Evans revels in his status as open book

August 31, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington -- The hostess is leading him to a discreet corner of the restaurant, but he picks a table front and center and the chair most directly in the line of vision and traffic. The staff tries to smooth out the bottleneck he's created by easing him into a less out-there seat.

"I'm comfortable right here," Robert Evans declares.

He is indeed. As the title of the Hollywood producer's new autobiography informs us, "The Kid Stays in the Picture" (Hyperion, $24.95).

A cocaine bust, a murder investigation, huge financial and emotional losses, depression that led to a stay in what he calls "a loony bin" -- seemingly nothing keeps Mr. Evans out of the picture or the pictures for very long. At 64, he's risen ("The Godfather," "Chinatown"), fallen ("The Cotton Club," "Black Sunday") and, as his own script would have it, is rising again.

With four movies in various stages of development and a book receiving decent if grudging reviews, Mr. Evans is back from several years in that peculiarly Hollywood kind of exile in which you haven't actually gone away but your calls aren't being returned and your projects get neither green lights nor red lights but terminal yellow ones.

"It's a terribly forgiving business," says Mr. Evans, in town to promotehis entertaining and profane book. "It accepts people back."

True to form, his return is accompanied by whispers of scandal: His name could crop up in the trial of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, which begins Sept. 19. (That's the same day O.J. Simpson goes to trial represented by the same lawyer, Robert Shapiro, who got Mr. Evans out of the mess of being implicated but never charged in a 1983 murder of a producer.) Mr. Evans says Ms. Fleiss is "a friend." Ms. Fleiss says he is a former lover. Others say he was a customer.

'Cheap fiction'

"I've always been in the center of controversy," he says, not without some pride.

His book bears that out. It traces a life characterized both by luck and lucklessness, street smarts and incredibly bad business decisions. A Wunderkind who at 36 was Paramount's youngest-ever production chief, Mr. Evans seems more like someone in a movie -- a rather bad and none too subtle one -- than someone who makes them.

"It reads like cheap fiction," Mr. Evans gleefully notes of his autobiography.

Mr. Evans proudly writes of taking Paramount from the brink of being closed by its parent company to one that churned out hits like "Rosemary's Baby" and "Love Story" (never mind embarrassments like "Popeye" and "Sliver"). He's equally proud of his bedroom hits -- from the Broadway showgirls he favored when he was a 14-year-old growing up in New York; to Ava Gardner and Lana Turner when he was a pretty-boy bit actor in his 20s; to his four wives and all the other actresses, starlets and at least one princess of those years before, during and after his marriages.

Wife No. 3, actress Ali MacGraw, whom he won over with the starmaking "Love Story" but lost to Steve McQueen and "The Getaway," seems the enduring love of his life -- last year, after her home was damaged in the Malibu fires, she moved into the guest house of his Beverly Hills estate. This October they're throwing themselves a silver wedding anniversary party.

"Just because we were divorced for 22 of those 25 years doesn't mean we can't celebrate," Mr. Evans says now, gleeful at this upcoming production. "We're going to have 100 people, black tie . . ."

He remains friends with his ex-es, including the fourth and, to date, last Mrs. Evans, former Miss America Phyllis George. "Just because we can't be married doesn't mean we can't be friends," he says blithely. "I've never been monogamous, how could I change now?"

He is, of course, a throwback, to a time pre-AIDS, pre-family values, pre-political correctness, pre-sunblock. Tanned to near George Hamilton bronze-itude, he is totally and refreshingly unapologetic for just about everything, from calling women "girls" to admittedly messing up his life. He revels in self-mythology, calling himself a gambler, an outlaw, a loner and just about every stock character you can think of. Being Robert Evans, it seems, means never having to say you're sorry.

His 412-page book is engaging if profane, but then, that's Mr. Evans in person as well. Newsweek's Jack Kroll called it "ridiculously riveting" even as he found Mr. Evans' writing style "hilariously messy." The New York Times' Janet Maslin said it's "shallow, self-aggrandizing and . . . notably evasive. But don't even try to put it down."

Until the 1980s, Mr. Evans' life was mostly charmed: He never went to college, instead doing some radio and bit acting gigs and helping his brother run Evan-Picone, their clothing company and the one, he claims, that put women in pants.

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