Robert Towne

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Robert Towne
Towne in 2006
Robert Bertram Schwartz

(1934-11-23)November 23, 1934
DiedJuly 1, 2024(2024-07-01) (aged 89)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Alma materPomona College
  • Screenwriter
  • director
  • producer
  • actor
Years active1960–2017
(m. 1977; div. 1982)
Luisa Gaule
(m. 1984)
RelativesJocelyn Towne (niece)

Robert Towne (born Robert Bertram Schwartz; November 23, 1934 – July 1, 2024) was an American screenwriter and director. He started writing films for Roger Corman, including The Tomb of Ligeia in 1964, and was later part of the New Hollywood wave of filmmaking.

Towne wrote and won the Academy Award-winning original screenplay for Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974); starring Jack Nicholson, widely considered one of the greatest screenplays ever written,[1] as well as its sequel, The Two Jakes (1990). For Hal Ashby, he penned the dramedies The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975). He collaborated with Tom Cruise on the films Days of Thunder (1990), The Firm (1993) and the first two installments of the Mission: Impossible franchise (1996, 2000).

Towne directed the sports dramas Personal Best (1982) and Without Limits (1998), the crime thriller Tequila Sunrise (1988), and the romantic crime drama Ask the Dust (2006).

Early life[edit]

Towne was born Robert Bertram Schwartz in Los Angeles, California,[2][3] the son of Helen and Lou Schwartz, a clothing store owner and property developer. He grew up in San Pedro and Rolling Hills and attended Chadwick School.[4][5] He was of Romanian-Jewish descent through his father, and Russian-Jewish descent through his mother; the family was Jewish.[5] He had a younger brother, Roger,[2] who co-wrote the 1984 film The Natural starring Robert Redford.[6]

He graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, California, studying philosophy and literature.[7][8] After college, Towne served in the U.S. Army before doing odd jobs including working as a tuna fisherman.[8]


Roger Corman[edit]

Towne originally sought work as a writer and actor. He took an acting class with Roger Corman taught by Jeff Corey where his classmates also included Jack Nicholson (with whom he shared an apartment), Irvin Kershner, and Sally Kellerman.[9]

Corman was renowned for giving work to untested people of talent. Towne wrote the screenplay for the Corman-financed Last Woman on Earth (1960), in which Towne also played one of the lead roles.

The following year he also starred in the Corman-financed Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).


Towne started writing for television on such programs as The Lloyd Bridges Show, Breaking Point, The Outer Limits, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E..

He also wrote a screenplay for the Corman-directed The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). In 1981 Towne said "I worked harder on... [that] screenplay for him than on anything I think I have ever done."[9]

Towne went back to working in television when Corman hired him to write a script for a Western, which became A Time for Killing (1967). Corman left the project during filming and Towne took his name off the credits. Towne said later he "hated" the film.[10]

Script doctor[edit]

Towne's script for A Time for Killing had been read and admired by Warren Beatty who asked Towne to help out on the script for Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Towne later claimed his main contributions were removing the ménage à trois relationship between Bonnie, Clyde, and W.D., making some structural changes.[11] Towne was on set during filming and continued to work during post-production. The film was a huge success and although Towne's contribution was credited only as a "special consultant", he began to earn a reputation in Hollywood as a top script doctor.[12]

Towne was credited on Villa Rides (1968), which he later said he did as a favor for Robert Evans, head of Paramount. He hated the experience.[13]

Towne did uncredited work on the scripts for Drive, He Said (1971), directed by Jack Nicholson; Cisco Pike (1972), which Towne said turned into "a pretty good movie" but where he got "so angry with the director" he took his name off;[10] and The New Centurions (1972), where he was to share credit with Stirling Silliphant but asked for his name to be taken off after he saw the film.[14]

He did uncredited work for Francis Ford Coppola during the making of The Godfather (1972), mostly the final scene between Michael and Vito, shortly before Vito dies.[12] Coppola thanked Towne in his Academy Award speech for Best Screenplay.

