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Remembering Robert Evans, Producer Of 'The Godfather' And 'Chinatown'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Robert Evans, who had a long and very storied career as both a studio head and producer at Paramount Pictures, died last Saturday at age 89. As a studio executive, he oversaw "The Godfather" and "Chinatown." He also was responsible for generating the film adaptations of "Rosemary's Baby," "Love Story," "Barefoot In The Park" and "The Odd Couple." In 1994, he wrote a memoir, "The Kid Stays in the Picture" that later was made into a critically acclaimed documentary.

Terry Gross spoke to Robert Evans in 1994, the year Evans published his memoir. They began by discussing his most famous film project.


ROBERT EVANS: I met Mario Puzo as a favor to a literary agent friend of mine named George Weezer. And he needed money to pay off the bookies, actually, and he had this treatment called "Mafia." It was 60 pages. And he said the word mafia had never been used before, it was found in the Kefauver committee. And I was always interested in that kind of a movie.

So I gave him 12,000 just to write a treatment called "Mafia." And that treatment called "Mafia" turned into being the novel "The Godfather." And we owned the novel for very, very little money because I put up the money for a treatment. Even after we owned it, and we owned it for next to nothing, they still didn't want to make the picture - Paramount - because too many people said a Mafia picture had never been successful.

Anything about The Organization, as it was called before the Mafia, there had never been one successful film made about the Mafia before that. And they wanted me to sell it, and I refused to do it. And we found the reason why there had been no successful Mafia films - because they had been made by Jews and not Italians.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Did you think that was the secret?

EVANS: I - it must have been because we had made one two years before with Kirk Douglas. It was directed by Marty Ritt, written by Bill Sternberg, starred Luther Adler and Susan Strasberg and Kirk Douglas. All written and directed and produced by Jewish people.

And there's a difference - a thin line between a Jew and a Sicilian. And I felt that made the difference. And that's why we gave Francis Coppola his assignment to do it. And by record, he had only made three unsuccessful films before that, "Finian's Rainbow," "You're A Big Boy Now" and "Rain People."

GROSS: I should point out you're Jewish, so...

EVANS: Yes, I am.

GROSS: ...It's kind of interesting that you really took a stand that it had to be an Italian.

EVANS: Well, yes, because - and I was right in taking that stand. If I would have done it, I most probably wouldn't have made it the same way. I wanted to smell the spaghetti, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter) Several directors turned down "The Godfather" - Costa-Gavras, Elia Kazan, Arthur Penn - not Italians. Yeah.

EVANS: No Italians. There hadn't been an Italian director - second-generation Italian director in Hollywood at the time, as a matter of fact. It was pre-Martin Scorsese and other Italian directors. And Francis was the only second-generation Italian working in films at the time. He got the nod.

GROSS: That's how he got the gig - 'cause he was the only Italian around?

EVANS: He got the gig that way, and he would only make it one way - if he could tell the story as a family chronicle on capitalism in America. That's the way he described it, anyway. But we had no choice at the time. And again, as I said, I wanted to smell that spaghetti. And one thing we did, we smelled the spaghetti.


RICHARD CASTELLANO: (As Clemenza) Hey, Mike. Hey, Mikey.

AL PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Yeah.

CASTELLANO: (As Clemenza) You're wanted on the telephone.

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Who is it?

CASTELLANO: (As Clemenza) It's some girl.

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Hello, Kay.

DIANE KEATON: (As Kay Adams) How's your father?

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) He's good. He's going to make it.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) I love you.

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Huh.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) I love you. Michael?

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Yeah, I know.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) Tell me you love me.

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) I can't talk.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) Can't you say it?

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) I'll see you tonight.

CASTELLANO: (As Clemenza) Hey, Mikey. Why didn't you tell that nice girl you love her? (Imitating Italian accent) I love you with all my heart. If I don't see you again soon, I'm going to die (laughter). Come over here, kid. Learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes and tomato paste. You fry it. You make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil. You shove in all your sausage and your meatballs. Add a little bit of wine and a little bit of sugar. And that's my trick.

JAMES CAAN: (As Sonny Corleone) Why don't you cut the crap? I got more important things for you to do. How's Paulie?

CASTELLANO: (As Clemenza) Aw, Paulie - won't see him no more.

GROSS: You didn't want to cast Al Pacino.

EVANS: No, I didn't want Al Pacino. And Francis didn't want Jimmy Caan. So we settled on Al Pacino and Jimmy Caan as a combination because it was getting too close to shooting time. And Francis rightfully said to me, you know, you want someone who looks like you, and I want someone who looks like me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

EVANS: And we'd never really get together in this part.


EVANS: So - but - and he didn't want Jimmy Caan at all because Jimmy - he had just done "Rain People" with him, and it got rained on pretty good.

GROSS: Oh, you know, and James Caan's Jewish, and you wanted...

EVANS: Yes...


GROSS: ...Italians in it.

EVANS: Well, he does. But the point - the reason I wanted James Caan was because Al is, like, 5'4" or 5'5", and the guy they wanted to play opposite him in the part was something like 6'5". And I didn't want to see "Mutt And Jeff."

And they're - the size range - Jimmy looked very big next to Al, but he isn't that big in person. I mean, he's an average-sized guy, 5'10" or so. But the fellow they had wanted to put next to Al would have looked cosmetically ludicrous. So that's the reason I went with Jimmy.

GROSS: You say that when you saw Coppola's first cut, you told him he had to make it longer, that he had to put...


GROSS: ...More in. And that's exactly the opposite of what I'd expect a producer to say. It's usually...

EVANS: Well, it is the opposite.

GROSS: ...The film's too long. You'd better cut it.

