I feel like I failed Robert Evans. Even now, that seems like a strange assertion because it implies the following:
1) I was in a position to help Robert Evans.
2) Robert Evans wanted my help.
It is still hard to believe that either of those statements is true. But in a frenzy of anxiety and uncertainty over the release of Evans’ second memoir, The Fat Lady Sang, the most notorious and beloved studio executive of all time and a goddamned American legend, reached out to me, a complete stranger, in hopes that I might be able to help his new book.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to believe that I spent a weekend as the guest of Robert Evans, or that of the brilliant, troubled trio of Robs who collaborated on Popeye: Robert Evans, Robert Altman and Robin Williams, Evans is the last one left, especially considering that Evans had already lived multiple lives by the time the film began filming in Malta.
The email that ushered in a strange interlude in my life was as direct as it was unusual. It read:
I am trying to contact Mr. Nathan Rabin.
My name is Alan with the Robert Evans Co.
Evans’ 1994 memoir The Kid Stays In The Picture reinvented Evans, already infamous for his previous lives as a child radio actor, leading man, studio head and the producer of films like Chinatown, Urban Cowboy and The Marathon Man, as a professional raconteur. The Kid Stays In The Picture had a profound effect on me; like everyone who reads it, I found myself regularly lapsing into a half-assed impersonation of Evans’ voice, with its tough-guy bravado and gossipy salaciousness and goofball humor. I didn’t just love the book with an unusual intensity: I wanted to be Robert Evans.
He seemed to have lived a life that was far too good and too insane to be true, but he had the credits, the pictures and the prestige to back up his big talk. Did Robert Evans and his irresistible memoir hit me like lightning — good lightning? You bet your sweet ass they did. The Kid Stays In The Picture had such a profound effect on me that I closed the introduction to my memoir, The Big Rewind, with a reference to it. Given the lascivious nature of Evans’ legend, it seemed strangely reverent that that reference took the form of a dick joke.
Here’s the strange thing about The Kid Stays In The Picture: It is written from the perspective of a weary survivor contemplating mortality, old age, and death. It is filled with darkness, cocaine busts, addictions, scandals and daring escapes from mental hospitals. Yet The Kid Stays In The Picture roars with life. Its unapologetic, lyrical vulgarity stands as a powerful rebuke to the dour finality of death.
“Would you like to talk to Mr. Evans?” inquired Alan on the other end of the line.
“My God, of course yes,” I muttered excitedly and suddenly that voice, that world-seducing purr, oozed into the receiver of my telephone.
“Nathan. I’m a big fan of yours. I love the piece that you wrote. It really captured the heart of the book, not just the details. Where it was, not just where it’s at,” he said, lapsing instantly into Evans-speak. “And I’ve got a new book coming out and I’m worried about it. It’s a tough book. It’s a tough thing to write about your own death,” he continued cryptically.
It was, I would learn, an omen of things to come. The Kid Stays In The Picture has an elegiac quality to it, almost as if Evans is writing his own obituary in the crackling prose of a dime-store novelist. It is a book about the end of a great and mercurial career from a man who seemed to think the future didn’t hold much for him beyond a desperate bid for survival. That was over two full decades ago. The Evans who published The Kid in 1994 had no idea just how much life he had left. Even a man with a Gatsby-like gift for hope like Evans could not have envisioned the way the ensuing decades would turn out, for better or worse.
He couldn’t have envisioned the strange second life he would enjoy as a professional bon vivant. By the time he wrote The Kid Stays In The Picture, Evans had lived at least a dozen lives. Now that new life was nearly two decades old. His new life was nearly old enough to buy itself a dirty martini and hit on an alluring stranger in a hotel bar.
“Nathan: with you and me, 1+1 equals 11!” Evans enthused brightly over the phone, a line I remembered he had used on Val Kilmer when they were making The Saint together. I didn’t feel insulted: I felt honored to be the recipient of one of Evans’ stock lines.
“Nathan, are you making it out to Los Angeles any time soon?” Evans asked excitedly.
“Oh man, I would love to but I am seriously broke. I wanted to go out there a second time this summer to help promote my last book but I just wasn’t able to swing it, financially,” I answered.
“I understand. I understand completely. However, if we were to fly you out to Los Angeles do you think you would be able to meet with me next Saturday morning?” Evans asked eagerly.
Was I willing to be flown out to Los Angeles to meet with Robert Evans?
“Oh God, yes. Of course. Yeah, it’d be an incredible honor to come out to Los Angeles and meet you next Saturday. That would be amazing,” I stammered, still in a state of disbelief.
