with an adaptation of the 1966 novel “The Detective.” This quickly led to him getting a job as the top producer at Paramount, where over six years he turned the studio from an industry also-ran to the top studio in Hollywood.

But Evans’ Hollywood career was also a turbulent one. During his time at Paramount, he infamously clashed with Francis Ford Coppola during production of “The Godfather,” including over the casting of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. Ali MacGraw, the third of Evans’ seven wives, left him in a very public divorce and married Steve McQueen. And through the 1970s, a growing cocaine dependency took its toll on Evans, culminating in a 1980 arrest for drug possession.

After the arrest, Evans’ output as a producer slowed down, and very few of his films became hits. This included a return to Paramount in the 1990s where he produced several box office misfires like “Jade” and “The Phantom.” But Evans did have one last hurrah in the early 2000s after filmmakers Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen adapted his 1994 autobiography “The Kid Stays In The Picture,” in which he narrated the vices and virtues of his life. The title of the film came from a message sent by Darryl F. Zanuck to Ernest Hemingway telling the writer that Evans, no matter what, would appear in “The Sun Also Rises.”

The documentary revived Evans as an icon of a bygone era of Hollywood, leading to a Comedy Central animated series called “Kid Notorious” based on Evans’ idiosyncratic persona, which he executive produced. It also led to Evans producing one last big hit: the 2003 romantic comedy “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” which grossed $177 million at the box office.

Evans and Paramount parted ways for the final time in July when the studio declined to renew its deal with his production company, Robert Evans Productions.

“Bob Evans has been an iconic part of the Paramount legacy for over half a century,” the studio said in a statement at the time. “His contributions to the studio and film industry have been innumerable […] Today we mark the end of our formal relationship with Bob as a producer, but his legacy will endure in our studio and in our hearts. There aren’t words to express our gratitude and reverence for the man whose name is synonymous with this company and the magic of movies.”

MacGraw released a statement on behalf of her and Joshua, her son with Evans during their marriage, on Monday: “Our Son Joshua and I will miss Bob tremendously and we are so very proud of his enormous contribution to the Film Industry,” she wrote. “He will be remembered as a Giant.”

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