Robert Towne Dies: Oscar-Winning ‘Chinatown’ Screenwriter Who Also Penned ‘Shampoo’, ‘The Last Detail’ & ‘Days Of Thunder’ Was 89

Robert Towne, who won an Oscar for his Chinatown original screenplay and was nominated for his Shampoo, The Last Detail and Greystoke scripts, died Monday at his home. He was 89.

PR firm McClure & Associates announced the news on behalf of Towne’s family.

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Towne also earned BAFTA, Golden Globe and WGA awards for Chinatown, the L.A.-set 1974 thriller starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. It was one of three Writers Guild Awards he won during his career, along with Shampoo and the drama series Mad Men, on which he was a consulting producer during the final seventh season. He also was nominated for The Last Detail (1973) and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1985). He was honored with the guild’s Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement in 1997.

Thoughtful and soft spoken, Towne was a perfectionist who hated studio meetings and script notes and famously would disappear for months to work on a scene. He coveted his relationships with stars including Nicholson and Warren Beatty and had a unique gift for capturing their persona in screen characters — witness Chinatown or The Parallax View. Exasperated when a threatened writers strike shut down pre-production on the latter, he responded to requests for a rewrite by sending his large dog with a note stating, “This is all that I can give.”

Born on November 23, 1934, Towne got his start with his screenplay for 1960’s Last Woman on Earth before writing for such early-’60s TV series as The Outer Limits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Lloyd Bridges Show. He went on to work with Roger Corman on films including The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) and later co-penned with Sam Peckinpah the 1968 Mexican Revolution film Villa Rides starring Yul Brynner, Robert Mitchum and Charles Bronson.


Towne did touch-up script work on The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde and some other important films of the era, but his breakthrough came with The Last Detail. The military dramedy starred Nicholson as a Navy man tasked with escorting a green recruit (Randy Quaid), who has been court-martialed for a petty offense, to the brig over the course of a week. Otis Young, Clifton James and Carol Kane co-starred. That film would set up Towne’s career-defining screenplay the following year.

Directed by Roman Polanski and produced by Robert Evans, Chinatown told the story of California’s water-rights wars of the early 1900s. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, but only Towne would win amid that year’s dominance by another Paramount Pictures classic, The Godfather Part II.

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Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in ‘Chinatown’

At its inception, Chinatown seemed like a dream project. As Peter Bart — who was VP Production at Paramount Pictures during the era — wrote in a 2020 column for Deadline, then-rising star Nicholson had developed a friendship with Towne during production of Easy Rider and implored him to create a Raymond Chandler-style genre detective story for him. Towne confided that idea to Evans, then production chief at Paramount, who was eager to expand his portfolio as a producer, with the added compensation.

While Evans coveted a Towne-Nicholson collaboration as his first solo production credit, there was a catch: He didn’t want to make a movie about either China or Chinatown. Towne patiently explained that Chinatown was only “a state of mind,” whose intricacies involved incest, murder and a scheme to steal a growing city’s water supply.

Unmoved, Evans instructed Towne to abandon Chinatown, offering instead a payday of $175,000 to adapt The Great Gatsby. Towne angrily pointed out that a screenplay based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel would be even more confusing than Chinatown.

RELATED: Robert Evans Dies: ‘Chinatown’ Producer Who Ran Paramount During ‘Godfather’ Years Was 89

To prove his point, Towne turned his back on Paramount, instead borrowing $10,000 to rent a bed-and-breakfast cabin on Catalina Island where he would start writing. While he relished his freedom, it proved illusory.

Over time, Towne would find himself re-crafting his story with guidance from a succession of contributors with strong opinions. First came Nicholson, who had ideas about the characters but felt that the specifics of dialogue were not relevant. Next came Polanski, a Europe native who confessed he was baffled by the subplots of Los Angeles politics. Finally there was Evans, who found the narrative impenetrable.

One recurring topic of disagreement was violence. Only a few years earlier, Polanski had experienced the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family, and he now insisted that the violence would be explicit in his new movie, not implied. “If a filmmaker tries to avoid upsetting people, that would be immoral,” he argued. Even the physical fight between Nicholson, as Jake Gittes, and Dunaway, as Evelyn Mulwray, would be graphic in its execution — as would the infamous nose-slicing scene.

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Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes in ‘Chinatown’

Once production was finished, further disagreements ensued. The ending was re-written, the original score abandoned. Nicholson felt the “look” of the film as a whole was “too bright.” When Chinatown finally screened for critics, doubts vanished. The reception was ecstatic and the movie declared an instant classic. Watch the film’s original trailer below.

Towne then co-penned with Paul Schrader The Yakuza, Sydney Pollack’s crime drama starring Mitchum, Ken Takakura and Brian Keith.

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Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in ‘Shampoo’

His next film, 1975’s Shampoo, was another commercial and critical hit. Starring Beatty as a Beverly Hills hairstylist and playboy who dreams of opening his own salon, its big-name cast also included Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant and Jack Warden.

During the 1970s, Towne also did script-doctor work on Beatty’s directorial debut Heaven Can Wait, along with other screenplays including Orca, The Missouri Breaks and Parallax View.

Towne later wrote and made his directorial and producing debut with Personal Best, the 1982 sports drama starring Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly as lesbian athletes trying to make the Team USA Olympic team, much to the dismay of their coach (Scott Glenn). It ranked among AFI’s Top 300 sports movies of all time. He later would direct and co-write another sports-related drama feature, 1998’s Without Limits, starring Billy Crudup as the ill-fated distance runner Steve Prefontaine.

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Christopher Lambert in ‘Greystoke’

Towne continued to pen screenplays throughout the 1980s and ’90s, including the 1990 Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes, again starring Nicholson. His wrote the screenplay for the 1984 Tarzan tale Greystoke, starring Christopher Lambert, with an eye to direct. But the poor financial showing of Personal Best led Warner Bros to hand the helming reins to Hugh Hudson, who was hot off Best Picture Oscar winner Chariots of Fire.

Towne was angered by the move and had his name taken off the Greystoke screenplay — opting instead to credit the script to P.H. Vazak, his sheepdog. It went on to score an Adapted Screenplay Oscar nom for Vazak, making him the only canine ever to be so honored. It also was the first Academy Award nom for any Tarzan film.

After that, Towne continue to work on other people’s scripts before his next writing and directing gig on the 1988 drug-crimes drama Tequila Sunrise, starring Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell. He then penned the script for Days of Thunder, the very popular, very loud Jerry Bruckheimer-Don Simpson NASCAR drama directed by Tony Scott and starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall and Quaid.

Towne also wrote the screenplays for three other Cruise-led movies in the ensuing years: Pollack’s The Firm (1993), based on the John Grisham novel and co-starring Jeanne Tripplehorn and Gene Hackman; Brian De Palma’s franchise-starting mega-actioner Mission: Impossible (1996); and its 2000 sequel Mission: Impossible 2, helmed by Hong Kong action icon John Woo.

In between, Towne and Beatty wrote the adapted screenplay for Love Affair (1994), a remake that starred spouses Beatty and Annette Bening, along with four-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn in her final screen role.

Towne’s final feature script was Ask the Dust, the 2006 Colin Farrell-Salma Hayek romantic drama that he adapted from the John Fante novel. He also directed it.

In 2019, Deadline revealed exclusively that Towne was teaming with David Fincher and Netflix to work up a pilot script for a Chinatown prequel series. The idea behind the prequel was to focus on a young Jake Gittes as he plies his business in a town where the wealthy and corruption involves land, oil and gangs.

Information regarding a celebration of life ceremony will be announced at a later date.

Here is the Chinatown trailer:

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