Hollywood's legendary script doctor Robert Towne won an Oscar for writing Chinatown and polished films from The Godfather to Armageddon; now he helms Without Limits, a film bio of an Olympic runner

With the gossip mill still churning, Towne wasn't about to get final cut on his next film, Tequila Sunrise (1988), a heady romantic comedy-drama starring Mel Gibson as an almost-retired cocaine dealer; Kurt Russell as his best high school buddy, who happens to be a star narcotics cop; and Michelle Pfeiffer as the chic Manhattan Beach restaurant owner who gets caught between them. Towne wanted Gibson to go up in smoke--literally--at film's end, but one of the conditions Warner Bros. set was that Gibson had to live. "Gibson's character was supposed to be a moth in the flame," says Towne. "The real high for him was never doing the drugs, but the danger of dealing the drugs. I made the guy too earnest and hangdog. He should have been more like the racehorse attached to the milk truck--he hears a bell and he's off!

Perhaps because the elements were so irresistible--Robert Towne directing Gibson, Russell and Pfeiffer in a California crime film--an aura of disappointment settled over Tequila Sunrise, no matter how engaging, and profitable, it turned out to be. (Made for less than $20 million, it grossed $100 million worldwide.) "After that and Personal Best," Towne says, "I was so busy trying to pay for my life and make sure I could see my older daughter [he was in a custody dispute at the time] that directing was almost not an option."

Ironically, the power and gutter grace of his earlier works made them contemporary classics--and made Towne fear he was "becoming a museum piece." That's a natural fear for any popular artist, even if, as his collaborators protest, it's a ludicrous one for Towne. So when then-agent Paula Wagner, banking on Towne's "mental and spiritual daring, his love to try new things," put him and Cruise together to work on a stock-car racing story, he was ready to give it a try. Two things convinced him: He sparked to Cruise, and he fell in love with the stock-car world.

Towne had written for big stars in the past--Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty among them. But he was friends with Nicholson before they worked together, and his relationship with Beatty was complicated, as a mild tweak indicates: "After Promise Her Anything," Towne says drolly, "it was questionable how big a star Beatty was." In the late '80s, Cruise, however, was a luminary whose power was still developing. And the concept of stars has always intrigued and stimulated Towne. In an oft-quoted 1995 article for the script-anthology magazine Scenario (since reprinted as the introduction to the Grove Press edition of Chinatown and The Last Detail), Towne wrote:

What was once said of the British aristocracy, that they did nothing and did it very well, is a definition that could be applied to movie actors. For gifted movie actors affect us most, I believe, not by talking, fighting, fucking, killing, cursing, or cross-dressing. They do it by being photographed. It is said of such actors that the camera loves them. Whatever that means, I've always felt their features are expressive in a unique way: they seem to register swift and dramatic mood changes with no discernible change of expression.

In Towne's eyes, Cruise, at his best, is that kind of an actor. And if Towne's work has brought new subject matter into the movies and revitalized celluloid sexuality and profanity, it's also been rooted in the traditions of heightened emotion and flamboyant storytelling that old-fashioned stars made possible. While strolling through the Santa Barbara Zoo with Towne and his family during one of his tribute weekends last spring, I laughed as he broke into the scene of Leslie Howard first confronting Raymond Massey in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Howard re-ties his foe's cravat after telling Massey, the agent of the guillotine, that the French "have the cleverest heads in the world; the only trouble is you all go to pieces around the neck." Towne made me realize anew that '30s films had their own sparkly kind of subtext, expressed in cleverness and fun.

The rugged intertwining of Towne's hungers for reality and for voluptuous escape is what gives his work its sinew. Even on Days of Thunder, he wasn't sold on the project until he and Cruise immersed themselves in the stock-car world. The resulting script never got beyond the tale of the brash young man who flinches in the face of mortality and has to restore his own confidence--the hot dog who becomes an underdog. But Towne grew to love the gutsy racers and their glamour, and Cruise, and working with Bruckheimer and his late partner, Don Simpson. "Don would fume and carry on beyond unreason, go into black rages; but if you told him he was so full of shit, he'd say, 'Okay, I stand corrected,' and turn on a dime."

Bruckheimer, noting the enormous research Towne does "once he gets the story in his head," began thinking of Towne as "the godfather of verisimilitude. If the script called for a bloodhound, and [director] Tony [Scott] brought out a dog that wasn't a bloodhound, Robert went nuts. He's a stickler." He also proved to be a speedster and a utility player, banging out scenes overnight and directing a lot of the second unit. And he did his star another favor. According to Bruckheimer, it was Towne who saw the Australian thriller Dead Calm and told him, "You've got to hire Nicole Kidman."

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