EVANS: Yeah (laughter). And not only that - it was around two hours and six minutes, it's got. And he ended up with a - much closer to three hours. He had shot everything. He shot - he had shot that spaghetti, but he took it out in the edit. He was afraid. And I understand that.

The distributors, the distribution company, the theaters want pictures that are two hours so they can turn over. They don't like a three-hour movie. But this film is not about a slice of life. It was about an era. And it's not a little picture. The canvas was needed to make it hold.

You see, sometimes the longer a film is, the shorter it plays, and the shorter it is, the longer it plays because if you lose the text, if you lose - if there's one - single dimensional, it can play awfully long at 90 minutes, and it can play short at three hours. And we took a real chance of letting it play long. If it would have played shorter, it would have been "The Untouchables."

GROSS: You say the ending was really a mess - that there was no ending.

EVANS: That's correct. There was no ending. And we had a lot of mayhem.

GROSS: What was the ending like? What was the ending like?

EVANS: There was no - it wasn't written. There wasn't an ending. We were going to edit the ending. And neither Francis nor myself came up with that edit, as I talk about in the book. I think Peter Zinner was one of the two editors who choreographed the mixture of the baptism of young Michael and the mass killings that went on. And it was very operatic. And Francis is a very operatic director. And he loved what he saw when it was edited together that way, though it wasn't written that way.

And so many films have emulated that ending. Most probably, it's among the classic endings in film history. Nothing to do with either Francis or my own talents. It was Peter Zinner's extraordinary eye to - and rhythm that made that baptism ending work.

GROSS: You say that when "The Godfather" was being made, really, most people did not want Brando to be cast.

EVANS: Not most people - nobody wanted him. Francis wanted him, and I understood why he wanted him. And the only way we got him into the picture was - he had - Francis was brilliant enough to do a silent screen test of him. And once you saw that silent screen test, you knew there was only one person to play the part. It was Marlon.

At that point, Marlon's career was very deep into the red. He hadn't made a successful film in years, and he wanted the gig as well. He didn't do it for the artistic purposes, though he had claimed he had loved the book. I don't even believe he read it. He wanted the part, and he got the part, and he made history with it and also made his own second history making it.


MARLON BRANDO: (As Vito Corleone) I hoped that we could come here and reason together, and as a reasonable man, I'm willing to do whatever's necessary to find a peaceful solution to this problem.

RICHARD CONTE: (As Emilio Barzini) Then we are agreed. The traffic and drugs will be permitted but controlled, and Don Corleone will give up protection in the East, and there will be the peace.

VICTOR RENDINA: (As Philip Tattaglia) But I must have strict assurance from Corleone. As time goes by and his position becomes stronger, will he attempt any individual vendetta?

CONTE: (As Emilio Barzini) Look. We are all reasonable men here. We don't have to give assurances as if we were lawyers.

BRANDO: (As Vito Corleone) You talk about vengeance. Is vengeance going to bring your son back to you or my boy to me? I forgo the vengeance of my son, but I have selfish reasons. My youngest son was forced to leave this country because of this Sollozzo business, all right? And I have to make arrangements to bring him back here safely, cleared of all these false charges. But I am a superstitious man, and if some unlucky accident should befall him - if he should get shot in the head by a police officer, if he should hang himself from his jail cell or if he's struck by a bolt of lightning - then I'm going to blame some of the people in this room, and that I do not forgive. But that aside, let me say that I swear on the souls of my grandchildren that I will not be the one to break the peace we've made here today.

GROSS: Producer Robert Evans is my guest, the former head of production at Paramount. You produced Chinatown...


GROSS: ...A great movie. You cast Jack Nicholson as the leading man in this. Why did you want him?

EVANS: First of all, he had never played a straight leading man before. Secondly, I've always looked at Jack - and I discovered him, actually - not discovered him for film, but for big-time film when I - when he was in the Barbra Streisand picture "On A Clear Day." Jack has a smile - before he even opens his mouth, the rafters shake when he smiles. It's a billion-dollar smile. In playing the part, his natural instinct, however, was to do something that was different, and that's how he and Roman came up with the idea of that blade going into his nose and cutting his nose wide open. And watching the bandage and the bandage lessen and the scar lessen all through the movie was a brilliant conceptual move, and it was subliminal. You didn't realize it, but it was a great character hook for Jack to play that role.

GROSS: Well, you say that Robert Towne, who wrote "Chinatown," is still really angry with you about how the ending of "Chinatown" was changed. So how was it changed compared to what Robert Towne had originally written?

EVANS: Well, Robert was definite upon it. He wanted the character that John Huston was playing to be killed at the end, and Roman wanted the Faye Dunaway character to be killed. He felt it was more unique that way that evil did win out at the end, and thus, it didn't make it a, quote, "Hollywood movie." Robert thought Roman's thought was demented. I was the swing vote in it, and I went along with Roman.

To this day, Bob Towne thinks it's a mistake. There's one thing he won the Academy Award for, but I suppose that doesn't matter. He still thinks it would have been better the other way. I mean, to this day, if you had him on your show, he'd tell you that.

GROSS: I think he did (laughter).

EVANS: I'm sure he must have. He only only became the biggest writer in town - not to use a pun, but he did. Towne became the biggest writer in town from "Chinatown."

GROSS: So that famous line - it's Chinatown, Jake - that said at the end probably wouldn't have been said at the end if the original...

EVANS: Yes, it would have.

GROSS: ...Ending was used. It would have been?

EVANS: It would've been said anyway, but it wouldn't have made sense. See, Chinatown was not supposed to be, per se, Chinatown. It wasn't about Chinatown. It was a state of mind.


BIANCULLI: Robert Evans spoke with Terry Gross in 1994. He died last Saturday of natural causes at age 89. Coming up, I review the lineup of new shows featured in the launch of television's newest streaming service, Apple TV+. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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