Robert Evans and Paramount Studios
In 1956 screen legend Norma Shearer discovered Robert Evans poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was immediately cast as Shearer’s late husband, Irving Thalberg, MGM’s boy wonder studio head, in the film Man of a Thousand Faces. Ten years later Evans—the self-described “bad boy of Hollywood”—was himself head of Paramount Pictures. The first actor to run a major studio, he produced such classics as Love Story, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather and Chinatown.
In 1912 Adolph Zukor founded the Famous Players Film Company, which soon became Paramount Pictures—the marquee studio that produced Hollywood’s first full-length film (The Squaw Man, 1914) and won the first best picture Academy Award (Wings, 1927). Paramount stars eventually included Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Mae West, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Audrey Hepburn. But by the mid-1960s Paramount was dead last in box office revenue among the major studios. Its new corporate owners, Gulf & Western, wanted to sell the back lot to the Jewish cemetery next door. Board chairman Charles Bluhdorn, impressed by the savvy of a former fashion executive and failed actor named Robert Evans, took a gamble and hired “the kid” to run Paramount. Evans’s triumvirate of hits in 1968—The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet and Rosemary’s Baby—began to turn things around for the studio, but his box office phenomenon Love Story, in 1970, propelled Paramount back to first place. Evans told the incredible story of his unlikely rise (and fall) in the 1994 autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, which was made into the 2002 documentary of the same name.
When Robert Evans was appointed head of Paramount Studios in 1966, Life magazine called him “too good-looking, too rich, too young, too lucky and too damn charming.” But none of that made his task any easier. To turn Paramount around, Evans knew he’d have to develop daring, modern films. Serendipitously, legendary schlockmeister William Castle, who owned the film rights to the best-selling novel Rosemary’s Baby (1967), took the project to Paramount with the idea of directing it himself. Evans convinced Castle to take a producer credit and let little-known director Roman Polanski helm the film instead.
The movie’s famous tagline mirrored the stakes for Paramount: “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.” But the film, which cost $3.2 million to make, earned more than $33 million domestically, becoming a certified hit. Steve Frankfurt, who created the film’s ad campaign, said, “People were taking Bob Evans seriously” after Rosemary’s Baby. “He starts cranking hits out, one after another, and suddenly Paramount was a very different company.” Rosemary’s Baby’s cinematographer, William Fraker, said the movie “made Bob Evans a big hero because he really stood behind the film.” Polanski earned an Oscar nomination for his adapted screenplay, and Ruth Gordon won for best supporting actress.
Paramount considered Jane Fonda and Tuesday Weld to play Rosemary, the woman impregnated by Satan in Rosemary’s Baby, but once director Roman Polanski met Mia Farrow, he cast her without a screen test. Polanski said of his leading lady, “There are 127 varieties of nuts. Mia is 116 of them.” Farrow’s husband, Frank Sinatra, discouraged her from taking the role, saying the movie sounded like “some kinky devil shit.”
In a scene from the novel that appears in the movie, Rosemary returns from the hairdresser with a pixie haircut and says to her horrified husband, “It’s Vidal Sassoon. It’s very in.” Farrow already sported a short haircut she’d given herself, but star hairstylist Sassoon was invited to the set to chop off another inch for publicity shots. Though she has acknowledged a body double was used in the nude scene in which her character is raped by the devil, Farrow is on-screen nearly every minute of the movie in a tour de force performance. Time magazine wrote, “Even those who read the book are in for a shock: the very real acting talent of Mia Farrow,” and Variety raved, “Farrow becomes a genuine, above-title star.”
Mia Farrow is the daughter of director John Farrow and actor Maureen O’Sullivan, but when as a young girl she expressed an interest in acting, her parents packed her off to a London convent. Farrow nonetheless debuted in a small role in 1959’s John Paul Jones, a film her father directed. Five years later she achieved stardom when she was cast as Allison MacKenzie on Peyton Place, network television’s first prime-time soap opera and a ratings smash. American crooner and international sex symbol Frank Sinatra saw Farrow on the 20th Century Fox lot and became infatuated. Forty-nine at the time, Sinatra pursued the 19-year-old actor, and two years later they married in Las Vegas. For months the press followed the newlyweds wherever they went. Already an Oscar-winning actor (for From Here to Eternity), Sinatra encouraged his young bride to leave her hit series and seek movie roles. She soon landed the lead in Rosemary’s Baby, a role Sinatra demanded she quit. He urged her instead to costar with him in the crime thriller The Detective (1968), but Farrow refused. On the Rosemary’s Baby set, in front of the entire cast and crew, Sinatra served Farrow with divorce papers.
Willie Moretti, a New Jersey gangster, liked the skinny kid from Hoboken named Frank Sinatra so much, he hired him to sing at his casinos. The young crooner quickly became popular and was signed by Harry James to front his big band. Not long after, Tommy Dorsey asked Sinatra to join his band, and James graciously let the 24-year-old out of his contract. Sinatra was so eager to hit the big time, he agreed to give Dorsey one third of his earnings for life, plus another 10 percent to Dorsey’s agent. But as Sinatra’s popularity soared, he wanted out of the Dorsey deal. In 1943 Dorsey refused an offer of $60,000 to release Sinatra from his obligation. Sinatra always denied that Moretti had pressured Dorsey to tear up his contract, but Moretti himself bragged that Dorsey released Sinatra for one dollar after a gun was jammed in the bandleader’s mouth. Dorsey confirmed the story in an interview, describing a meeting with three men “who ordered him to ‘sign or else.’” After Mario Puzo fictionalized Sinatra decades later as the character Johnny Fontane in his novel The Godfather, the crooner publicly threatened to break Puzo’s legs in a West Hollywood restaurant.
