Robert Towne (born Robert Bertram Schwartz, 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. 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.
Towne was born in Los Angeles, where he grew up in San Pedro, the son of Helen and Lou Schwartz. His father ran a ladies clothing shop called the Towne Smart Shop, and changed the family name to Towne. Lou then moved into real estate and moved his family to the affluent Rolling Hills, a gated community in Palos Verdes, where Robert attended Chadwick School. Towne's parentage was Romanian on his father’s side, Russian on his mother’s; the family was Jewish.
Towne originally sought work as a writer and actor. He became associated with Roger Corman, who 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 he also played the lead role.
The following year he also starred in the Corman-financed Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).
He also wrote a screenplay for the Corman-directed The Tomb of Ligeia (1965).
Towne was asked to help out on the script for Bonnie and Clyde (1967). 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"
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.
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."
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. However, Towne says he "does not know how that got started" and denies there was any trilogy planned.
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.
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?" Ask the Dust received mixed reviews and failed at the box office. The film was entered into the 28th Moscow International Film Festival.
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?'"
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. 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".
He turned to television being a consulting producer on Mad Men and writing episodes of Welcome to the Basement.
Robert has a brother Roger, who is six years younger. 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.
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.
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."