Robert Towne, Screenwriter of ‘Chinatown’ and More, Dies at 89

Mr. Towne was no stranger to the pleasures and perils of that hedonistic era. His first marriage, to actress Julie Payne, ended acrimoniously after he had affairs with both Patrice Donnelly and Mariel Hemingway, who co-starred as track athletes in the first film he directed, the 1982 box office hit “Personal Best.” (There were also rumors of rampant cocaine use on the set.) His career began a long decline around the same time, though he never stopped writing.

Born Robert Bertram Schwartz on November 23, 1934, in Los Angeles, Mr. Towne spent his early years in the working-class fishing port of San Pedro, California. When he was about 7, he saw his first movie, “Sergeant York.” He later said that he became hooked on movies that day.

His father, Lou, owned a women’s clothing store but had his eyes set on bigger things. He changed the family name from Schwartz to Towne, got into real estate, and eventually moved with his wife Helen and their two sons to the gated community of Rolling Hills in affluent Palos Verdes, California.

Robert attended the exclusive Chadwick School there, then studied philosophy and English at Pomona College, graduating in 1956. While taking an acting class, he met another aspiring actor, Jack Nicholson. The two would become close friends and collaborators, though they eventually fell out over making a sequel to “Chinatown.”

Mr. Towne began his career writing for such television shows as “The Outer Limits” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and for Roger Corman’s B-movie factory. He wrote and acted in “The Last Woman on Earth” (1960), a typically no-frills Corman production. More prestigious work, much of it uncredited rewrites of other people’s scripts, soon followed.

His Oscar for “Chinatown” did not come without torment. The film centers on a private eye, Jake Gittes (Mr. Nicholson), who uncovers an elaborate scheme by power brokers in 1930s Los Angeles to get rich by controlling the drought-stricken city’s water supply. The film’s dark undercurrent comes from Gittes’ discovery that the wife of the murdered water commissioner, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), gave birth to a daughter after being raped by her diabolical father, Noah Cross (John Huston).

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