- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

The title "The Kid Stays in the Picture" has a more profound significance for producer Robert Evans than it did when chosen for his autobiography, published in 1994.

The phrase originated as a temporary professional lifesaver for Mr. Evans in 1956, when a quartet of principal cast members in the movie version of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" petitioned producer Darryl F. Zanuck to sack Mr. Evans.

Then 26 and a dubious candidate for instant romantic magnetism on the screen, he was regarded as much too callow for the role of matador Pedro Romero by his fault-finding peers.

Persuaded that the scorned young actor could get the job done, Mr. Zanuck settled the dispute by declaring that the "kid" would stay. A savory catchphrase, it lends itself to more situations than the one that salvaged Mr. Evans' pride.

The episode is one of several vintage Hollywood ordeals, triumphs, setbacks and rescues recalled with inimitable anecdotal flair by Mr. Evans in the course of a disarming movie biopic also titled "The Kid Stays in the Picture." Opening today at the Landmark Bethesda Row and Loews Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington, it draws indispensably and sometimes hilariously on the subject's audio-book edition, released in 1997.

During a phone conversation from Los Angeles, Mr. Evans estimated that perhaps 20 percent of the narration had been re-recorded for the movie soundtrack, which uses about 90 minutes of the six hours that he originally transposed from page to cassette. But for the most part "Kid" is carried by the sound of Mr. Evans reading from his own text five years ago.

The significant change is that he almost didn't survive a flurry of strokes shortly after the audio book got into circulation. "It took three years of recuperation," he says. "I went through the most painful physical, occupational and speech therapy. It took me months to learn how to use a fork and knife again. I am feeling great now, and you should be seeing me on all the talk shows. My health is really good. As a matter of fact, I just celebrated my fifth birthday." That's his fifth since eluding death, of course.

He was born Robert J. Shapera in New York City on June 29, 1930. The son of a prosperous dentist, he was an actor on radio during the late 1930s and World War II. Illness prevented him from taking a crack at the movies in "City Across the River," a 1949 melodrama about juvenile delinquents that provided Tony Curtis with an early credit. While still very young, Mr. Evans also worked as a disc jockey in Palm Beach, Miami Beach and Havana.

His performing attempts were trumped by success in the apparel industry. His older brother, Charles, and a former tailor named Joseph Picone established a label, Evan-Picone, that became a pacesetter in women's sportswear in the early 1950s.

While supervising the opening of a boutique in Beverly Hills, Mr. Evans met the former MGM star Norma Shearer poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She had been encouraged by Universal to be on the lookout for newcomers who might be suitable to play her late husband, Irving Thalberg, in a movie biography of actor Lon Chaney, "The Man of a Thousand Faces." She thought Mr. Evans was a remarkable look-alike, and he got the role.

After subsequent acting roles, Mr. Evans reinvented himself as an independent producer. He was hired by Charles Bluhdorn, the new chairman of Gulf & Western Industries, to supervise film production at Paramount Pictures, which had fallen on hard times. Mr. Evans had to weather another test with board members who thought him an implausible whippersnapper, but starting with the success of "The Odd Couple" and "Rosemary's Baby" in 1968, he sustained an enviable tenure, cresting in a preposterous way with the popularity of "Love Story" in the winter of 1970-71 and then with enduring prestige when "The Godfather" was released in March 1972.

Several friends and colleagues helped Mr. Evans survive a precipitous professional decline in the 1980s, commencing more or less with "The Cotton Club," an ambitious but misbegotten project that reunited him in mutual desperation with Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the "Godfather" epics. Mr. Evans credits Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom Industries, now the parent company of Paramount, with seeing him through the stroke ordeal.

"The first stroke occurred at a small private party for six," he recalls. "I was giving a toast to Wes Craven. I dropped my glass and fell to the floor like a pack of matches. My blood pressure was up to 280/150. I heard the Fat Lady sing. It was Ella Fitzgerald singing 'It's a Wonderful World.' I was aware of the ambulance, the lights, the siren. I was pretty sure I had died when I found myself in some kind of cloud land. I woke up and was totally paralyzed. I had two other minor strokes that followed. The doctor later confided that one more and I would have been over and out."

Forced to hock his Bel Air home and vacate his Paramount office during his bleakest period as a Hollywood eminence on the ropes, Mr. Evans has retrieved his residence and resumed active work as an independent producer on the Paramount lot.

Generalizing about the business as he finds it now, the Comeback Kid says, "Only on the face is it prosperous. There's not enough work for the young creative people here. They're starved for opportunities. It's so tough. I'm a lousy businessman and a bad executive, but when it comes to working with people who care about their craft, I can walk with the best."

The current Evans projects are a romantic comedy with Kate Hudson titled "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and a biopic about his late mentor, the labor and/or underworld attorney Sidney Korshak, regarded as one of the pre-eminent behind-the-scenes fixers in the movie business during the 1950s, '60s and '70s. "I'm also writing a sequel to my first book," Mr. Evans says. "It's called 'The Fat Lady Sang.' It's gonna be a whopper."

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