Robert Towne

Robert Towne (born Robert Bertram Schwartz;[1][2] November 23, 1934) is an American screenwriter, producer, director and actor. He was part of the New Hollywood wave of filmmaking. He is best known for his Academy Award-winning original screenplay for Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), which is widely considered one of the greatest screenplays ever written.[3] He later said it was inspired by a chapter in Carey McWilliams's Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (1946) and a West magazine article on Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles. Towne also wrote the sequel, The Two Jakes (1990); the Hal Ashby comedy-dramas The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975); and the first two Mission: Impossible films.

Robert Towne
Towne in 2006
Robert Bertram Schwartz

(1934-11-23) November 23, 1934
Alma materPomona College
OccupationWriter, director, producer, actor
Years active1960–present
Spouse(s)Julie Payne
(m. 1977; div. 1982?)
Luisa Gaule
(m. 1984)

Towne directed the sports dramas Personal Best (1982) and Without Limits (1998), the crime thriller Tequila Sunrise (1988), and the romantic crime drama Ask the Dust (2006).

Early life

Towne was born in Los Angeles, where he grew up in San Pedro, the son of Helen and Lou Schwartz.[4] Towne's parentage was Romanian on his father’s side, Russian on his mother’s; the family was Jewish.[5]

He graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, California.[6]


Roger Corman

Towne originally sought work as a writer and actor. He did an acting class with Roger Corman taught by Jeff Corey where his classmates also included Jack Nicholson, Irvin Kershner and Sally Kellerman.[7]

Corman was renowned for giving work to untested people of talent. Towne wrote the screenplay for the Corman-financed Last Woman on Earth (1960), in which Towne also played one of the lead roles.

The following year he also starred in the Corman-financed Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).


Towne started writing for television on such programs as The Lloyd Bridges Show, Breaking Point, The Outer Limits, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E..

He also wrote a screenplay for the Corman-directed The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). In 1981 Towne said "I worked harder on... [that] screenplay for him than on anything I think I have ever done."[8]

Towne went back to working in television when Corman hired him to write a script for a Western, which became A Time for Killing (1967). Corman left the project during filming and Towne took his name off the credits. Towne said later he "hated" the film.[9]

Script Doctor

Towne's script for A Time for Killing had been read and admired by Warren Beatty who asked Towne to help out on the script for Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Towne later claimed his main contributions were removing the menage a trois relationship between Bonnie, Clyde and WD, making some structural changes.[10] Towne was on set during filming and continued to work during post production. The film was a huge success and although Towne's contribution was only "special consultant", he began to earn a reputation in Hollywood as a top "script doctor".[11]

Towne was credited on Villa Rides (1968), which he later said he did as a favor for Robert Evans head of Paramount. He hated the experience.[12]

Towne did uncredited work on the scripts for Drive, He Said (1971), directed by Jack Nicholson; Cisco Pike (1972), which Towne said turned into "a pretty good movie" but where he got "so angry with the director" he took his name off[13]; and The New Centurions (1972), where he was to share credit with Stirling Silliphant but asked for his name to be taken off after he saw the film.[14]

He did uncredited work for Francis Ford Coppola during the making of The Godfather (1972), mostly the final scene between Michael and Vito, shortly before Vito dies.[15] Coppola thanked Towne in his speech when Coppola won the Best Screenplay Oscar.

Towne also did some work on The Parallax View (1974) at the behest of star Warren Beatty.

The Last Detail, Chinatown and Shampoo

Towne received great acclaim for his film scripts The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Shampoo (1975). He was nominated for an Oscar for all three scripts, winning for Chinatown.[16][17][18]

Towne was credited for his work on The Yakuza (1975) and did script doctoring on The Missouri Breaks (1976), Orca (1977) and Heaven Can Wait (1978).


Towne turned to directing with Personal Best (1982). He also wrote the script for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, hoping to direct, but Personal Best was a financial failure, meaning he had to sell the Greystoke script. He grew dissatisfied with the production and credited his dog, P.H. Vazak, with the script. Vazak became the first dog nominated for an Oscar for screenwriting, but he did not fetch the award.

Towne did uncredited work on Deal of the Century (1983), 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) ([19]), Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) and Frantic (1988).

His second feature film as director was Tequila Sunrise (1988), which he wrote back in the early 1980s. Towne told The New York Times that Tequila Sunrise is "a movie about the use and abuse of friendship."[20]

The Two Jakes

Robert Towne expressed his disappointment in The Two Jakes in many interviews. He told writer Alex Simon "In the interest of maintaining my friendships with Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans, I’d rather not go into it, but let’s just say The Two Jakes wasn’t a pleasant experience for any of us. But, we’re all still friends, and that’s what matters most."[21]

In a November 5, 2007 interview with MTV, Jack Nicholson claimed that Towne had written the part of Gittes specifically for him. In the same interview, Nicholson also said that Towne had conceived Chinatown as a trilogy, with the third film set in 1968 and dealing in some way with Howard Hughes.[22] However, Towne says he "does not know how that got started" and denies there was any trilogy planned.

Tom Cruise

Towne wrote the script for Days of Thunder (1990) and formed a close relationship with its star Tom Cruise.

He was one of the writers on Cruise's The Firm (1993), then Beatty's Love Affair (1994). Cruise brought him on to Mission: Impossible (1996) and co produced Towne's third film as director, Without Limits (1998). He also co-wrote Mission Impossible II (2000) for Cruise.

Later career

A project Towne had long sought to bring to the screen came to fruition in 2006 with Ask the Dust, a romantic period piece set in Los Angeles based on the acclaimed novel by John Fante and starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. Towne had found the novel while researching Chinatown, looking for material that would honestly describe that particular era of Los Angeles. He became so entranced by the book that he arranged to meet with its author—himself a screenwriter—in person. "I was an unknown," Towne said. "I hadn't written anything of note." But Fante greeted the young fan with accusations like "What makes you think you're any kind of judge of my work?"[23] Ask the Dust received mixed reviews and failed at the box office. The film was entered into the 28th Moscow International Film Festival.[24]

Towne has framed several of his signature films as elaborate melodramas. He told The New York Times "I think melodrama is always a splendid occasion to entertain an audience and say things you want to say without rubbing their noses in it," he says. "With melodrama, as in dreams, you're always flirting with the disparity between appearance and reality, which is a great deal of fun. And that's also not unrelated to my perception of my life working in Hollywood, where you're always wondering, 'What does that guy really mean?'"[20]

In 2006, Towne was the subject of artist Sarah Morris's film, Robert Towne. Morris describes him as an “elliptical figure” whose career exemplifies a certain characteristic mode of working in the film industry, marked by collaboration, shared or changing roles.[25] Morris's 19,744-square-foot (1,834.3 m2) painting installation in the lobby of the Lever House in Manhattan, commissioned by the Public Art Fund, was also titled "Robert Towne".[26]

Return to Television

He turned to television being a consulting producer on Mad Men and writing episodes of Welcome to the Basement.

In 2008, Towne was the subject of the documentary short film "Robert Towne", by artist Sarah Morris.[27]

Personal life

Robert has a brother Roger, who is six years younger.[1] He is married to Luisa Gaule. His former father-in-law is late actor John Payne, star of the western series, The Restless Gun. Towne's daughter (with actress Julie Payne) is Katharine Towne. He is a former father-in-law of Charlie Hunnam.


Credits as writer-director

Credits as writer only

Credits as actor

Other credits

Unmade projects

Future projects

In 2011, Towne was announced as writer-director of The 39 Steps, a proposed remake of the 1935 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The British producer Graham King revealed that he had hired Towne to write a remake of The Battle of Britain in a December 2011 interview.

Legacy and honors

In the book Fifty Filmmakers, journalist Andrew J. Rausch argues, "There is a strong case to be made that Robert Towne is the most gifted scribe ever to write for film. There can be little doubt that he is one of the finest ever."[31]



  1. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind page 30, 1999 Bloomsbury edition ISBN 978-0-7475-4421-0
  2. According to the State of California. California Birth Index, 1905-1995. Center for Health Statistics, California Department of Health Services, Sacramento, California. Searchable at
  3. "Being John Malkovich at 20: why the surrealist comedy demands a rewatch". The Guardian. Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  4. "Robert Towne Biography (1934-)". Retrieved 2013-06-14.
  5. "Lennon, Elaine: The screenplays of Robert Towne 1960-2000. Dublin Institute of Technology, 2009". Retrieved 2013-06-14.
  6. "The Robert Towne Page". Retrieved April 13, 2010.
  7. Brady p 390
  8. Brady p 390
  9. Brady p 388
  10. Brady p 396-398
  11. Brady p 399
  12. Brady p 386-387
  13. Brady p 388
  14. Brady p 387
  15. Brady p 399
  16. McDougal, Dennis (2008) Five easy decades pp.146, 182, 416
  17. Kenneth Turan, Robert Towne's Hollywood Without Heroes, New York Times (27 November 1988)
  18. Nicolas Cage, DVD commentary, The Rock Criterion Collection
  19. "". 2013-04-16. Retrieved 2013-06-14. External link in |title= (help)
  20. New York Times (27 November 1988)
  21. "". Retrieved 2013-06-14. External link in |title= (help)
  22. "". 2007-11-05. Retrieved 2013-06-14. External link in |title= (help)
  23. "". 2006-02-07. Retrieved 2013-06-14. External link in |title= (help)
  24. "28th Moscow International Film Festival (2006)". MIFF. Archived from the original on 2013-04-21. Retrieved 2013-04-21.
  25. "Public Art Fund"
  26. "The New York Observer" Archived October 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  27. Rabinowitz, Cay Sophie (December 2008). "Interview: Sarah Morris". Art in America. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  28. Finstad, Suzanne (2006). "Act 4: The Pro". Warren Beatty: A Private Man. Crown/Archetype. p. 440. ISBN 9780307345295.
  29. Mitchell, Deborah C. (2001). "1978-1971 The Muse". Diane Keaton: Artist and Icon. McFarland. p. 63. ISBN 9780786410828.
  30. Mark McGee, Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures, McFarland, 1996 p201
  31. Rausch, Andrew J. (2008). Fifty Filmmakers: Conversations with Directors from Roger Avary to Steven Zaillian. McFarland. p. 244. ISBN 0786431490.


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