Oscar-Winner Robert Towne, Genius Behind ‘Chinatown’, Dead at 89 – You Won’t Believe His Legacy!

Iconic screenwriter Robert Towne, renowned for his Academy Award-winning original script for “Chinatown,” passed away in his Los Angeles residence on Monday at the age of 89.

His passing was announced on Tuesday by his publicist, Carri McClure.

Beginning his screenwriting career in 1960, working for low-budget producer-director Roger Corman, Towne quickly became a well-respected “script doctor” in Hollywood, often stepping in to fix problematic screenplays for films such as “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and “The Godfather” (1972) without receiving credit.

It wasn’t until he stumbled across a 1969 photo essay in West, the Los Angeles Times’ former Sunday magazine, that he began his journey towards becoming a legend of the New Hollywood era.

The photo essay, titled “Raymond Chandler’s L.A.,” depicted recent images of Los Angeles locations, captured as if they were still in the late 1930s and ’40s, the prime era of Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe. The collection included a compelling photo of a vintage convertible parked next to an old streetlight, outside Bullocks Wilshire, the iconic Art Deco luxury department store on Wilshire Boulevard.

Towne, a Los Angeles native born during the Depression, expressed in a 2008 Writers Guild Foundation interview his amazement at how “the L.A. that I vaguely remembered” could be recaptured through the careful selection of city locations.

This photo essay inspired Towne to pen the highly praised screenplay for which he is most recognized: “Chinatown.”

The 1974 classic film, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, is set in 1937 Los Angeles and features Nicholson as private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes, who is hired to investigate an alleged cheating husband but instead finds himself entangled in a complex mystery involving deceit, murder, and an extensive water and land conspiracy in the San Fernando Valley.

In 1973, Towne received rare public recognition for his behind-the-scenes work when “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola, while accepting a screenwriting Oscar for the landmark film, thanked him for writing “the very beautiful scene between Marlon [Brando] and Al Pacino in the garden”— a scene Towne wrote the night before it was shot that subtly illustrates the transfer of Mafia leadership from the aging don to his son Michael and indirectly captures the love between the two characters.

By 1975, Towne was being hailed as “the hottest writer in Hollywood.”

His Academy Award-winning script for “Chinatown” was bookended by Oscar nominations for his screen adaptation of the novel “The Last Detail” (1973), starring Nicholson as one of two Navy lifers escorting a young prisoner to Portsmouth Naval Prison; and for “Shampoo” (1975), which he co-wrote with the film’s producer, Warren Beatty, who starred as a philandering Beverly Hills hairdresser.

Towne’s other notable screenwriting credits include “The Yakuza” (with Paul Schrader), “The Two Jakes” (a “Chinatown” sequel), “Days of Thunder,” “The Firm” (with David Rabe and David Rayfiel), “Mission: Impossible” (with David Koepp) and “Mission Impossible: II.” In addition to his credited works, Towne also did uncredited work on films such as “Drive, He Said,” “The Parallax View,” “Marathon Man,” “The Missouri Breaks” and “Heaven Can Wait.”

The tall, bearded, and soft-spoken screenwriter, who had a fondness for slim cigars, made his directorial debut with the 1982 film “Personal Best,” from his original screenplay about two female track stars. He later directed and wrote the screenplays for “Tequila Sunrise,” “Without Limits” (written with Kenny Moore) and “Ask the Dust,” set in Depression-era Los Angeles.

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Towne also co-wrote the 1984 film “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” which was based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “Tarzan of the Apes,” a project Towne had been working on for many years. But Towne, who was originally slated to direct, was so unhappy with the finished film, co-written by Michael Austin and directed by Hugh Hudson, that he had his name replaced in the credits with a pseudonym: P.H. Vazak, the name of his Komondor, a Hungarian livestock guard dog, who then went on to share an Oscar nomination with Austin.

However, Towne’s screenplays could not surpass the enduring stature of “Chinatown,” which continues to be studied by writers and film-school students and is considered one of the finest movie scripts ever written. Based on a vote of its members, the Writers Guild of America ranked “Chinatown” at No. 3 in its 2006 list of the “101 Greatest Screenplays,” behind “Casablanca” and “The Godfather.”

At the American Film Institute’s commencement ceremony in 2014, Coppola, while presenting Towne with an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree, stated, “You have in your script for ‘Chinatown’ provided the de facto blueprint for aspiring screenwriters, a platonic ideal of both structure and style taught as a template around the world.”

In the 2020 book “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood,” author Sam Wasson revealed that one of Hollywood’s best-known script doctors received uncredited help himself: For more than 40 years, Towne paid Edward Taylor, a longtime close friend, to help him with his scripts, including “Chinatown.”

Taylor, who was Towne’s literature- and theater-loving roommate at Pomona College and later taught sociology and statistics at USC, began secretly working with Towne on his scripts in the mid-1960s and, according to the book, had no issue with staying anonymous. Towne, Wasson wrote, continued to consult with Taylor in person or by phone until Taylor’s death in 2013.