“Great. We’ll make the arrangements and I look forward to meeting you on Saturday,” Evans fired back with what felt like a smile in his voice. Maybe I was imagining things, but Robert Fucking Evans actually seemed excited about meeting me.
On Tuesday I was on the phone with Evans’ maid making arrangements to fly to Los Angeles that Friday night and back to Chicago less than forty-eight hours later. I asked Alan if I would be booked into a hotel or if I should just crash on my buddy Matt’s couch and he replied that during my stay in Beverly Hills, California, I would be a guest at Woodland.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of Woodland in Robert Evans’ mythology. It was his true home, a modest but incandescent castle. In keeping with the alternating currents of tragedy and triumph that run through his life and career, it was something Evans came perilously close to losing during the marathon stint of bad luck that nearly destroyed him in the mid 1980s before The Kid Stays In The Picture turned everything around. It’s not often that you have an opportunity to stay in a place you’ve read about in books and seen in movies and heard spoken of in hushed tones as one of the most magical and enchanted places in entertainment.
I had heard rumors about a follow-up to The Kid Stays In The Picture for at least a decade. Yet I wasn’t entirely sure I would ever see the follow-up. Now not only was its publication imminent, its author was inexplicably intent on meeting me and forming a relationship. What kind of a relationship? I had no idea. I wanted to help publicize Evans’ new book but I’m a critic and a journalist, not a publicist. Still, I wanted to be of service, if only to facilitate a union between this Olympics-grade talker and the world of podcasting, to invite a small army of intense Jews with names like Maron and Fogelnest and Sklar to descend upon Evans’ kingdom with microphones in hand in search of killer content. That is what I felt I could do for Evans: help the living embodiment of show-business history navigate the tricky terrain of the present. At least I hoped I could.
That next morning after breakfast, I was told that Evans would see me in his room. My first impression of Evans was that he was tired. Deeply tired. Even exhausted, Evans looked fantastic. He didn’t just look good for an eighty-something man who had survived three strokes: he looked great, period, but he was stricken with doubt and anxiety. He smiled a big, dazzling, glad-you’re-here movie-star smile upon our introduction but it was a smile that seem to require effort.
His exhaustion was physical as well as existential. He wasn’t just tired, he was weary. A life that had once seemed effortless now seemed to require enormous effort. He was exhausted by the demands of putting out a book but he also seemed to be exhausted with the demands of being Robert Evans, with having to live up to the image that he created. Evans had once been at the epicenter of it all: sex and money and politics and sports and movies and music and everything else that was glamorous and exciting and feverishly American. He had been an intense, determined, and successful player but age had turned life into something of a spectator sport.
I’d like to imagine that for Evans publicizing The Fat Lady Sang would be an extended victory lap. He’d done the work, first by overcoming a series of strokes and the indignities of age and then by writing a funny, vulgar, and entertaining follow-up. But Evans saw it differently.
The problem was simple: Evans, one of the greatest talkers in the world, did not want to talk. The process of writing The Fat Lady Sang, of re-living those traumas, had clearly extracted a toll. They left him with no appetite for the sometimes soul-shredding business of selling his book.
Evans was not a happy man, he confided matter-of-factly early in our first conversation. He did not greet each morning with optimism or hope. The hunger that had fueled his glorious career in its myriad forms had abated, at least temporarily. He was proud of the book he had written but had little appetite for promoting it. Evans was a world-class talker but that weekend at least he no longer seemed interested in talking to anyone beyond his immediate circle.
I struggled to muster up the courage to ask the question that had been on my mind since that first call:
“How can I help you?”
“It’s enough for you to just be here,” he said paternalistically but, being an inveterate Midwesterner, I could not bear the idea that someone would indulge in such a generous gesture without receiving something in return. And I felt like I was finally in a place where I might be able to help.
“What I would love to do would be to really launch this book with my generation, with people who are Gen-Xers or Gen Y and maybe were a little too young for The Kid Stays In The Picture or don’t know that you have a follow-up coming out,” I stated inelegantly as he looked on with an expression that was either intense concentration, utter bewilderment or some combination of the two. “There are only a couple of major engines for selling books these days. NPR is one and I’d love for you to be on there but podcasts are also, increasingly, a wonderful tool for promoting projects like these,” I continued.
“That’s great. What are those?” Evans asked excitedly.
How was I going to explain the world of WTF, Nerdist, and You Made It Weird to Evans without making it seem ridiculous in the process? The man was a show-business god and here I was asking him to go on what I must have made sound like homemade radio shows that people could only listen to on their computers. He could be mistaken for assuming podcasts were only a quick step up from advertising his book via CB radio.
