08/22/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
PAST THE ELECTRONIC GATES OF his sprawling Beverly Hills estate, past the domed foyer where a soft-footed butler is busily touching up a bouquet of roses, past the glistening, cobaltblue swimming pool, Robert Evans sits in a dark screening room, reliving his glory days. Dressed in his signature cashmere sweater (canary yellow this day), white tuxedo shirt and slacks—all the better to set off his deep California tan—Evans is watching himself accept a Golden Globe Best Picture award from Catherine Deneuve for Chinatown, the 1974 noir classic that he produced during his reign as chief of production at Paramount. "I've just turned 64," says Evans, a hyperactive sort who has perched momentarily on the arm of a suede chair, "and I'm in better shape than 20 years ago. Women seem to be attracted to me. I'm focused and know what I'm doing. Now I have no money—but when my back's against the wall, the impossible becomes possible. And I've been this way—unfortunately—all my life!"
Evans' fortunes and dusky good looks have faded with the years—but not the crass charm and invincible ego that have made his up-again, down-again life perhaps his greatest production of all. The first and only actor ever to run a major movie studio, Evans turned Paramount into a powerhouse in the '70s, with such hits as Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, The Godfather and Chinatown, and led a glittering, bad-boy life that included hobnobbing with stars, four brief marriages (actress Ali MacGraw and former Miss America Phyllis George among them) and an addiction to painkillers. Then came the fall. After the disastrous Cotton Club in 1984, Evans lost his fortune, including Woodland, his beloved 16-room, French Regency estate. And after a female acquaintance was arrested in 1988 in the murder of theatrical producer Roy Radin, Evans—who was implicated in the killing but never charged—found himself ousted from Hollywood and flirting with suicide.
Ever the survivor, Evans got a grip—and pushed himself back into the limelight. He returned to producing at Paramount in 1992, though his much-touted comeback film, last year's Sliver, was an undeniable flop. He resettled in Woodland, thanks to financial assistance from older brother Charles, 68, and a good deed by longtime pal Jack Nicholson. And, after laboring for four years, he is hustling his juicy autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture (Hyperion)—an un-censored, sometimes vulgar but always entertaining expose of his own escapades and those of the rich and famous. There's Warren Beatty, forcing Paramount to spend an extra $500,000 redoing the ad posters for Heaven Can Wait because the original didn't sufficiently highlight the bulge in his pants. There's Henry Kissinger, fearing Nixon was about to ask for his resignation, turning to Evans for advice. And there's Sharon Stone, refusing to meet at Evans' home after signing on for Sliver, claiming a friend of hers had been drugged and held captive there in a dog collar and chains.
"This ain't kiss and tell—it's live or die," says Evans. The lights have been turned up in the screening room, where a Cotton Club poster and several Picassos hang on the red-velvet walls. "Writing the book was the most painful experience of my life—for four years I've cried each night about how I f—ed up and f—ed up again." He says he did it for Joshua, his 23-year-old son from his marriage to MacGraw ("I wanted my kid to know who his old man was, for better or worse"); but not surprisingly, the book is meant to be an inspiration to others. "If I can get up from the count of nine at my age and make it back bigger than I ever have," he says, "hah! So can everyone else!"
The son of a Manhattan dentist and a housewife, Evans decided early on to be an actor. He got his first break at 12 on Radio Mystery Theater; at 14, he was a regular on the popular radio show Let's Pretend. After high school, Evans spent the next several years alternately pursuing acting in L.A. and selling women's pants for Evan Picone, the clothing company cofounded by his brother in New York City. In 1956 actress Norma Shearer, who was searching for an actor to play her late husband, producer Irving Thalberg, in the film Man of a Thousand Faces, spotted Evans poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel and decided he was the one. When Evans landed the role of the bullfighter in 1957's The Sun Also Rises, veteran cast members, including Ava Gardner, balked at his inexperience—until Twentieth Century Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck watched him on the set and proclaimed, "The kid stays in the picture!" Then and there, says Evans, he knew that was the job he wanted.