“I was 45 years old and tired of being an artist,” said author Mario Puzo, who also noted, “The reason I wrote The Godfather was to make money.” Puzo’s saga of the Corleones, a New York crime family, became one of the most popular American novels of all time, selling 21 million copies and spending 67 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Puzo later admitted, “If I’d known so many people were going to read it, I’d have written it better.” In 1968 The Godfather was only a draft manuscript called “Mafia” when Puzo sold an option to the film rights to Robert Evans at Paramount for $12,500, money the author desperately needed; he owed $20,000 to “relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks.” According to Evans, Puzo called a few months later and asked, “Would I be in breach of contract if I change the name of the book? I want to call it The Godfather.” Through sheer luck, Evans had optioned what became a blockbuster novel (and movie) for a bargain-basement price. Still, Paramount, which felt Mob movies didn’t make money, did not particularly want to make Puzo’s book into a film.
Writer Ernest Hemingway and stars Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power were so vehemently against the casting of Robert Evans as bullfighter Pedro Romero in 20th Century Fox’s production of The Sun Also Rises (1957), they telegrammed studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, demanding Evans’s dismissal. Zanuck flew to the set in Mexico, watched Evans film his big scene, picked up a bullhorn and barked to the cast and crew, “The kid stays in the picture!” At that moment Evans knew he didn’t want to be an actor. He wanted to be the guy holding the bullhorn. As head of Paramount Pictures, Evans produced such hits as Barefoot in the Park (1967), True Grit (1969), Harold and Maude (1971), Paper Moon (1973) and Serpico (1973). But Evans’s arrangement with Paramount didn’t reward him with any of those movies’ profits. So Evans negotiated a new deal in which, as a 50-50 partner, he would remain studio head and also produce one movie a year under his own name. The first Robert Evans Production was Chinatown, a film noir about corruption in 1937 Los Angeles. Evans knew exactly who he wanted as director: the auteur he’d discovered for Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski.
“For as far back as I can remember,” begins Roman Polanski’s autobiography, “the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred.” Polanski was born in Paris, but his family moved back to Krakow, Poland, when he was three years old. In 1941 Polanski’s parents were sent to a concentration camp; his mother eventually died in Auschwitz. Looking for escape, Polanski became obsessed with movies. His first feature, Knife in the Water (1962), earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Robert Evans, head of Paramount Pictures, lured Polanski, an avid skier, to Hollywood in 1968 with the promise of directing the ski picture Downhill Racer. Once in Hollywood, Evans instead handed Polanski the Rosemary’s Baby script, which they turned into a critical and box office smash.
On August 9, 1969, Polanski’s wife, actor Sharon Tate, was eight months pregnant when Charles Manson’s followers murdered her. Polanski later said, “As soon as the police discovered Manson, I got the hell out of L.A. immediately. I could take no more. There was no more point to staying.” Robert Evans had first brought Polanski to Hollywood, and it was Evans who convinced him in 1973 to end his exile and direct Chinatown.
In 1971 producer Robert Evans offered screenwriter Robert Towne $175,000 to adapt The Great Gatsby for Paramount. Towne instead asked for $25,000 to write an original script called Chinatown, a “new noir” about a private eye named J.J. “Jake” Gittes. Evans disliked the title, asking Towne if the movie was set in Chinatown. “No,” Towne replied, “‘Chinatown’ is a state of mind—Jake Gittes’s fucked-up state of mind.” Once Towne finished the script, Evans offered the project to director Roman Polanski, who returned to Hollywood after a four-year absence, seeing Chinatown’s potential as a “first-rate thriller.” Evans cast Jack Nicholson as Gittes, who, while investigating an adultery case, stumbles into a byzantine plot involving corruption, rape, incest, blackmail and murder. Noah Cross (director and actor John Huston), one of the most powerful men in Los Angeles, famously warns Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”
Paramount Pictures dominated the 1974 Academy Awards with 39 nominations, including 11 for Chinatown. Three of the five best picture nominees—Chinatown, The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II, which won—were Paramount productions, and Towne also won an Oscar for his Chinatown screenplay.
Even though Paramount’s 1968 Mob movie The Brotherhood, starring Kirk Douglas, was a flop, production chief Robert Evans was determined The Godfather would break the Mafia movie curse. Evans strove to hire actual Italian Americans to star in and produce the film, saying he wanted the audience to “smell the spaghetti.” He signed relative unknown Francis Ford Coppola to direct; it was Coppola who fought for 47-year-old Marlon Brando, a so-called “Hollywood Italian,” to play the title role. To appease the Italian-American Civil Rights League, the studio removed the words Mafia and Cosa Nostra from the script.
The Godfather opened on March 15, 1972, and soon smashed all box office records, earning more money in six months than Gone With the Wind had made in 30 years. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three, including best picture and a best actor statue for Brando. Coppola’s screenplay, which he wrote with the novel’s author Mario Puzo, also won an Oscar. It contains some of cinema’s most famous lines, such as “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” and “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”