Obituary: Robert Towne, Mastermind Behind ‘Chinatown’ and ‘The Last Detail’

Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne, known for "Chinatown" and "Shampoo," passed away at 89. His legacy includes iconic films and deep collaborations in Hollywood.

Hollywood lost one of its titans on Monday, July 1, with the passing of Robert Towne at 89, as confirmed by his publicist. Towne, whose 1974 screenplay for “Chinatown” is often heralded as one of the finest ever written, left a legacy that’s as indelible as it is influential. That this script was his first original screenplay, penned at the age of 40, adds a layer of myth to his already storied career.

Towne’s close friendship with Jack Nicholson, whom he met in a Hollywood acting class during their early years, played a significant role in shaping his career. Nicholson starred in “Chinatown,” a film drenched in noir and corruption, as well as in Towne’s biting and darkly comic screenplay for 1973’s “The Last Detail.” Another key collaborator, Warren Beatty, was the linchpin of Towne’s script for 1975’s “Shampoo,” which earned Towne his third consecutive Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

Just these three films cement Towne’s reputation as one of the greats. The Writers’ Guild of America ranked “Chinatown” third on their list of the Top 101 screenplays, right behind “Casablanca” and “The Godfather.” Notably, Towne wrote the pivotal garden scene in “The Godfather” where Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone passes the mantle to Al Pacino’s Michael, a contribution recognized by Francis Ford Coppola during his Oscar acceptance speech for the screenplay he co-wrote with Mario Puzo.

Despite some missteps in his later work, Towne’s legacy as a script doctor with a nearly magical touch remains untarnished. From the outset of his career through his triple Oscar nominations, and onto his directorial efforts such as 1982’s “Personal Best” and 1998’s “Tequila Sunrise,” Towne demonstrated a deep understanding of human motivation. This knack for character depth was pivotal in the first two Tom Cruise-led “Mission: Impossible” films, where he brought a richness to the narrative twists.

Towne’s meticulousness sometimes verged on obstinance, as seen in his tenacity with projects like “Days of Thunder” and “The Firm,” where he instilled a moral weight absent in the source material. His work on “Chinatown” famously included acceding to Roman Polanski’s dark vision for the film’s conclusion, influenced by the tragic murder of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate.

Towne’s life mirrored the dramatic arcs of his screenplays. Born Bertram Schwartz on November 23, 1934, in San Pedro, he was raised in Brentwood where his father, Lou, found success in real estate. Towne’s early experiences, including manning tuna fishing boats, offered a gritty metaphor for his writing journey. He compared his craft to fishing, believing each script was like a trip where one casts their line in faith of a worthwhile catch.

Hollywood insiders began to take notice with Towne’s “special consultant” credit on 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” which ignited the buzz around his name. His close study of Jack Nicholson’s acting style during their scrappy days at Roger Corman’s low-budget factory paid off when he tailored roles to Nicholson’s unique rhythm and intensity.

Towne’s collaboration with directors like Polanski and Beatty, and his connections with contemporaries such as Coppola and Scorsese, placed him in the heart of Hollywood’s creative revolution during the ’60s and ’70s. His influence waned somewhat as the industry grew more corporate and cautious, yet his enduring mark remains. Even when personal and professional turbulence marred projects like “Greystoke,” his resilience shone through, often under a pseudonym to shield his reputation.

His contributions to cinema are far-reaching, extending beyond the silver screen. From his early days working under the Hollywood radar to becoming a cornerstone of American film, Towne’s career was a testament to both his talent and tenacity. He understood the frailty of human ambition and the resilience of the human spirit, capturing both with a pen dipped in the ink of authenticity.

Towne’s career might have been tumultuous, but it’s his undeniable impact on Hollywood and the masterful scripts he left behind that define his legacy. As long as there are films to be made and stories to be told, Robert Towne’s name will be spoken with reverence and respect.


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