By 1961, Evans had married Beverly Hills ingenue Sharon Hugueny, abandoned his acting career and returned to New York City and a partnership at Evan Picone. Within a year, he divorced Sharon and later married Swedish model Camilla Sparv. After he, Charles and co-founder Joseph Picone sold their company to Charles Revson for a neat $12 million, Evans launched his own production company. He soon moved on to Fox studios and eventually to Paramount, where, at 36, he became chief of production in 1966.
With success came the lush life. Paramount hired Evans a chauffeur, and he forked over some $300,000 for Woodland, where the guests for his weekend screenings included Roman Polanski, Mike Nichols and Cary Grant. Linked with a string of starlets, he secured his reputation as a womanizer.
In the spring of 1969 his roving eye settled on Ali MacGraw, a lithe, leggy 30-year-old former model who signed on for Love Story—and the two married that autumn. But by January 1971, when she gave birth to their son Joshua, her husband wasn't around; running high on Love Story's unprecedented $200 million profit, which helped put the near-bankrupt Paramount back on its feet, Evans was already at work on The Godfather. And when Ali left to shoot The Getaway with Steve McQueen, Evans was glad to be left alone with his work. "I thought I could just concentrate on climbing that ladder," he says. "When you become too cavalier that way, you leave yourself open." Indeed, MacGraw and McQueen had an affair on location in Mexico, and when Evans learned of the romance several months later, it was too late. He and MacGraw divorced in 1973, agreeing to share custody of Josh. "I was miserable over Ali and not being with my kid," he says.
But for much of his childhood, Josh remained a casualty of Evans' relentless ambition. "My brother was not uncaring as much as not trying," says Charles. "For years he never spent even a weekend with him." Evans, who stepped down as Paramount's head to produce exclusively, was too busy turning out films such as Marathon Man and Urban Cowboy and with his fourth marriage to Phyllis George in 1977, which ended after a year. Evans also dabbled in cocaine. In 1980, after Charles and brother-in-law Mike Shure were caught buying five kilos of cocaine, Evans, who had agreed to go in on the $19,000 deal, was indicted and pleaded guilty to possession. All were convicted; Evans was sentenced to a year's probation and community service.
The bust made enemies of Robert and his brother—they did not speak for eight years—and cost him his reputation. Evans then made Cotton Club for Orion Pictures; it opened to disastrous reviews and left him deeply in debt. The coup de grâce came in 1988, when cocaine dealer Karen Greenberger was arrested and charged with the murder of Roy Radin, a New York City theatrical promoter eager to move from the fringe to the Hollywood mainstream. Because Greenberger had introduced Evans to Radin as a possible Cotton Club investor, Evans became entangled in the lurid story of greed, drugs and death, and though cleared of any wrongdoing, he became a pariah in Hollywood. "In his early years as producer, he was the most thoughtful and responsible person," says Variety editor Peter Bart, who was Evans' right-hand man at Paramount for eight years. "But he allowed too much evil to penetrate his life." Evans sank into a paralyzing depression and, fearing suicide, briefly committed himself to a San Diego hospital in 1989 before starting his autobiography.
By his own admission, Evans' reputation in Hollywood remains mixed. "If I go to the Palm restaurant, I'll piss in my pants before I'll get up to go to the john," he says. "Otherwise 20 people will say they saw me do cocaine." After Sliver bombed last year, Evans says he "lost the passion" for producing, but he is negotiating a multipicture deal with Paramount. Meantime he still has weekly movie screenings at Woodland for a close circle of friends, including Nicholson and Beatty. Joshua, an aspiring filmmaker, is a frequent visitor, and Evans remains close to MacGraw, who has been staying in his guest house since her Malibu home was damaged in last November's fires. "He offers love without judgment and acceptance without expectation," she says. "With Bob there's a generosity of spirit, a loyalty, a self-deprecating humor and this amazing life drama all mixed into one."
For her part, MacGraw clucks at all the lovely young women her ex still entertains at home. "Ali says, 'I can't believe what goes on at your place—you have more girls now than when you were 23!' " says Evans, who isn't seeing anyone special at the moment. As the afternoon grows late, Evans admits that his ultimate goal is peace of mind. "I've never really known what it's like not owing money, not being pressured, not being assaulted," he says. "But I'd sure like to find out." MacGraw isn't so sure. "There's a part of Bob that enjoys all those hair-raising brinks. He's given to going to the edge and surviving—and maybe doing even better than that."
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles