Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (2024)

Robert Towne, who has died aged 89, was a celebrated Hollywood scriptwriter best known for his 1974 film Chinatown, which is now recognised as a classic of modern cinema.

The film depicts the venality behind the development of Los Angeles in the late 1930s. A private eye, JJ Gittes (Jack Nicholson), accidentally uncovers a web of familial corruption as he probes into the lives of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her tycoon father Noah Cross (John Huston).

The film won both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for best screenplay and is now a film-school set text, something which Towne found mysterious. “What I hit upon just by a kind of monkey-at-a-typewriter trial and error – that somebody can extrapolate a formula from it astonishes me,” he told Vanity Fair. “Maybe there are rules, and maybe I stumbled across them, but I don’t even know what ‘story-sense’ is. I had the same hard time [on later work] that I had on Chinatown.”

Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (1)

In its final form, the film diverges from Towne’s script, which originally killed off John Huston’s character at the end. Instead, the director, Roman Polanski, insisted that Faye Dunaway should be killed – an ending that Towne described as “so cynical it works against itself”.

Chinatown came in the middle of a string of hits for Towne, starting with The Last Detail (1973) and ending with Shampoo (1975). As a script doctor, he also left his mark on other New Hollywood classics, including Bonnie and Clyde, The Parallax View and The Godfather (for which he was uncredited), and in the 1990s enjoyed a renaissance as Tom Cruise’s screenwriter of choice, following Days of Thunder (1990) with Mission: Impossible (1996) and its first sequel.

But Towne also had his share of frustration and failure. A number of his films were badly received, or else he had taken his name off the credits because he was unhappy with the end result. Greystoke, a project which he had been nurturing for years, was eventually taken out of his hands and made by the British director, Hugh Hudson. Towne credited his work on the final screenplay, which received an Oscar nomination, to his Hungarian sheepdog, PH Vazak. Neither of them saw the film.

Although one of the most successful screenwriters of his generation, Towne’s spasmodic career showed as well as any other the unpredictability of film-making. The painful process of watching his scripts being destroyed by Hollywood producers eventually led Towne to direct his own films, but these also met with little success.

Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (2)

Robert Burton Towne was born on November 23 1934 in Los Angeles. His father was a woman’s clothier of Russian-Jewish descent who changed his name from Schwartz to Towne after he bought the Towne Smart Shop in San Pedro, California, a port just south of Los Angeles, where Robert and his younger brother grew up.

Towne harboured aspirations to be a writer from a very early age, writing his first story when he was six. The multi-ethnic surroundings in which he was brought up had a profound influence on his later work. As he recalled to John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter (1981): “I grew up amidst fishermen, Mexicans, chief petty officers in the merchant marine with three-day growths of beard who could come up and wheeze on you.”

That atmosphere permeates the setting of Towne’s Chinatown, a southern California just beginning to decay into suburbia, a Los Angeles where one could still smell eucalyptus, pepper trees, and water coming out of the ground. After high school, Towne studied English and philosophy at Pomana College in Claremont. He worked for a time in military intelligence and as a real-estate salesman before joining a commercial tuna-fishing operation.

Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (3)

Towne first became interested in screenwriting in 1958 when he began taking a Hollywood acting class taught by Jeff Corey. Among the students who attended Corey’s workshops during the late 1950s were James Coburn, Richard Chamberlain and Jack Nicholson, who became Towne’s roommate.

One of Corey’s exercises, at which Nicholson excelled, influenced Towne’s evolving feel for dramatic structure. “You are given a situation and told that you must talk about everything but the situation to advance the action,” Towne explained to Brady. “Take a very banal situation – a guy trying to seduce a girl. He talks about anything but seduction, anything from a rubber duck he had as a child to the food on the table... It’s inventive, and it teaches you something about writing.”

Watching such improvisations over a period of several years, Towne learnt “the power of dealing obliquely or elliptically with situations, because most people rarely confront things head on. They’re afraid to.” That experience also gave Towne a sense of Nicholson’s specific strengths that proved invaluable in their later work together.

Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (4)

Towne’s first break came from the filmmaker Roger Corman who directed Towne’s screenplay The Last Woman on Earth (1960), a science-fiction thriller about a love triangle between a woman and two men who survive a nuclear war. Towne, who had not finished the screenplay by the time shooting began, was cast as one of the two men; Corman’s budget did not otherwise allow him to keep the screenwriter on location.