Evans, however, was the rare author who was not obsessing with talking about his new book. On the contrary, he didn’t want to do interviews to promote the book at all. He had done a few with publications like Vanity Fair, but he had no desire to do more.
“I don’t have a publicist and they’ve got 50 interviews on a sheet that I don’t want to do,” Evans said. This was problematic. For as wonderful and flexible as podcasts are, they invariably require active participation. And I wanted to be the catalyst who convinced Evans to put himself out there to the world one last time for the sake of a worthy book. I wanted this weary veteran to go one more round. But it’s impossible to score a knockout unless you step back into the ring and Evans’ reluctance to open himself up to more exhausting public scrutiny was eminently understandable, if regrettable, given the circumstances.
So I switched topics and ambled up to one I wasn’t sure I would bring up at all.
“This is going to sound a little crazy, but when I was re-reading The Kid Stays In The Picture, I remember thinking what a weird situation you were in when you ran Paramount back in the 1970s. On one hand, you were extraordinarily powerful and successful and led this incredibly glamorous existence but at the same time you were constantly strapped for cash.”
“That’s true!” he replied.
“And there’s also this interesting incongruity where you’re a very successful studio executive but at the same time you write in this hard-boiled, Mickey Spillane style. So I had this brainstorm for a mystery novel with you as the main character.”
I scanned Evans’ face for signs of enthusiasm or mortification as I waited for him to take in what I’d just said. Even for a man whose life had become the basis for a short-lived Comedy Central cartoon (Kid Notorious) a decade earlier, this was an odd proposition. I couldn’t delineate whether the look of curiosity in Evans’ eyes was one of morbid fascination or genuine enthusiasm, so I plowed ahead blindly.
“So this mystery novel would begin in 1972. You are the head of Paramount and life is wonderful except that you’re in love with Ali McGraw and want to propose to her, only you can’t afford the ring. So you go to [Evans’ powerful lawyer and mentor] Sidney Korshak and ask him to borrow money to buy a new ring and he tells you, ‘Schmuck! Republicans don’t lend each other money, they make each other work for their money. Otherwise they’d be communists, going around, giving other people money for nothing.” I acted all this out, vividly if clumsily.
Were I wiser man, I might have realized that Evans’ relationship with Korshak — who, according to Evans’ second book, never got over Evans not immediately seeking his help when he was busted for cocaine in the 1980s — was still a source of pain to him, and that the last thing he’d want to hear, in this vulnerable state, would be his late mentor hectoring him, even within a fictional context.
But I am not a wise man, so I kept going: “So Korshak tells you a Hollywood secret: no studio executive has ever made much money, so they all had to moonlight as private investigators. The greatest studio executive of all time was of course Irving Thalberg, who, if anything, was an even better detective than he was a studio head, if you can believe that. So Korshak says he’ll give you Irving Thalberg’s old case book to help you start out your new detective agency, only, because Thalberg has been dead so long, not only are most of the cases dead, but most of his clients are dead as well.”
By the time I was done, I laid out a story for a mystery novel that involved Robert Towne, Chinatown, Ali McGraw and an alter-ego named Johnny Gentile. I delivered the end of my pitch to silence. Nothing. Evans’ wildly expressive face turned into a stone-cold cipher.
Finally, I couldn’t take the tension any more and blurted out, ���So, whaddya think?”
“Well,” Evans said carefully, choosing his words selectively as I hung in feverish anticipation. “It’s—” and then, after a seemingly endless pause, he finished with “—interesting.”
Alan then asked me if I would be interested in reading a preview copy of The Fat Lady Sang, his new memoir, and I instantly answered affirmatively.
Like seemingly everything that had happened to me since I received that first email, it was deeply weird in a good way. I had never read a book in the presence of its author before, let alone read a book over the course of about five hours in the famed home where much of the action takes place while the author, lie in a bed 25 feet away.
It’s a hoary aphorism that true courage lies not in being wholly unafraid (which is largely the domain of sociopaths) but rather in owning up to your fear and conquering it. That’s Evans in The Fat Lady Sang: his bravery lies in chronicling just how scared and freaked out and overwhelmed the strokes made him feel, in forthrightly documenting the existential terror engendered by encroaching mortality.
Later that evening, I was invited to have a dinner of poached salmon, asparagus and scotch with Evans in his room as he wound down from the day. The conversation quickly took on a very bittersweet quality.
“I don’t have POM,” Evans said cryptically.
“What’s POM?” I inquired.
“Peace of mind,” he clarified. His statement was pure Evans: a genuine expression of deep, intimate sadness conveyed via a dizzy, fizzy acronym not in the general parlance. Evans has his own way of talking, even when communicating despair.