Towne also did some work on The Parallax View (1974) at the behest of star Warren Beatty.

The Last Detail, Chinatown, and Shampoo[edit]

Towne received acclaim and was nominated in the Best Original and Adapted Screenplay categories for his scripts The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Shampoo (1975). He won for Chinatown.[15][16][17] He later said it was inspired by a chapter in Carey McWilliams's Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (1946) and a West magazine article on Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles.

According to Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, Towne "secretly employed an old college friend named Edward Taylor as his uncredited writing partner for more than 40 years." (Taylor died in 2013).[18][19]

Towne was credited for his work on The Yakuza (1975) and did script doctoring on The Missouri Breaks (1976), Orca (1977) and Heaven Can Wait (1978).


Towne turned to directing with Personal Best (1982). He also wrote the script for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, hoping to direct, but Personal Best was a financial failure, meaning he had to sell the Greystoke script. He grew dissatisfied with the production and credited his dog, P. H. Vazak, with the script. Vazak became the first dog nominated for an Oscar for screenwriting.[20]

Towne did uncredited work on Deal of the Century (1983), 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) ([21]), Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) and Frantic (1988).

His second feature film as director was Tequila Sunrise (1988), which he wrote back in the early 1980s. Towne told The New York Times that Tequila Sunrise is "a movie about the use and abuse of friendship."[16]

The Two Jakes[edit]

Towne expressed his disappointment in The Two Jakes in many interviews.[citation needed] He told writer Alex Simon, "In the interest of maintaining my friendships with Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans, I’d rather not go into it, but let’s just say The Two Jakes wasn’t a pleasant experience for any of us. But, we’re all still friends, and that’s what matters most."[22]

In a November 5, 2007, interview with MTV, Jack Nicholson claimed that Towne had written the part of Gittes specifically for him and had conceived Chinatown as a trilogy, with the third film set in 1968 and dealing in some way with Howard Hughes.[23] Towne said he did not know how the rumour started and denied any planned trilogy.

Tom Cruise[edit]

Towne wrote the script for Days of Thunder (1990) and formed a close friendship with its star Tom Cruise.

He was one of the writers on Cruise's The Firm (1993), then Beatty's Love Affair (1994). Cruise brought him on to Mission: Impossible (1996) and co-produced Towne's third film as director, Without Limits (1998). He also co-wrote Mission Impossible II (2000) for Cruise.

Later career[edit]

A project Towne had long sought to bring to the screen came to fruition in 2006 with Ask the Dust, a romantic period piece set in Los Angeles based on the acclaimed novel by John Fante and starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. Towne had found the novel decades earlier during his research for Chinatown, as he was looking for authentic descriptions of 1930s Los Angeles. He enjoyed the book, considering it "the best book about Los Angeles ever written", and arranged a meeting with Fante, himself a screenwriter. As a result of that meeting, Towne was granted the screen rights to the novel. The rights eventually lapsed, and the new owner was Mel Brooks. In 1993, Towne wrote the script for free in exchange for the chance to direct the film.[24] Tom Cruise (with Paula Wagner and Cruise/Wagner Productions) served as one of the film's producers. Ask the Dust received mixed reviews and failed at the box office. The film was entered into the 28th Moscow International Film Festival.[25]

Towne framed several of his signature films as elaborate melodramas. He told The New York Times "I think melodrama is always a splendid occasion to entertain an audience and say things you want to say without rubbing their noses in it. With melodrama, as in dreams, you're always flirting with the disparity between appearance and reality, which is a great deal of fun. And that's also not unrelated to my perception of my life working in Hollywood, where you're always wondering, 'What does that guy really mean?'"[16]

In 2006, Towne was the subject of artist Sarah Morris's film, Robert Towne. Morris describes him as an “elliptical figure” whose career exemplifies a certain characteristic mode of working in the film industry, marked by collaboration, shared or changing roles.[26] Morris's 19,744-square-foot (1,834.3 m2) painting installation in the lobby of the Lever House in Manhattan, commissioned by the Public Art Fund, was also titled "Robert Towne".[27]

Return to television[edit]

In the 2010s, Towne returned to television, working as a consulting producer on Mad Men and writing two episodes of Welcome to the Basement.[28]

Personal life[edit]

In 1968, Towne met actress Julie Payne; they were married from 1977 to 1982.[29] According to Sam Wasson's The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, Towne was addicted to cocaine during this period and was occasionally violent, which led to a bitter divorce and custody battle over their daughter Katharine (born 1978).

In 1984, Towne married Luisa Gaule. They had one daughter, Chiara.[30]

He was the former son-in-law of late actor John Payne and actress Anne Shirley. Through his daughter Katharine, he was former father-in-law of actor Charlie Hunnam. Towne died at his home in Los Angeles on July 1, 2024, at the age of 89.[31]


Credits as writer-director[edit]

Credits as writer only[edit]

Credits as actor[edit]

Other credits[edit]

Unmade projects[edit]

Legacy and honors[edit]


In the book Fifty Filmmakers, journalist Andrew J. Rausch argues: "There is a strong case to be made that Robert Towne is the most gifted scribe ever to write for film. There can be little doubt that he is one of the finest ever."[49]


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  2. ^ a b Biskind, Peter (1999). Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Simon & Schuster. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-7475-4421-0.
  3. ^ According to the State of California. California Birth Index, 1905-1995. Center for Health Statistics, California Department of Health Services, Sacramento, California. Searchable at Archived 27 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine
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  9. ^ a b Brady p 390
  10. ^ a b Brady p 388
  11. ^ Brady p 396-398
  12. ^ a b Brady p 399
  13. ^ Brady p 386-387
  14. ^ Brady p 387
  15. ^ McDougal, Dennis (2008) Five easy decades pp.146, 182, 416
  16. ^ a b c Turan, Kenneth (27 November 1988). "Robert Towne's Hollywood Without Heroes". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 3 July 2024. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
  17. ^ Nicolas Cage, DVD commentary, The Rock Criterion Collection
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  20. ^ Ward, Jason (20 February 2015). "Intriguing film credits that you probably missed". Archived from the original on 13 September 2022. Retrieved 13 September 2022.
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  30. ^ "Chiara Towne". IMDb. Archived from the original on 29 August 2021. Retrieved 28 August 2021.
  31. ^ McLellan, Dennis (2 July 2024). "Robert Towne, Oscar-winning screenwriting icon behind 'Chinatown,' dies at 89". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 3 July 2024. Retrieved 2 July 2024.
  32. ^ Finstad, Suzanne (2006). "Act 4: The Pro". Warren Beatty: A Private Man. Crown/Archetype. p. 440. ISBN 9780307345295.
  33. ^ Mitchell, Deborah C. (2001). "1978–1971 The Muse". Diane Keaton: Artist and Icon. McFarland. p. 63. ISBN 9780786410828.
  34. ^ Mark McGee, Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures, McFarland, 1996 p201
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  37. ^ Solomon, Charles (6 January 1985). "COMMENTARY : ARE ANIMATED FILMS DRAWN INTO A CORNER?". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 30 December 2023. Retrieved 3 July 2024.
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  40. ^ "Top team plots espionage film". South China Morning Post. 27 May 1994. Archived from the original on 4 December 2023. Retrieved 28 November 2023.
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  47. ^ Fleming, Mike Jr. (20 February 2018). "Mel Gibson, Robert Towne, Mike Medavoy Team On 'Dancing Bear' For USA Network". Deadline Hollywood. Archived from the original on 22 March 2023. Retrieved 3 July 2024.
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General and cited references[edit]

External links[edit]