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In Memoriam: Robert Towne

There aren’t many screenwriters with a reputation that could match Robert Towne. Sure, a lot of it comes from writing what is widely regarded as one of the best screenplays of all time in the Academy Award-winning “Chinatown,” 50 years old this year. But that isn’t the only credit on Towne’s resume, one that insiders know barely scratches the surface of his many contributions behind the scenes. Towne was a genius, someone who understood structure, character, plotting, and tone in a way that inspired thousands of those who followed in his massive footsteps. When he passed this week at the age of 89, another chapter of one of the most essential eras of film history ended.

A Los Angeles native, Robert Bertram Schwartz graduated from Pomona College, seeking a life as an actor after leaving school. As luck would have it, he ended up in an acting class with Roger Corman. When Corman became a producer of low-budget classics, he hired Towne to write a film called “Last Woman on Earth,” in which Towne also stars. The only truly notable thing about the film is that it played on a double bill with “Little Shop of Horrors,” starring Towne’s buddy and roommate Jack Nicholson.

Like a lot of writers of the era, Towne transitioned into the growing form of television, writing episodes of shows like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Outer Limits,” but he continued to write for Corman too, delivering scripts for films with titles like “The Tomb of Ligeia” and “A Time for Killing.” These early projects likely taught Towne how to work efficiently on short notice, a skill that would come in handy during a long career as a script doctor, someone who punches up the work of other writers. Towne is beloved for writing some of the most essential scenes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, including a restructuring of “Bonnie and Clyde,” a polish on “The Parallax View,” and essential work on “The Godfather,” notoriously writing the final scene between Michael and Vito Corleone. Robert Towne really cemented his legacy with a trio of screenplays: “The Last Detail,” “Chinatown,” and “Shampoo.” All three were nominated for Oscars, with Towne going home with the trophy for the Polanski masterpiece.

The ’80s weren’t quite as good for Towne as the ‘70s, but Towne remained a force in the industry with projects like “Deal of the Century,” “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” and “Frantic.” He also tried out the director’s chair that decade with 1982’s “Personal Best” and 1988’s “Tequila Sunrise.”

He returned to the world of Jake Gittes with 1990’s “The Two Jakes,” a disappointment in many ways, but the ‘90s would become a fertile time for Towne due to his new partnership with Tom Cruise. After working on the superstar’s “Days of Thunder” in 1990, Cruise basically hired Towne to adapt “The Firm” (a truly underrated, great script there) and write both “Mission: Impossible” and its first sequel. His last major project came in 2006 with “Ask the Dust,” a long-awaited adaptation that Towne had been trying to make since he used its source as research on “Chinatown.” He also directed the film, his last credit.

It’s impossible to write the story of the ‘70s in American film without talking about Robert Towne. “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Godfather,” “The Last Detail,” “Chinatown,” “The Parallax View,” “Shampoo,” and script doctor work on “Marathon Man” and “Heaven Can Wait.” That alone is an insane run by a man who understood the wave of cinematic expression that he was riding. In many ways, it feels like the era of the superstar screenwriter is ending (or possibly over) in the film world. Robert Towne was one of the last.