“You’ve got to be able to forgive yourself,” I told Evans, feeling a little ridiculous and pompous giving advice to a man like him. “You’ve got to be able to forgive yourself in order to make peace with the past.”
“Oh I have. I have forgiven myself, but that doesn’t mean that I’m at peace with the past,” he said sadly.
I wanted to give Robert Evans peace of mind, to assure him that everything would be okay. But I couldn’t do that. No one could. Not even Evans’ friends like Warren Beatty, who had money and massive fame at their disposal, not 36 hours in Los Angeles and friendly working relationships with a number of prominent podcasters.
When I first met Evans my brain processed him as an icon but also, and primarily, as someone who was sad. That seemed as central to his identity as making movies, and at that point, sadness seemed more central to his identity than film, though the imminent publication of a confessional tell-all invariably brings up a tidal wave of emotions, many of them painful.
“Would you like to hear the audio of the new book? I didn’t do the whole text but for the souped-up eBook for The Kid I recorded the beginning and the end of the new book,” Evans said.
As if by magic, Evans’ voice then emerged from some unknown source but it was not the sometimes halting voice that had confided his sadness and insecurity to me, a veritable stranger, during the afternoon. The voice that boomed out of some unseen speaker was as smooth and weathered as the scotch we’d just drunk. It was a voice replete with the wisdom of experience but the wonder of youth. It was Evans, but Evans as I saw him, not as he saw himself during dark nights of the soul. It wasn’t just the voice of Evans: it was a bona fide Robert Evans production.
Once the warm waves of words abated, Evans offered to show me a video clip of Dustin Hoffman giving him the David O. Selznik Award in 2003. It was an honor Evans sees as second only to the Academy’s Irving Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award he’s convinced his 1980s drug bust cost him. It was a profoundly meta experience. I sat there watching Evans watching a younger Evans watch Dustin Hoffman impersonate an even younger Evans on the set of The Marathon Man before getting to the heart-rending core of his speech.
With a quiver in his voice, Hoffman compared Evans to Willy Loman, a role Hoffman played on Broadway to great acclaim. “In his notes on Death Of A Salesman, Arthur Miller said that his play came from images. The image of aging, and so many of your friends already gone, and strangers in the seats of the mighty, who do not know you, or your triumphs, or your incredible value. Above all, perhaps, the image of a need greater than hunger or sex or thirst, a need to leave a thumbprint somewhere in the world, the need for immortality, and by admitting it, the knowing that one has carefully inscribed one’s name on a cake of ice on a hot July day.”
Hoffman then segues smoothly from one American master to another when he switches from Arthur Miller to Evans when he quotes The Kid Stays In The Picture: “On his notes to himself about himself in his book, Bob said, ‘Where is everyone? Dead? Uh, mostly. Wealthy? Some. Destitute? Many. Retired? I suppose so. I ain’t seen them. One thing I do know: I ain’t dead. I ain’t wealthy. I ain’t destitute and I ain’t retired.”
In another context, showing me this clip might have seemed narcissistic. Instead, it tore my fucking heart out.
In the end, it does not matter whether Evans receives the Irving Thalberg Lifetime Achievement award, as eternal a monument as there is in pop culture, but also, as Hoffman was pointedly reminding Evans, Miller’s cake of ice on that hot July day. All that matters is the lifetime during which Evans achieved so much. The movies and books and, in Evans’ case, audio-books, will endure long after even the most prestigious of awards are forgotten.
Dustin Hoffman wasn’t just delivering a speech about a beloved friend; he was reminding a great man whose friends and peers were already largely gone, and whose place in the seats of the mighty had been replaced by strangers who might not know of Evans or his incredible triumphs, of Evans’ incredible value. Hoffman was reminding Evans that he had achieved immortality, that he had left a thumbprint on the world nothing could erase. Not time. Not age. Not death. Not a lack of press coverage. Nothing.
I wouldn’t leave until the next afternoon but I think this is a perfect place to end my weekend with Evans, with the master of the house dreaming in the dark about the magnificent man he used to be, and, whether he realized it or not, remains.
Nathan Rabin served as the head writer of The A.V. Club for most of his 16-year career there. He is also the author of four books, including 2009’s memoir The Big Rewind; 2010’s My Year Of Flops, a book of essays about failed film; 2012’s Weird Al: The Book, a coffee-table book about the life and career of “Weird Al” Yankovic, which Rabin co-wrote with the beloved pop icon; and 2013’s You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, an exploration of musical subcultures focused on the time Rabin spent following Insane Clown Posse and Phish. He lives in Chicago with his wife and dog and tweets at @nathanrabin.