In his new memoir, "The Fat Lady Sang," legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans recalls taking an overnight flight from Los Angeles to New York in the late 1950s when he was an up-and-coming film actor.
The plane had six sleeping berths in the tail area. Evans was in the upper-middle berth, an aging movie diva was in the lower berth and the infamous gossip monger Walter Winchell was nearby occupying another.
Sometime during the red-eye, Evans and the film star — who to this day he won't name — had a quick fling. There was something daring, even dangerous in having a mile-high rendezvous while the influential Winchell, who could make or break celebrities, was just 2 feet away.
"That's the only reason I did it," said Evans in a recent interview, flashing his killer smile. "It's called the 'flare of the dare.' The 'flare of the dare' is very important in my life. And I've gotten in trouble with that."
To put it mildly.
Over the course of his 83 colorful years, Evans has been a not-so-successful film actor and wunderkind studio chief at Paramount. Among the numerous classics released by the studio under his tenure are 1968's "Rosemary's Baby," 1970's "Love Story" and the first two "Godfather" Oscar winners. He was also an independent producer of such seminal films as 1974's "Chinatown" and infamous flops as 1980's "Popeye" and 1984's "The Cotton Club." There was a dalliance with cocaine and he was even briefly implicated but never charged in the "Cotton Club" murder case.
But just as a phoenix rises from the ashes, Evans made a comeback with his delectable 1994 memoir "The Kid Stays in the Picture" and the subsequent 2002 documentary hit based on the book. There was even an animated series based on his life, "Kid Notorious," and a Sirius radio show, "In Bed With Robert Evans."
"I've had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows," Evans said. "I'm sitting here now with you feeling 10 feet tall."
On a recent late afternoon Evans is sitting in the dining room of his famed Beverly Hills home, Woodland. His trademark tan, which probably made George Hamilton jealous, isn't quite as indescribably dark as it once was. He's stylishly dressed in white pants and a long-sleeve white shirt with a short sleeve gray sweater and bolo tie.
"I'm still the kid," he said in his gravelly baritone. "I'm just the aging kid."
Occupying a lot of space on a table are copies of "The Kid Stays in the Picture," the audio version of the dishy memoir, and "The Fat Lady Sang," which chronicles his near-fatal series of strokes in 1998 and lengthy recovery peppered with his stardust memories of the likes of Grace Kelly ("she was a lovely girl") and President John F. Kennedy ("he said you have to learn a word a day").
Even before Evans emerges from the bedroom to do the interview, his longtime British butler Alan Selka offers a tour of a gallery of pictures of Evans over the years, as well as vintage ones of Woodland, which was designed more than 70 years ago by John Woolf for interior designer James Pendleton. During the interview Selka was frequently summoned by Evans via button under the dining room table to bring him pictures and other items.
"It is the Hollywood that was, not the Hollywood that is," Evans said of the house, which features gardens, a pool and a tennis court. Married seven times, including to actresses Camilla Sparv, Ali MacGraw and Catherine Oxenberg, Evans said he's still close to all his former wives. (His first wife, Sharon Hugueny, died several years ago).
He even shows off an antique piano in the living room given to him as a divorce present by fourth wife, former Miss America and broadcaster Phyllis George.
Evans spent six or seven years working on "The Fat Lady Sang" because it "got very depressing" to relive the experience. 'But I wanted people to learn from it," he said. "If I can do it, they can do it too. It's a strange thing, being a survivor doesn't mean anything. Everyone survives until you die. I had to get up off the canvas."
Fifteen years ago, Evans had been hosting a dinner at his house for director Wes Craven when he suddenly crumpled on the floor.
"I was standing right by him and collapsed," Evans said. "I looked up at him and said, 'Wes, I told you it's never dull around here.' I was laying in the ambulance and I hear 'you better get this guy to Cedars quick otherwise he will be DOA.'"
It was during that ride to the hospital, said Evans, when the proverbial fat lady sang. "I see bright colors — the colors of the ambulance — and then I saw the white light," he said.
And then nothing. Twenty-four hours later, he woke up in the hospital. "Everything was gone," Evans said. "I couldn't move one finger, my tongue, nothing."
It was his friend, entertainment industry tycoon Sumner Redstone, executive chairman of media companies Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp., who helped him through those times. In 1979 Redstone had been trapped in his hotel room when Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel had caught on fire. He suffered major burns that required numerous skin graft operations.
"He said 'you're going to make it,'" said Evans. "'If I can do it, you can do it.' And for a month he came. It was the total difference between life and death. It's a thin line between life and death when you totally can't do anything. He gave me the strength."
And it was a long road to recovery for him. "Your whole body changes," he said. For months he endured hours a day of intense therapy. "I had three hours of physical therapy, three hours of orthopedic therapy and three hours of speech therapy to get my tongue going."
It was during his recovery that he briefly married Oxenberg, despite the protestations of his doctor. "The doctor said you're crazy, you can't do this," Evans said. As he describes in the book, he was on numerous medications for his stroke when he pursued her. "Those medicinal cocktails have the potential to damage your every emotion, organ and ounce of equilibrium."
And no sooner had they married than he realized that he had made a mistake. The marriage was quickly annulled. "She is a lovely girl," said Evans. "I feel so guilty about it."
Evans is also still in pictures. He said he has three at Paramount "in various stages of pre-production" but is mum on any details. "A gentleman said to me when I was in my teens, the great insurance to continued breathing is continued silence."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun