Robert Towne, legendary Hollywood screenwriter of “Chinatown,” dies at the age of 89

Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Shampoo,” “The Last Command” and other acclaimed films whose work on “Chinatown” became a model for the art form and helped define the jaded charm of his hometown of Los Angeles, has died. He was 89.

Towne died “peacefully surrounded by his loving family” at his home in Los Angeles on Monday, his spokeswoman Carri McClure said in a statement to CBS News. She did not provide any information about the cause of death.

In an industry that was prone to rueful jokes about the screenwriter's status, Towne enjoyed for a time a prestige comparable to that of the actors and directors he worked with. Thanks to his friendship with two of the biggest stars of the 1960s and 1970s, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, he wrote or co-wrote some of the most distinctive films of an era in which artists had an unusual degree of creative control. A rare “auteur” among screenwriters, Towne managed to bring a highly personal and influential vision of Los Angeles to the screen.

Writer Robert Towne in the audience during the 36th AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony for Warren Beatty held at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California on June 12, 2008.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for AFI

“It's a town that's so illusory,” Towne told the Associated Press in a 2006 interview. “It's the westernmost west of America. It's a kind of place of last refuge. In short, it's a place where people go to make their dreams come true. And they're forever disappointed.”

Towne is recognizable in Hollywood by his high forehead and full beard. He won an Oscar for “Chinatown” and was nominated three more times, for “The Last Command,” “Shampoo” and “Greystoke.” In 1997, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America.

“His life, like that of the characters he created, was astute, iconoclastic and totally (original),” “Shampoo” actor Lee Grant said on X.

Towne was born Robert Bertram Schwartz in Los Angeles and moved to San Pedro after his father's clothing store closed due to the Great Depression. His father changed the family name to Towne.

Towne's success came after a long stint on television, including “The Man from UNCLE” and “The Lloyd Bridges Show,” and in low-budget films for B-list producer Roger Corman. In a classic show business story, he owed his break in part to his psychiatrist, through whom he met Beatty, a fellow patient. While working on “Bonnie and Clyde,” Beatty brought Towne in for revisions to the screenplay by Robert Benton and David Newman and had him on set while the film was being shot in Texas.

Towne's work on “Bonnie and Clyde,” the groundbreaking 1967 crime film, was uncredited, and for years he was a popular ghostwriter. He helped out on “The Godfather,” “The Book of Shadows,” and “Heaven Can Wait,” among others, and described himself as “a backup pitcher who could come in for an inning but didn't have to pitch the whole game.” But Towne was credited for Nicholson's macho film “The Last Command” and Beatty's sex comedy “Shampoo,” and was immortalized by “Chinatown,” the 1974 thriller set during the Great Depression.

“Chinatown” was directed by Roman Polanski and starred Nicholson as JJ “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator assigned to shadow the husband of Evelyn Mulwray (played by Faye Dunaway). The husband is the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and Gittes becomes caught up in a chaotic spiral of corruption and violence, embodied by Evelyn's ruthless father, Noah Cross (John Huston).

Influenced by the novels of Raymond Chandler, Towne recreated the menace and mood of a classic Los Angeles film noir, but cast Gittes' labyrinthine odyssey into a grander and more insidious portrait of Southern California. The clues pile up into a timeless detective story, leading helplessly to tragedy, which is summed up in one of the most oft-repeated phrases in film history: words of grim fatalism delivered to a devastated Gittes by his partner Lawrence Walsh (Joe Mantell): “Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.”

The backstory of “Chinatown” has itself become a kind of crime thriller, covered in producer Robert Evans’ memoir “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” Peter Biskind’s “East Riders, Raging Bulls,” a history of Hollywood in the 1960s and ’70s, and Sam Wasson’s “The Big Goodbye,” which is entirely devoted to “Chinatown.” In “The Big Goodbye,” published in 2020, Wasson claims Towne received extensive assistance from a ghostwriter — his former college roommate Edward Taylor. According to “The Big Goodbye,” for which Towne declined an interview, Taylor did not ask to be credited for the film because he was more concerned with his “friendship with Robert.”

By the mid-1970s, the studios were gaining more power and Towne's reputation was declining. His own directorial efforts, including “Personal Best” and “Tequila Sunrise,” had mixed results. “The Two Jakes,” the long-awaited sequel to “Chinatown,” was a commercial and critical disappointment upon its release in 1990 and led to a temporary estrangement between Towne and Nicholson.

Around the same time, he agreed to work on a film that was far removed from the arthouse ambitions of the '70s: the Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer production Days of Thunder, in which Tom Cruise played a race car driver and Robert Duvall his crew chief. The 1990 film was notoriously over-budget and largely panned, although its admirers included Quentin Tarantino and countless racing fans. And Towne's script popularized a phrase Duvall used after Cruise complained that another car had driven into him: “He didn't crash into you, he didn't jostle you, he didn't bump you. He rubbed you.”

“And rubbing, son, is racing.”

Towne later worked with Cruise on The Firm and the first two Mission: Impossible films. His most recent film was Ask the Dust, a film about Los Angeles that he wrote and directed and which was released in 2006. Towne was married twice, the second time to Luisa Gaule, and had two children. His brother Roger Towne also wrote screenplays and his works include The Indomitable.