Robert Towne, Writer of ‘Chinatown,’ Dies at 89

Writer-director Robert Towne, an Oscar winner for his original script for “Chinatown” and an acknowledged master of the art of screenwriting, has died. He was 89.

Towne died Monday at his home in Los Angeles, publicist Carrie McClure said in a statement.

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During a long career that began in the 1960s, when he went to work as an actor and writer for B-movie director Roger Corman, Towne became one of the most sought-after script doctors in movie history, called on time and again to solve structural problems and create great moments for other people’s films.

Towne came to prominence in the 1970s with three critical and commercial hits released within a 14-month period: “The Last Detail” (1973), “Chinatown” (1974) and “Shampoo” (1975). He was nominated in the writing category for all three, winning for “Chinatown.”

Hired as a “special consultant” by Warren Beatty for 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Towne restructured the picture to dramatize the outlaws’ impending doom. He also turned an inert family reunion scene with Beatty and Faye Dunaway into one of the picture’s emotional high points. Clyde’s charming bravado falls flat when Bonnie’s mother responds, “You try to live three miles from me and you won’t live long, honey.”

Director Arthur Penn was delighted with Towne’s work. “It helped Warren play the scene, and it certainly helped Faye and the mother,” Penn said.

Though most of Towne’s script doctoring went uncredited — for example, in “The Parallax View” (1974), “Marathon Man” (1976), “The Missouri Breaks” (1976) and “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) — he received a rare honor in 1973 when “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola thanked him in his Oscar acceptance speech for scripting the touching and pivotal Pacino-Brando garden scene — a scene not in Mario Puzo’s book.

But it was Towne’s work on “Bonnie and Clyde” that gave him a shot at “The Last Detail,” adapted from a Darryl Ponicsan novel about two Navy “lifers” escorting a young man accused of petty theft to jail. Written for Jack Nicholson, Towne’s expletive-filled script captured sailors as they really spoke. When Columbia execs balked, Nicholson defended him.

Towne also gave a pessimistic twist to the novel’s more upbeat ending: In the film, the Navy escorts do not defy authority and let the young man escape. “Everybody hides behind doing a job,” Towne said, “whether it’s massacring in My Lai or taking a kid to jail.”

Ironically, Towne battled with Roman Polanski over the director’s dark finale to “Chinatown,” a neo-noir detective story portraying the corruption behind the forming of modern-day Los Angeles. In Polanski’s ending, the Dunaway character is killed. Years later, Towne said: “I felt it was too melodramatic to end it his way, but I was wrong, and he was right.”

The film, also written for Nicholson, secured the actor’s place in the pantheon of great movie stars.

Most of “Chinatown’s” locations were chosen by Towne, who grew up around the port city of San Pedro. “It was a total melting pot,” Towne recalled. “I was the only Jew on the block.”

Towne was born Robert Bertram Schwartz. His father, Lou, who ran a ladies clothing store called the Towne Smart Shop, changed the family name. Towne wrote for many of the major stars of his day, including Nicholson, Beatty, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise. He did uncredited work for Polanski on the Ford vehicle “Frantic” (1988). For Cruise, he did “Days of Thunder” (1990), “The Firm” (1993), “Mission: Impossible” (1996) and “Mission: Impossible II” (2000).

For Beatty he contributed a key line of dialogue for the romantic reunion scene in the actor-director’s “Reds.” He shared the writing credit with Beatty on “Shampoo.” The first draft was Towne’s, and Towne came up with the key notion of making Beatty’s womanizing character a hairdresser. He attributed his extraordinary ability to write for stars to having a good ear. “I learned to listen to other actors’ cadences,” he said, adding that each had his own unique speech patterns.

Towne began as an actor for Corman in 1960’s “The Last Woman on Earth,” which he also wrote. Another writing highlight from his years with Corman was 1964’s “The Tomb of Ligeia,” based on the Poe tale.

In 1964, Towne wrote “The Dove Affair” episode of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Between 1962-64, he also wrote for “The Lloyd Bridges Show” and “The Richard Boone Show.” He also wrote “The Chameleon” episode of “The Outer Limits” that starred Robert Duvall.

Towne continued to appear onscreen occasionally, essaying his most serious role in the Nicholson-helmed 1972 drama “Drive, He Said,” in which he played the favorite teacher of Nicholson’s character.

Towne’s directing efforts were often praised but fared less well at the box office than the films he penned. Pauline Kael called “Personal Best,” his 1982 directorial debut about Olympic hopefuls, “a very smart and super-subtle movie, in which the authenticity of the details draws us in.”

Other writer-director efforts include 1988’s “Tequila Sunrise,” starring Gibson, Kurt Russell and Michelle Pfeiffer. The film opened to mixed reviews and modest box office success. “Without Limits,” produced by Cruise in 1998, starred Billy Crudup as legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. Leonard Maltin’s movie guide lauded it as “a barely released sleeper.”

In 2006, Towne adapted and directed John Fante’s novel “Ask the Dust.” A romantic period piece set in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, “Dust” starred Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek but failed at the box office.

Towne’s misconceived attempt to repeat his success with “Chinatown” led to 1990’s “The Two Jakes”; Towne was ultimately replaced by Nicholson as director, and the film failed both critically and at the box office. He also endured other self-inflicted travails around that time, including a costly divorce and studio battles over “Personal Best.” He was forced to sell the rights to his script for 1984’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” to Warner Bros.
“That was as unbearable as a professional loss ever gets,” Towne said in a 1988 interview. “It was going to be the one great movie I’d done in my life.” Towne gave his dog, P.H. Vazak, screen credit. It was the first dog ever nominated in the best adapted screenplay Oscar category.

But Towne had already done the great movie in his life. “Chinatown” is often cited as one of the best films ever made and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 1991.

Towne said a really good screenplay “reads like it’s describing a movie already made.” Reflecting on his recurring occupation as a script doctor, Towne said he found it revitalizing. “You learn things from other people,” he said. “All scripts are rewritten. The only question is whether it is rewritten well or badly. On the whole, it’s better to have a reputation for fixing things.”

In 2013-14, Towne served as a consulting producer on the final season of AMC’s esteemed series “Mad Men.” In 2006, Towne was the subject of artist Sarah Morris’ film “Robert Towne.”

Towne long had in development the TV series “Pompeii,” centered around the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and to be produced by Ridley Scott. Other unproduced projects included a remake of Hitchcock’s 1935 film “The Thirty Nine Steps” for Towne to write and direct and a remake of “The Battle of Britain” for Towne to script.

Towne received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degrees from the American Film Institute in June 2014. He is survived by two daughters: Katherine, from his marriage to Julie Payne, and Chiara, from a second marriage to Luisa Gaule.

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