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His life in cartoons

Former Paramount chief Robert Evans is something of a character -- this time in an animated series.

October 22, 2003|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

For the record, the interview with Robert Evans was conducted in his bedroom. On the bed. On top of the mink bedspread that was a gift from good friend and French film star Alain Delon, custom-made by Dior. With the butler and an assistant in attendance, bearing Cosmopolitans and melon pieces (the cocktails were declined, the honeydew accepted). Surrounded by pictures of famous friends, and those made by famous friends, including an enormous Helmut Newton photo of two naked women at play in the backyard. In an effort to increase the comfort of the interviewer, a gift of silk pajamas was proffered -- again declined, somewhat reluctantly; they were very nice. After watching a few episodes of his new animated series "Kid Notorious" (premiering tonight on Comedy Central), the whole scenario seemed perfectly normal.

As an actor, Paramount studio chief, independent producer, scandal attracter, stroke survivor, writer and documentary film subject, Evans has lived to tell a lot of tales, and he's told them in a variety of forms. His 1994 memoir, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," became a bestseller. The subsequent audio book, featuring his velvet gravel voice and the tough guy cadence of a Mickey Spillane character, was another hit. Then the documentary of the same title made the rounds, produced and directed by Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein.

All versions emphasized entertainment value over objectivity. "When we made 'The Kid,' we were very consciously creating a piece of modern day mythology," Morgen said. "The movie was about the legend of Robert Evans," rather than an impartial portrait of the man himself.

While working closely with Evans during the making of the documentary, Morgen was amazed by the level of chaos that surrounded the movie mogul. To this day, that chaos shows no signs of abating. Case in point: the perfectly innocent reason that this reporter's interview took place in Evans' bedroom was because his office-screening room (a separate building behind the house) blew up 2 1/2 months ago. The resulting fire was so hot that everything in it -- film archives, a Van Gogh, a Picasso, countless awards, autographed books and photos -- was destroyed immediately. Evans can't even bring himself to look at the charred remnants.

So far, the cause is officially attributed to a short circuit in the television, which wasn't on at the time. Of course, Evans suspects foul play. "I'm getting to the bottom of it," he said, "and the bottom will be a very explosive international bottom, that's all I can say."

Morgen isn't sure whether the chaos finds Evans or he invites it upon himself, but either way, "it's one of the things that made his book so much fun to read -- Robert is always getting into these big dramatic situations." Morgen first thought a reality show, a la "The Osbournes," would be an appropriate way to capture the surreality of Evans' life. But upon further reflection, he realized that Evans' life "is so dramatic, it is so over the top, it is so colorful, it is cartoonish -- he's the only celebrity who I personally know whose life lends itself so easily to a cartoon." Morgen wanted to set the show at Woodland, Evans' glorious Beverly Hills estate, and people it with characters from Evans' life.

Evans himself wasn't convinced. At first, he was even insulted. But then Morgen received four offers from competing studios on the day he pitched the show, resulting in a Wall Street Journal cover article. Evans was amazed -- he had taken Paramount Pictures from ninth to first place in the early '70s, green-lighted such classics as "Chinatown," "Serpico," "Harold and Maude" and the first two "Godfather" movies, and yet "the first time I ever made the Wall Street Journal in my whole life, was on a cartoon," he marveled. The animated format makes perfect sense to him now. It also doesn't hurt that the cartoon Evans is drawn forever young, as opposed to the 73-year-old subject, some of whose life experiences show up on his face.

Morgen, Evans and head writers Alan Cohen and Alan Freedland (both from Fox's "King of the Hill") are the cartoon's executive producers. Evans, by his own account, is pretty much impossible to work with. Morgen put it more kindly, quoting Evans' description of the fights on the set of "Rosemary's Baby" -- "if everyone gets along, invariably the work will come out underwhelming." To attest to his own perfectionism, Evans brought out a thick book of cartoon images that were rejected before the final was produced. In an echo of a tale from his book about Warren Beatty's poster for "Heaven Can Wait," Evans said the most difficult yet most important part was getting the crotch right.

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