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Robert Towne, Oscar-winning screenwriter of ‘Chinatown,’ died at 89

Robert Towne, a screenwriter whose mastery of dialogue and insightful storytelling helped define the New Hollywood wave in the 1970s that included the Oscar-winning “Chinatown,” and who also built a reputation as a “script doctor” to rescue troubled projects, died July 1 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 89.

His publicist, Carri McClure, confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.

With a string of films in the mid-1970s, Mr. Towne emerged as one of the major voices in the New Hollywood genre that borrowed from the traditions of French cinema with tightly focused plots and deep explorations of characters, especially their flaws and contradictions.

The emphasis on intimacy and idiosyncrasies gave rise to a generation of actors such as Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Dustin Hoffman and Diane Keaton, and directors including Steven Spielberg and Peter Bogdanovich. Mr. Towne’s work — often rich in pitch-perfect dialogue and soul-searching vignettes — was ideal for the times.

“A movie, I think, is really only four or five moments between two people; the rest of it exists to give those moments their impact and resonance,” he once said. “The script exists for that. Everything does.”

He received Oscar nominations for best screenwriting in two films directed by Hal Ashby: “The Last Detail” (1973), in which Mr. Towne captures the cussing and rule-breaking of Navy sailors (Nicholson and Otis Young) bringing one of their own (Randy Quaid) to the brig; and “Shampoo” (1975), featuring the flirty and flighty ramblings of an oversexed LA hairdresser played by Warren Beatty, a co-writer on the script.

In between came Mr. Towne’s Academy Award in 1974 for director Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” a parable of greed and corruption set in Depression-era Los Angeles starring Nicholson as a private eye, J.J. “Jake” Gittes. The story involves a scheme to control the city’s water supply — with the water commissioner killed in the process.

A dark subplot takes shape as Gittes discovers that the commissioner’s wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), was raped by her father (played by John Huston) and gave birth to a daughter. In the final scene, Evelyn is fatally shot and her father takes the girl. Gittes watches helplessly.

“Forget it, Jake,” he is told by his partner Lawrence Walsh (Joe Mantell), “it’s Chinatown.” The line became enshrined in filmmaking lore as pithy commentary on fate and indifference. Mr. Towne described “Chinatown” as an allusion to a “state of mind,” like his native Los Angeles, in which nothing is as it seems.

“It’s a city that’s so illusory,” he told the Associated Press in a 2006 interview. “It’s the westernmost west of America. It’s a sort of place of last resort. It’s a place where, in a word, people go to make their dreams come true. And they’re forever disappointed.”

Yet the pitiless ending in “Chinatown” was not in Mr. Towne’s original script. He had Evelyn killing her father to bring some justice. Polanski pushed for a rewrite. Evelyn, he suggested, should be killed — which some film historians interpreted as echoing the pain Polanski endured after his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was among those murdered by followers of cult leader Charles Manson in 1969.

Polanski and Mr. Towne haggled over the screenplay for two months. (In the 2020 book “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood,” author Sam Wasson asserted that Towne was helped by ghostwriter Edward Taylor, a former college roommate. The claim has never been substantiated.)

In the end, Polanski had the finale to “Chinatown” he wanted. “We fought every day,” Mr. Towne recalled, “over everything.”

Directors knew that Mr. Towne’s talent came with baggage. He sailed past deadlines and could fiercely resist proposed changes and edits, even though that was often necessary. He was known for turning in scripts twice the length of the normal 125-page range for a feature film. The original “Chinatown” script was 180 pages, Wasson wrote in “The Big Goodbye.”

Still, Mr. Towne was considered Hollywood’s Mr. Fix It during crunch times. Directors, producers and even actors reached out to him for help. Before filming “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), Mr. Towne was asked by co-star Beatty to look over the screenplay by Robert Benton and David Newman.

Mr. Towne later said he cut scenes exploring a ménage à trois between the outlaw couple and WD Jones, a protégé.

Mr. Towne appeared — sometimes uncredited — on more than a dozen other films including the antiwar drama “Drive, He Said” (1971) directed by Nicholson, and the blockbuster “The Godfather” (1972), helping with a pivotal scene of generational power between Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his father, Vito (Marlon Brando.)

“And then, giving credit where it’s due, I’d like to thank Bob Towne, who wrote the very beautiful scene between Marlon and Al Pacino in the garden,” Francis Ford Coppola said in his Academy Award speech in 1973. “That was Bob Towne’s scene.”

Mr. Towne was born as Robert Bertram Schwartz in Los Angeles on Nov. 23, 1934. His father started a successful real estate company and changed the family name to Towne, later moving the family from San Pedro, Calif., to affluent Palos Verdes, Calif. His mother was a homemaker.

He studied philosophy and English at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., graduating in 1956. At an outside acting class, he met Nicholson and they became friends.

Mr. Towne’s first writing jobs were for television in shows such as the sci-fi compilation “The Outer Limits,” the spy series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Lloyd Bridges Show.” Mr. Towne found his way into movies via the low-budget studio of director Roger Corman. In Corman’s 1960 apocalyptic drama “The Last Woman on Earth,” Mr. Towne wrote the screenplay and co-starred as one of three people left on the planet.

Mr. Towne had planned to write and direct a “Chinatown” sequel, “The Two Jakes,” with Nicholson reprising the role of Gittes in a story about intrigue during the boom years in Los Angeles after World War II. The project, however, was shelved amid feuds between Mr. Towne, Nicholson and producer Robert Evans. (“The Two Jakes” was released in 1990, directed by Nicholson.)

After Hollywood studios and producers increasingly demanded stricter adherence to budgets and timetables, Mr. Towne struggled to recapture his 1970s glory.

He turned to directing with “Personal Best,” a 1982 box-office flop about track athletes. Mr. Towne also spent years writing “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1984), but was disappointed during the prerelease screenings. He asked director Hugh Hudson to have his screenwriting credit renamed to PH Vazak, a reference to his Hungarian sheepdog. To his surprise, the “Greystoke” screenplay received an Oscar nomination.

Mr. Towne directed several more films, including the 1988 thriller “Tequila Sunrise” starring Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kurt Russell, and the love triangle drama “Ask the Dust” (2006). Mr. Towne was part of the script-writing team on the first two films in the Mission: Impossible franchise starring Tom Cruise.

Mr. Towne first met Cruise while working on the script for the 1990 car racing film “Days of Thunder.” In one scene, the crew chief (Robert Duvall) schools Cruise’s character, who complained about a rival driver during a race.

“He didn’t slam into you, he didn’t bump you, he didn’t nudge you. “He rubbed you,” the crew chief says in a segment that became part of racecar jargon.

“And rubbin’, son, is racin’.”

Mr. Towne’s marriage to actress Julie Payne ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 40 years, the former Luisa Gaule; two daughters, one from each marriage; and a brother.

Mr. Towne said the idea for “Chinatown” was partly inspired by a book from the 1940s that described the politics and disputes over water in the region.

“And I thought, ‘Why not do a picture about a crime that’s right out in front of everybody?’” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “Instead of a jewel-encrusted falcon, make it something as prevalent as water faucets, and make a conspiracy out of that.”

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