Oscar-Winning Screenwriter Robert Towne Passes Away at 89: Mastermind Behind “Chinatown” and “Shampoo”

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The stage light dimmed abruptly for the Oscar-winning legend Robert Towne, the mastermind behind the script lines of numerous acclaimed films including “Shampoo,” “The Last Detail,” and most notably, the highly influential, vintage representation of his birthplace Los Angeles in “Chinatown.” After crafting an illustrious lifetime in the heart of the entertainment industry, Towne surrendered to the final act at the age of 89.

The final scene of Towne played out in his Los Angeles home, surrounded by his loving family, his publicist Carri McClure noted. She gracefully forwarded any conjectures about the cause of death to the obscurity.

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In the unpredictable world of cinema where writers often serve as the fodder for sardonic quips about their status, Towne was a shining anomaly. A creator of his unique stature, he shared the limelight that was usually saved for the stars he scripted for and the directors he worked with. His partnerships with the superstars of the 60s and 70s, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, were a large part of the magic that brought some of the most iconic films of an era to life—an era remembered for a rare high-handed control for artists. The visionary in Towne found a canvas in his work, showcasing a personal vision of Los Angeles that had hitherto been unexplored.

“Los Angeles is a city so deceptive,” Towne once shared with The Associated Press in a 2006 exchange. “It’s almost a mirage at the very end of America’s west, a last-ditch refuge. It’s synonymous as the city where dreamers step off the edge in faith, only to be met with the cold splash of disappointment.”

With an imposing forehead and an eye-catching beard, the charismatic Towne was a familiar face around Hollywood. His masterstroke, “Chinatown,” won him an Academy Award and three more nominations for “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo,” and “Greystoke.” In 1997, he was handed a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America, a proof of his lifelong dedication and immense contribution to the industry.

As Lee Grant, the actor from “Shampoo,” astutely observed of Towne’s life, “It was as incisive, iconoclastic, and entirely original as the characters he created.”

Towne’s journey to success was not a cakewalk, but a tough grind in the world of television including “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” and “The Lloyd Bridges Show,” and a surprising detour through low-budget movies created in association with “B” producer Roger Corman. In an almost cinematic plot twist, it was through his psychiatrist that he met Beatty, who, like him, was a patient. Towne found himself riding shotgun with Beatty as he worked on “Bonnie and Clyde,” was tasked with revising the Robert Benton-David Newman draft even while the movie was in its nascent shooting phase in Texas.

For his inimitable contribution to the crime film classic “Bonnie and Clyde” released in 1967, Towne’s was an uncredited effort. His brilliance was not limited to the limelight, and he shone just as bright in the shadows as a cherished ghostwriter. His prowess graced “The Godfather,” “The Parallax View,” “Heaven Can Wait,” among many others. He likened his role to that of a “relief pitcher who could come in for an inning, not pitch the whole game.” However, accomplished works such as the macho “The Last Detail” starring Nicholson and the humorous “Shampoo” starring Beatty were credited to his genius and became immortalized even more through the 1974 thriller “Chinatown,” set against the dreary backdrop of the Great Depression.

With a dark undertone expertly weaved into its narrative, faithful to the atmospheric gloom of a classic Los Angeles film noir, “Chinatown” directed by Roman Polanski featured Nicholson as J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a private detective embroiled in an escalating spiral of corruption, only to face a cruel and ruthless world personified by Cross, Evelyn Mulwray’s father played by John Huston.

Deeply influenced by the fiction of Raymond Chandler, Towne breathed life into the age-old menace and mood of Los Angeles’ noir, striding through the meandering odyssey of Gittes, only to reveal a grander and more insidious canvas. From the web of seemingly unrelated clues emerged a timeless detective narrative that tragically spiraled into despair, summed up by a single iconic line by Gittes’s partner Lawrence Walsh played by Joe Mantell, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Throughout his illustrious career, Towne became a torchbearer in the darkness for budding scriptwriters, even though his script’s legacy also served as a sobering reminder of the complexity of filmmaking, the collective effort it demands, and the high-risk stakes shouldered by singular creative authorship. As Towne recalled, his journey was not a one-man show, but a tightly-bound partnership with Polanski, as they collectively revised and strengthened the narrative, even passionately debating over the film’s bleak ending.

Indeed, the idea for “Chinatown” sparked initially from Towne’s imagination when he had the opportunity to adapt “The Great Gatsby” for the screen but chose to work on his masterpiece “Chinatown.” During this decision-making process, Towne was influenced by a 1946 book by Carey McWilliams titled “Southern California: An Island on the Land.” The chapter “Water, water, water” was a revelation for him, where he saw an opportunity to base his film on a crime committed openly, making water faucets a symbol of conspiracy.

The fascinating journey of “Chinatown”’s creation has itself become a detective story, dissected and explored in Robert Evans’ memoir “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” in Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”—a glimpse into the 1960s-1970s Hollywood glory, and Sam Wasson’s “The Big Goodbye,” dedicated entirely to “Chinatown.” According to “The Big Goodbye,” Wasson argued that Towne was extensively assisted by the ghostwriter Edward Taylor, his old college roommate. Taylor prioritized his friendship with Towne above all, to the point of not asking for credit for the film.

Post mid-70s, as studios took the reigns and exerted authority, Towne’s standing experienced a slight slump. His directing endeavors met mixed results. For instance, “The Two Jakes,” the highly anticipated sequel to “Chinatown,” met with lukewarm reception upon its release in 1990, causing a brief rift between Towne and Nicholson.

During this period, he participated in a project drastically different from his ’70s art-house aspiration. He worked on the Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer project, “Days of Thunder,” where he scripted Tom Cruise as a race car driver and Robert Duvall as his crew chief. Released in 1990, the movie exceeded its allocated budget and didn’t fare well critically, although it has since found admirers in Quentin Tarantino and racing enthusiasts.

Towne continued to collaborate with Cruise on “The Firm” and the first two installments of the “Mission: Impossible” series. His last project was “Ask the Dust,” a Los Angeles story he both wrote and directed; it hit the screens in 2006.

Towne was born Robert Bertram Schwartz in Los Angeles and relocated to San Pedro following his father’s business setback during the Great Depression. His subsequent journey into the world of movies was influenced by the proximity of the Warner Bros. Theater and his admiration for the critic James Agee. He found a striking, mind-engraving connection between writing and his job on a tuna boat, creating a writing metaphor of fishing.

In a fitting conclusion to the journey of this cinematic genius, he once paralleled his craft with his fishing experiences. He confessed to the Writers Guild Association in 2013, “Sometimes they both involve an act of faith. Sometimes it’s sheer faith alone that sustains you, because you think, ‘God damn it, nothing—not a bite today. Nothing is happening.’”