A 1970s player, a 1980s flameout, and a 1990s survivor, studio executive-turned-producer Robert Evans' flamboyant life is as checkered as his mercurial career. Born Robert Shapera in New York City, Evans was a child actor, but he gave it up and went into the clothing business with his brother at age 21. Despite their success, Evans returned to acting when Norma Shearer chose him to play Irving Thalberg in the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). Although Evans had the movie-star looks, he lacked the talent to move beyond a smattering of small roles, including in The Sun Also Rises (1957). Still entranced by the movie business, however, Evans left the clothing company and went to work at 20th Century-Fox.
Despite his relative lack of experience, Evans was made the head of production at floundering Paramount in 1966. Under his Thalberg-esque watch, the rejuvenated studio turned out some of the most important hits of the late 1960s and early '70s, including Rosemary's Baby (1968), Love Story (1970), and The Godfather (1972). As skillful at drawing attention to himself, Evans held court at his estate with wife Ali MacGraw, and publicly clashed with Francis Ford Coppola over who was responsible for The Godfather's artistry. Though Evans was humiliated when MacGraw dumped him for Steve McQueen after The Getaway (1972), he still rode high professionally, striking a deal with Paramount that allowed him to produce as well as maintain his executive title. Setting the bar perhaps too high, Evans' first production was the Roman Polanski-directed, Robert Towne-scripted, revisionist noir Chinatown (1974), one of the outstanding works of the 1970s. Though Chinatown brought Paramount Oscar nominations and some box office (though no Best Picture statuette), Evans' dual role became problematic. He turned solely to producing, scoring two more hits with the thrillers Marathon Man (1976) and Black Sunday (1977). Evans also helped resurrect John Travolta's career (for the first time) with the moderately successful, trend-setting production Urban Cowboy (1980).
Evans' downfall began when he was busted for cocaine possession during the production of Popeye (1980), a box-office failure. Evans' real Waterloo, however, was The Cotton Club (1984). Meant to be Evans' directorial debut, Evans called in Coppola early on to save the already troubled production. Instead, the shoot spiraled out of control as the script was endlessly rewritten, the budget doubled, and Evans and Coppola fought publicly, not to mention the fact that Evans was also implicated in the murder of a funding source. Evans beat the rap, but he couldn't beat the bad publicity or The Cotton Club's mediocre performance. After he was fired in 1985 from his co-starring role in the Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes, Evans seemed to be finished. Evans re-emerged in 1990 when The Two Jakes was finally made, but it failed to even approach the original's impact. Still, Evans hung on throughout the 1990s, producing such glossy formula films as Sliver (1993), The Saint (1997), and The Out-of-Towners (1999), and publishing his juicy autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, in 1994. Evans' personal life also attracted attention with his ultra-brief marriage to actress Catherine Oxenberg in 1998. Along with MacGraw and Oxenberg, Evans' five wives have included former Miss America Phyllis George. As always the resilient survivor, Evans was in the spotlight again in 2002 with the release of the documentary film version of The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002). Produced with Evans' full support, and narrated by Evans in his famously gravelly, Noo Yawk-inflected tones, The Kid Stays in the Picture neatly combined still photographs, clips from Evans' most notable films, and an evocative visual tour of his beloved house to paint a dynamic, if not always fully revelatory, portrait of Evans' eventful life in the movies. Well received on the film festival circuit, The Kid Stays in the Picture opened to rave reviews in July 2002 and became an art house success.