By Jim Jerome
August 12, 2002 12:00 PM

After a lunch of crepes with caviar and crème fraîche, Robert Evans sinks into a leather recliner in the six-seat screening room of his Beverly Hills estate. “The money room,” he says, his voice a honeyed rumble. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Evans ran Paramount Pictures, this room—an airy annex by the pool with a 12-by-18-ft. screen and motor-driven drapes—was the situation room of Hollywood power, the place where he entertained friends like Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, even Henry Kissinger. Years later, when Evans was down, he says, to his last $37, the room’s chairs, like his career, were in tatters. “Cotton was coming out,” he says. “I tried to give them to the actors’ relief home. They wouldn’t take them.” In the end, Nicholson hauled them away. “He sold one for $125,000 at auction for its provenance—[which was] the history made in this room. It kills me. Jack saw it. I didn’t.”

These days Evans has both his fabled past and a re-upholstered present to rest on. For 14 years he seduced the movie industry with his raffish charm, literary taste and daring, guiding to the screen hits like Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, The Godfather and Chinatown. The women in his life were just as stellar—from Lana Turner and Ava Gardner to ex-wives Ali MacGraw and 1971 Miss America Phyllis George. “Bob was every person’s fantasy of what a studio head should be,” says retired superagent Sue Mengers. “Handsome, flamboyant, entertaining lavishly. “When you went to his house, it was magic.”

But by 1990 a coke habit, a drug bust, costly flops and headlines linking him with murder had combined to derail his career. Now, at 72, Evans is back, narrating a documentary based on his candid 1994 memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture. If often self-serving, it nonetheless seals his status as the last true movie mogul. “Bob belongs with the giants—Darryl F.Zanuck, Irving Thalberg, Louis B.Mayer,” says Brett Morgen, who codirected Kid with Nanette Burstein. “The only difference is that Bob’s greatest production is his own life.”

And it’s not over yet. Evans resisted making Kid after a 1998 stroke left him in despair. But early buzz from the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival proved therapeutic. “The movie’s been a lifesaver,” says brother Charles. “He missed being Robert Evans.” The Kid has also coaxed Evans back to work. He’s producing How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, starring Kate Hudson, and writing a new memoir. “I’ve got more action going on now,” he says, “than in the past 25 years.”

Which is saying a lot. Born Robert J.Shapera on June 29, 1930, in New York City, he was the second son of Archie, a dentist, and Florence, who stayed home to raise Bob, Charles, now 76, and Alice, 60. Evans’s gift for mimicry—”I did a good German”—led him at age 12 into radio and roles such as a Nazi colonel on Radio Mystery Theater. A sexually precocious teen, he made time for trysts with “long-stemmers”—Broadway showgirls. “I was bold. And I got home in time to do my homework.” Still, he dropped out and in 1950 joined Charles’s women’s sportswear firm Evan-Picone. (“My brother said, ‘You’ve had enough experience in women’s pants—now sell them.'”) But the handsome Evans soon found another outlet. On a 1956 business trip to L.A., actress Norma Shearer beckoned him from a hotel pool and asked him to play her husband, MGM titan Irving G. Thalberg, in Man of a Thousand Faces.

Darryl Zanuck then cast him as matador Pedro Romero in ’57’s The Sun Also Rises. When Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power and Ernest Hemingway complained he was too green, Zanuck barked, “The kid stays in the picture.” A memoir’s title was born, but Evans’s acting gigs dried up. “I was called the next Valentino,” he says. “Valentino died at 31. And so did I.” In 1962 he cashed out of retail a millionaire to make movies. Helped by a publishing biz insider, Evans got early looks at manuscripts, and in 1965 his $5,000 option for The Detective got him a producing job with Fox exec David Brown. “Bob was obsessed with Hollywood,” says Brown. “Any way he could get there was okay.” Evans’s smooth wit offset his drive. “You’re in a town where no one works,” he says. “They all talk deals; no one makes them.” He made enough of them himself that by 1967 he was head of production at Paramount. (Two brief marriages—to actresses Sharon Hugueny and Camilla Sparv—had ended.) “I wouldn’t let my executives go out for lunch. We made money while others ate ravioli.” When he optioned Erich Segal’s Love Story, the hit saved the struggling studio. Evans also got the girl: He and Story star MacGraw married in 1969, and had a son, Joshua, in 1971. Says Mengers: “They were as close to movie royalty as you could get.”

But Evans was soon consumed with The Godfather (having paid just $12,500 for film rights to Mario Puzo’s novel). When MacGraw went to Texas to film The Getaway in 1972, Evans didn’t visit for four months. She and co-star Steve McQueen began an affair, the marriage crumbled, and so did Evans: “I cried every night by the pool.”

Still, the bust-up hardly dented Evans’s chutzpah. Calling the White House to badger his friend Kissinger to attend the Godfather premiere, he left a message: “Tell him to call back in 10 minutes. It’s important.” A chic, tireless player in turtle-necks, bolo ties, blazers and shades (he has 100 pairs hanging inside his closet), he rebounded socially, dating Lesley Ann Warren, Margaux Hemingway and Cheryl Tiegs. When he met Phyllis George and learned she wanted a red Mercedes convertible, he had one delivered the next day. But their 1977 marriage ran out of gas in 11 months. “She was too good,” he says. “I didn’t want to screw up her head.”

The potential was there. Evans, who quit Paramount in 1974, had been abusing painkillers (he had severe back pain) and cocaine. After a 1980 coke bust his run was over. By 1990 two financial disasters (1984’s The Cotton Club and 1990’s The Two Jakes) and stubborn but unsubstantiated whispers of his involvement in the 1983 murder of a Cotton Club backer turned him into a social leper. His fortune nearly spent, he even sold his house. “My world had fallen apart,” he says.

Evans struggled back, producing mediocre thrillers like Sliver and Jade. Nicholson helped him get his house back, and Kid was published in ’94. But in May 1998, while toasting director Wes Craven in the screening room before dinner, “a bolt of lightning shot through my body,” he says, and he collapsed with a stroke. “As they wheeled Bob out,” recalls Craven, “he held out his hand and said, ‘See? I promised you an unforgettable evening, didn’t I?'”

Evans required “torturous” rehab. “I couldn’t button my shirt, I couldn’t walk or talk.” But marry—why not? Six weeks after the stroke Evans invited an acquaintance, Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, 41, in to chat after she took a tennis lesson on his court. Five days later, he says, they wed. But only 12 days later they had the marriage annulled. “My fault,” Evans now says. “My brain wasn’t working right.”

The stroke and its aftermath brought Evans closer to son Josh, 31, who lives in L.A. “We’re a tight family,” says Josh. “We’re there for each other.” Though his recovery is near total (his right foot sometimes drags slightly), Evans rarely leaves home and says he can get “very lonely at times.” But he has a chef-butler for entertaining several evenings a week and a driver for his jade-green Jag convertible. Dating’s back, as is sex. “Okay, I’m not as dexterous as I was and I ain’t no gymnast, but I do all right.”

There is one constant in Evans’s life, though: The picture stays in the kid. “It’s all a stage set for Bob,” says David Brown. And he’s learning new lines every day. “I love storytelling,” says Evans. “I was dead, they said I’d never walk again. I said yes I will. You can’t get a better third act than that.”