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‘Chinatown,’ ‘Shampoo’ Screenwriter Was 89

‘Chinatown,’ ‘Shampoo’ Screenwriter Was 89

Robert Towne, the screenwriter as superstar whose Oscar-winning work on the 1974 classic Chinatown is widely recognized as the gold standard for movie scripts, has died. He was 89.

Towne died Monday at home, publicist Carri McClure announced.

He also received Academy Award nominations for The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975) in the years surrounding his most famous work.

His takes on Los Angeles were etched with melancholy and painted the city as one of beauty and sadness. In Chinatown and Shampoo, gumshoe J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Beverly Hills hairdresser George Roundy (Warren Beatty) end up alone. (Towne collaborated often with those actors.)

This squinty vantage on Southern California, as a temptress who dashes hopes, also was evident in his script for Tequila Sunrise (1988), which starred Mel Gibson as a jaded private detective and Michelle Pfeiffer as the femme fatale.

Towne also was highly regarded for his work as a script doctor, contributing the Marlon Brando garden scene to The Godfather (1972) and supplying crucial pieces to other films like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

When Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola accepted the Oscar for best screenplay (co-written with Mario Puzo), he thanked Towne from the stage. The writer had been prominently credited as a “special consultant” on Bonnie and Clyde after Beatty, the star and producer on that film, came to him for help.

Towne again collaborated with Beatty on Love Affair (1994), a remake of the classic 1932 Irene Dunne-Charles Boyer movie.

Towne was renowned for his ability to construct ornate but compact screenplays and write pungent dialogue that conveyed rich, and, at times, complex contradictory meanings.

“He knows how to use sly indirection, canny repetition, unexpected counterpoint and a unique poetic vulgarity to stretch a scene or an entire script to its utmost emotional capacity,” film critic Michael Sragow wrote in 1998. “He’s also a lush visual artist with an eye for the kind of images that go to the left and right sides of the brain simultaneously.”

Chinatown was his masterpiece, with the classic noir detective story showing up on numerous critics’ “best” lists. Fashioned around the story of the Mulholland family and fights over L.A. water rights, the Raymond Chandler-inspired film also starred Faye Dunaway and John Huston and was directed by Roman Polanski. The film received 11 Oscar noms, but only Towne won.

(Towne talked about writing “a leading-man part for Nicholson” in Sam Wasson’s book The Big Goodbye, which THR accepted in 2020. The book also notes that Edward Taylor, a former college roommate and frequent collaborator of Towne’s, did a great deal of work on the screenplay without credit.)

His Chinatown follow-up, The Two Jakes (1990), this time directed by Nicholson, also was based on Gittes investigations, but critics found his screenplay lackluster, and the much-anticipated sequel was a bitter disappointment. (In November 2019, it was revealed that Towne and David Fincher were at work on a prequel series for Netflix.)

Towne also wrote the Tom Cruise vehicles The Firm (1993) and Days of Thunder (1990) and was credited with the first two Mission: Impossible blockbusters, released in 1996 and 2000.

He removed his name from the credits of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) and substituted the nom de plume P.H. Vazak. The nonexistent writer then shared an Oscar nomination — the fourth of Towne’s career— with Michael Austin. Vazak, it turns out, was the name of Towne’s sheepdog.

Following his more prolific years, Towne was troubled by mysterious illnesses that dissipated his energy to craft original screenplays, confining him to rewrites. “I was like a guy whose arm is only good enough to pitch a few innings. I could not sustain,” he said in 1992.

In fact, some of his best work was done on other’s screenplays — like The Yakuza (1974) and 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) — which featured screenplays by Paul Schrader and Oliver Stone, respectively — or on abandoned projects.

Towne also added scenes to Nicholson’s Drive, He Said (1971) and did uncredited polishes to The New Centurions and Cisco Pike, both released in 1972. He also assisted on Marathon Man and the Nicholson-starring The Missouri Breaks, a pair of 1976 movies.

Tequila Sunrise marked his second project as writer-director, following Personal Best (1982), the story of a lesbian track athlete starring Mariel Hemingway. He also did double duty on the Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits (1998) and Ask the Dust (2006), another L.A. piece set in the 1930s.

In 2017, Vulture placed him No. 3 on its list of the 100 Best Screenwriters of All Time; only Billy Wilder and Joel & Ethan Coen ranked higher.

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Robert Bertram Schwartz was born on Nov. 23, 1934, in San Pedro, home of the Port of Los Angeles. His father owned a ladies clothing store called the Towne Smart Shop in the neighborhood and then became a real estate developer, and the family moved to tony Rancho Palos Verdes.

Towne attended Chadwick Prep School, Redondo Union High and Pomona College, where he studied English literature and philosophy and graduated in 1956. He (along with college pal Richard Chamberlain) studied acting with blacklisted actor Jeff Corey, and it was here that he met Nicholson. The two established an instant rapport.

Like many others, Towne got his start in show business from another institution of higher learning, the “school” of Roger Corman. His first screenplay was a post-apocalyptic opus for the director-producer called Last Woman on Earth (1960).

Towne also starred under the pseudonym Edward Wain in that film and played a secret agent in another Corman flick, Creature From the Haunted Sea (1961). He then cranked out the script for the director’s The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), starring Vincent Price in an Edgar Allan Poe tale.

When Beatty needed help on the script for Bonnie and Clyde, he turned to Towne. The writer then rejected an opportunity to adapt The Great Gatsby, opting to complete his work on Chinatown. He came up with the idea for the story while he was working with Nicholson on The Last Detail, he recalled in a 2009 interview.

“I went to Jack and said, ‘What if I wrote a detective story set in L.A. of the ’30s?’ He said, ‘Great,’” Towne recalled. “The one feeling I had was a desire to try and re-create the city.

“I then had to go to Oregon where Jack was filming Drive, He Said. I hadn’t really read Raymond Chandler at that point, so I started reading Chandler. While I was there at the University of Oregon, I checked out a book from the library [written by Carey McWilliams] called Southern California Country: Island on the Land. In it was a chapter called ‘Water, Water, Water,’ which was a revelation to me.

“And I thought, ‘Why not do a picture about a crime that’s right out in front of everybody?’ Instead of a jewel-encrusted falcon, make it something as prevalent as water faucets and make a conspiracy out of that. And after reading about what they were doing, dumping water and starving the farmers out of their land, I realized the visual and dramatic possibilities were enormous. So that was really the beginning of it.”

Survivors include his daughter, actress Kathleen Towne.

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