The two continued to work on other films during the 1960s, including The Tomb of Ligeia for Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe series. Towne expanded the story to include elements of hypnotism and necrophilia from other examples of Poe’s work, creating a bizarre vision of a man who maintains a relationship with his first wife through the corpse of his second. The film received the best reviews of any of Corman’s Poe films, and Towne claimed that he had expended more effort on that script than on any other.

Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (5)

In 1967 Warren Beatty hired Towne to rework the script of the film Bonnie and Clyde. He tightened the relationship between the two outlaws who were originally part of a ménage à trois with their driver and he re-arranged certain scenes to heighten the tension. Towne emphasised the inevitability of the outcome, posing the question in the script “when would it happen” rather than “whether it would happen”.

Although he was much in demand after that, Towne was too ill to write a complete script. Until his condition of continuous exhaustion was diagnosed in 1972 as a mixture of allergies, Towne was convinced that it was a psychological problem, “writer’s hypochondria”.

Towne then went on to write a series of unsuccessful films. Villa Rides (1968), which he wrote with Sam Peckinpah, he later described as a “textbook on how not to make a movie”. In 1971 he rewrote the screenplay for Cisco Pike but removed his name from the credits after a dispute with the director. With The New Centurions (1970) he took his name off the credits because he disliked the film so much.

Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (6)

Although he went uncredited for his work on The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola publicly acknowledged Towne’s assistance when accepting the Academy Award for best screen adaptation. Towne’s most famous contribution to the film was the tomato patch scene in which Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) passes on his domain to his son (Al Pacino).

With his technique of conveying a situation while avoiding any direct mention of it, Towne wrote a scene that was ostensibly about the succession of power but covertly about the great love between father and son.

The screenplay for The Last Detail (1973), written at the request of his friend Jack Nicholson, earned Towne his first Oscar nomination. In the film two seasoned sailors (Nicholson and Otis Young), charged with transporting a young man (Randy Quaid) to prison for an eight-year sentence, choose to give him a taste of life before fulfilling their mission. With The Last Detail Towne became one of Hollywood’s hottest writers, commanding up to $150,000 for adaptations and $300,000 for original scripts, plus a percentage of box-office receipts.

After the even greater success of Chinatown, Towne wrote a succession of screenplays, including Shampoo, Marathon Man, Heaven Can Wait and Reds, while setting up Greystoke, in which he planned to make his directorial debut. The first hour of the film would be without dialogue, presenting the interaction of the apes with the hero, Tarzan, “for whom the life of the ape was no less important than the life of a human being,” Towne said.

Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (7)

He finally decided to direct Personal Best first, as a practice run before tackling the larger Greystoke project. A film about the romantic relationship between two female athletes (Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly), it ran into budget difficulties and Towne was forced to give up the Greystoke project in order to finish the film. He described this as the most difficult decision he had ever had to make.

Tequila Sunrise (1988) was Towne’s second outing as a writer and director. Although the film had the potential to be a success, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Mel Gibson as the leads, it failed to live up to expectations. Reviews were mixed, with most critics praising the screenplay but finding the direction confusing at best.

In 1990 Towne wrote the screenplay for Tom Cruise’s Days of Thunder. Although his script was described as over-mechanical, “dealing not only in stock cars but also in stock characters” according to The Daily Telegraph, Cruise and Towne went on to make several more bona fide box-office hits.

Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (8)

A 1990 sequel to Chinatown, however, named The Two Jakes, written by Towne and eventually directed by Jack Nicholson, was a disaster. Towne fell out with Chinatown’s original producer Robert Evans, who was set to play the other Jake, because Evans could not act – a crisis that came to a head when Evans refused to have a period haircut because it would reveal the stitches from the plastic surgery he had recently had in Tahiti.

When shooting finally began, after a delay of five years, Towne would fax the final pages of the script from Bora Bora. As a result, he also fell out with his old roommate Nicholson.

Shortly before he died, Towne told Variety that he had completed the scripts for a forthcoming Chinatown prequel television series for Netflix, directed by David Fincher.

Robert Towne married, first, in 1977, the actress Julie Payne, and had a daughter, the actress Katharine Towne. That marriage was dissolved in 1982 and two years later he married, secondly, Luisa Gaule, with whom he had another daughter, the writer and director Chiara Towne.

Robert Towne, born November 23 1934, died July 1 2024

Robert Towne, celebrated Chinatown screenwriter who also left his mark on The Godfather – obituary (2024)
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