Towne subtly acknowledged his secret collaborator in an introductory essay for a 1983 limited edition of the “Chinatown” screenplay: While writing “the heart” of the script on Catalina Island in the fall of 1972, Towne received periodic visits from his friend Taylor, whom he characterized as having been his Jiminy Cricket, Mycroft Holmes, and Edmund Wilson since their college days.

Born Robert Burton Schwartz in Los Angeles on Nov. 23, 1934, Towne was 2 when his family moved to San Pedro, where his father bought a women’s apparel store called the Towne Smart Shop. Soon enough, Lou Schwartz was being referred to as Mr. Towne.

“I think he liked that,” Towne said of his father, who later became a successful real estate developer, in the Writers Guild Foundation interview. “By the time my brother [Roger] was born, he had legally changed his name.” (Roger Towne later co-wrote the screenplay for the 1984 film “The Natural.”)

The family later moved to Rolling Hills on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and then to Brentwood.

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During the 1950s at Pomona College in Claremont, Towne studied philosophy. He also took a creative writing class in which one of his short stories, based on a recent stint working on a commercial tuna-fishing boat, caught everyone’s attention.

While in college, Towne considered becoming a journalist. But by the late 1950s, Towne, who served a stint in the Army, was in Hollywood taking an acting class taught by blacklisted actor Jeff Corey, whose students included James Coburn, Sally Kellerman, and Richard Chamberlain. Another student was Nicholson, who became Towne’s close friend.

“My training as a writer really came from seven years of improvising in that class, and coming to have a feeling for what was effective dramatically, what was effective in terms of dialogue and just what people could and couldn’t say to be effective,” Towne recalled.

His first professional break came when another student in the class, Corman, who was a quickie film producer and director learning more about the creative process of actors, offered him a chance to write. “It was tough making a living writing for Roger,” Towne said, “but at least he gave me a start.”

Towne’s first screenwriting credit was for Corman’s “Last Woman on Earth,” a 1960 science fiction film in which Towne played one of the three starring roles under the name Edward Wain. Under the same name, he also starred in Corman’s “Creature From the Haunted Sea” (1961). For Corman, he also wrote the screen adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Tomb of Ligeia” (1964), starring Vincent Price.

In addition to his movie work, Towne wrote for television in the 1960s, including “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Lloyd Bridges Show” and “The Richard Boone Show.” Much later in life, he was a consulting producer on the popular television drama “Mad Men.”

Towne’s screenwriting career began to rise when Beatty, the star and producer of “Bonnie and Clyde,” and the film’s director, Arthur Penn, needed help with a script written by David Newman and Robert Benton. For his contributions, Towne was listed in the acclaimed hit film’s credits as “creative consultant.”

As a screenwriter, Towne is described by Peter Biskind in his bestselling book on the New Hollywood era, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” as being “unusually literate” in “a town full of dropouts, where few read books.”

“He had a real feel for the fine points of plot, the nuances of dialogue, had the ability to explain and contextualize film in the body of Western drama and literature,” wrote Biskind.

“He had this ability, in every page he wrote and rewrote, to leave a sense of moisture on the page, as if he just breathed on it in some way,” producer Gerald Ayres told Biskind. “There was always something that jostled your sensibilities, that made the reading of the page not just a perception of plot, but the feeling that something accidental and true to the life of a human being had happened there.”

In writing “Chinatown,” with its plot revolving around a high-level water and real estate conspiracy, Towne was inspired by elements of the controversial history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought water from the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada down to L.A. earlier in the century.

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“Everything about it [‘Chinatown’] was an attempt to take an existing genre and imbue it with things from life,” Towne told The Times in 2004. “Not to do an exotic movie about Maltese falcons and jewel-encrusted birds, but to take a crime that was right in front of your face, that was as basic as water and power. And a detective who was not a tarnished knight like Philip Marlowe, but kind of a sleazy, charming, dapper guy who would only take [divorce] cases because they made him the most money.”

Prior to the filming of “Chinatown” in 1973, Towne and Polanski spent weeks arguing over revisions to Towne’s lengthy screenplay.

The biggest point of contention was the ending.

Towne envisioned Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway), the widow of the murdered chief engineer of the Department of Water and Power, killing her father, the wealthy and merciless Noah Cross (John Huston), who had raped her as a teenager and fathered her young daughter, whom she was desperate to protect.

However, Polanski, whose pregnant wife Sharon Tate had been murdered by members of the Manson family in 1969, had a much darker ending in mind: He wanted Evelyn to die at the end and her daughter to end up in the hands of her father — a victory for evil.

Polanski got his way, and the film concludes with a shockingly tragic scene as Evelyn attempts to escape with her daughter on a street in Chinatown.

“Chinatown,” a critical and box-office success, received 11 Academy Award nominations, including best picture, director, actor, and actress.

As the film’s only Oscar winner, Towne conceded in a 1999 interview with The Times that Polanski “was right about the end.”

In 1997, Towne was honored with the Screen Laurel Award, the Writers Guild of America’s highest award for screenwriting, which is given in recognition of a writer’s body of work.

Towne had a daughter, Katharine, with his first wife, Julie Payne (the daughter of actors John Payne and Anne Shirley); the marriage ended in divorce. He also had a daughter, Chiara, with his second wife, Luisa Gaule.

McLellan is a former Times staff writer.

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