Tributes to revered Hollywood writer Robert Towne


Robert Towne, who wrote films including Chinatown and Mission: Impossible, has been remembered as one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters following his death at the age of 89.

Towne won an Oscar for his 1974 crime and corruption thriller Chinatown, which starred Jack Nicholson as a private detective.

He was nominated for four Oscars during his career in total, including for co-writing 1975’s Shampoo with the film’s star Warren Beatty.

Lee Grant, who won best supporting actress for her role in that film, paid tribute to Towne on X. “His life, like the characters he created, was incisive, iconoclastic & entirely originally [sic],” she wrote.

“He gave me the gift of Shampoo. He gave all of us the gift of his words & his films. There isn’t another like him. There won’t be again.”

Towne also had a high reputation as a script doctor, fixing or adding to existing scripts, such as 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 1972’s The Godfather.

Robert TowneRobert Towne

[Getty Images]

Towne often didn’t get an official credit, but The Godfather’s writer-director Francis Ford Coppola used his Oscars best adapted screenplay acceptance speech to thank him for writing a pivotal and “very beautiful” scene between Al Pacino and Marlon Brando’s characters in a garden.

“That was Bob Towne’s scene,” Coppola told the 1973 award ceremony.

Towne also earned his own Oscar nominations for writing 1973’s The Last Detail – also starring Nicholson – and 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.

However, he had handed over writing duties on Greystoke and disliked the results so much that he took his name off the credits and used the pseudonym PH Vazak instead. Vazak was the name of his Hungarian sheepdog.

Towne had no such qualms about Chinatown, but did admit to having fierce rows with director Roman Polanski throughout the writing and filming process.

“We fought every day, over everything,” he said.

‘Everlasting influence’

Scott Tobias wrote in the Guardian last month: “There has been no greater original screenplay in the last 50 years than the one Robert Towne wrote for Chinatown.

“None more elegantly plotted and politically charged, none more literate and historically evocative, none more pungent in its hard-bitten dialogue and sophisticated in its play on noir archetypes.”

In 2006, Chinatown was ranked third on a Writers Guild of America list of the greatest screenplays ever – ahead of The Godfather in second and Casablanca in first, meaning Towne had at least a hand in two of the top three.

In 2017, Vulture placed him at number three on its list of the best screenwriters of all time.

Following his death, the American Film Institute wrote on X: “From writing masterpieces like Chinatown, Shampoo & countless others, his influence is everlasting.”

Robert Towne and Warren BeattyRobert Towne and Warren Beatty

Towne made a number of films with Warren Beatty [Getty Images]

Towne’s Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, failed to make the same impact when it was released in 1990.

He also wrote 1990 racing drama Days of Thunder and 1993 legal thriller The Firm, both of which starred Tom Cruise.

And when Cruise launched the Mission: Impossible film franchise in 1996, Towne co-wrote the first instalment and had the sole writing credit on the second.

He also served as both writer and director on a string of films, including 1982’s athletics drama Personal Best. The New York Times reported that he had affairs with the film’s stars Patrice Donnelly and Mariel Hemingway, leading to the end of his first marriage, to actress Julie Payne.

Towne also wrote and directed 1988’s Tequila Sunrise, starring Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer; and was credited as a “consulting producer” on the 2014-15 season of TV’s Mad Men.

Towne is survived by his second wife Luisa, and daughters Chiara and Katharine.

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