Robert Towne scored an Oscar for Chinatown, followed it up with another hit, Shampoo, and spent the rest of the 1970s as the most lauded, in-demand screenwriter and script doctor in town, but the new decade had not been so kind.
Since the mid-1970s, Towne had nurtured a pet project, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, which he intended to direct himself. Rather than begin his directorial career with the Tarzan film (later called Greystoke), he instead went with a less ambitious project, Personal Best, about female Olympic athletes. The film ran into budget and union troubles, and in order to prevent the production being shut down by producer David Geffen, Towne was forced to sacrifice the rights to his Tarzan script.
|Robert Towne directing Mariel Hemingway|
and Patrice Donnelly on Personal Best
Meanwhile, Towne's Greystoke script had been rewritten, and he was so incensed by the changes that he gave his screenwriting credit to 'P.H. Vazak', the name taken from the pedigree papers of his sheepdog, Hira.
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes was released in 1984, and earned Hira an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, the first and only time a dog has been nominated for an Oscar. Towne refused to see the film, and the loss of his labour of love has haunted him ever since.
Towne had also been working on a screenplay called The Mermaid since 1982 for Warren Beatty, only to see the film beaten to the punch by the virtually identical 1984 Tom Hanks / Darryl Hannah hit Splash, and then abandoned.
To top it all off, in the midst of these professional troubles he also had to deal with the death of his beloved Hira, and a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife over their daughter.
Robert Evans was faring no better. Following the success of Chinatown, amid pressure from other producers at Paramount who didn't see Evans' dual role as head of production and producer in his own right as fair (Warren Beatty, in particular, had issues over the promotion of The Parallax View), he stepped down as head of production and embarked on a career as an independent producer.
It started well enough, with the 1976 hit Marathon Man, but with the exception of Urban Cowboy in 1980, his subsequent films were utter disasters. The controversial political thriller Black Sunday (1977) was not only a box office dud, Evans became the victim of death threats as a result and had to employ personal security. Players (1979) was a complete flop and has been virtually unseen ever since. The weird (and somewhat under-rated) Robert Altman-directed Popeye (1980) was simply a bomb, despite being the feature film debut of up-and-coming comic/TV star Robin Williams.
In 1980, Evans was arrested in association with a highly publicised cocaine bust and pleaded guilty. It destroyed his reputation as the golden boy of Hollywood, and alienated him from some of his closest and most powerful friends.
Much worse was to come, when his dream project, The Cotton Club, turned into a nightmare that would curse him through to the next decade. There were problems with the script from the start (there wasn't one), the shoot went chaotically over budget, and following a much-publicised lawsuit, Evans was banished from the set by director-for-hire Francis Coppola, resulting in the loss of all control over the production.
Eventually released in 1984 to lukewarm reviews and disastrous box office receipts, The Cotton Club is still remembered as one of the most notorious cinematic debacles of all time.
Earlier attempts to find finance for the film even led to Evans' implication in the drug-related murder of show business entrepeneur Roy Radin, a scandal that would become known as 'The Cotton Club Murder'. Despite Robert Evans never actually being named as a suspect, and being officially cleared of all involvement in 1991 (following the convictions of those involved), the resulting infamy would never really be washed from his name.
|Jack Nicholson at the 1984 Academy Awards|
By 1982, though, Jack was well and truly back on track, with a scene-stealing, Oscar-nominated portrayal of playwright Eugene O'Neill in Warren Beatty's Reds, and things only kept getting better with his supporting role in 1983's Terms of Endearment, which bagged him his second Academy Award.
In his autobiography, Robert Evans describes a night in 1984, when he and Jack Nicholson were watching a boxing match at his home, discussing whether or not to commit to Roman Polanski's new film, The Pirate. By the twelfth round, they'd come up with a better idea.
Who wants to spend a year in Tunisia? Instead, let’s make the sequel to Chinatown: The Two Jakes. The fight now over, we called Towne at home, asked him to meet us at three the next afternoon in my projection room.This wasn't something they'd dreamed up on the spot - following the critical and commercial success of Chinatown in 1974, Evans had soon gotten plans underway for a sequel. As early as December 1974, Variety reported that one of Robert Evans' New Year projects was to be "Chinatown II", with "Bob Towne again scripting and, hopefully, Jack Nicholson again starring".
|Robert Evans and Dustin Hoffman|
on the set of Marathon Man
Variety would occasionally mention Evans' plans for this film over the next few years, which he described in 1976 as "a continuation of, not a sequel to Chinatown", whatever that meant. It also acquired a title, The Two Jakes (often just Two Jakes), and it was revealed that Evans' Marathon Man star, Dustin Hoffman, was intended to co-star alongside Jack Nicholson as the second Jake of the title.
The 1970s would draw to a close without Chinatown's sequel coming to fruition, but with the key players so busy and focused on other projects, it's hardly surprising.
Robert Towne's priority was his Tarzan script - it's been suggested that he avoided dealing with Paramount because all they wanted from him was The Two Jakes - and there were also a number of films he worked on, uncredited, in his role as MD to a number of scripts that were in critical condition.
Jack Nicholson was trying to get his own directorial projects off the ground - the most notable being the never-made Moontrap, but he was also reported as pursuing an adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune sci-fi saga and even, intriguingly, a project about Howard Hughes - all the while continuing his rising acting career.
Robert Evans was, typically, juggling multiple films in development at once.
It also probably didn't help that Roman Polanski, at one time the intended director, had been arrested in 1977 for having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl, and had fled the country.
Nevertheless, The Two Jakes would continue to hover in the background. In 1983, primarily looking to finance The Cotton Club, Evans tempted potential investors with a three picture deal - The Cotton Club, The Sicilian (Mario Puzo's literary sequel to The Godfather), and The Two Jakes.
Despite a letter of agreement to form a production company being signed at one point with one group of investors, the deal fell through, and one of the partners, Roy Radin, later wound up dead (it was eventually established that Radin's murder was over drug money, and had nothing to do with Evans or The Cotton Club, but as mentioned, it would be nearly a decade before Evans' name was officially cleared).
So by the time 1984 rolled around, with the personal and professional lives of both Robert Towne and Robert Evans having hit rock bottom, a surefire hit film was just what the doctor ordered. The two Bobs needed The Two Jakes.
Nicholson, Towne and Evans met in Evans' projection room and conceived a deal whereby the three would work for scale to keep the budget of the film down, their production company, TEN (Towne, Evans, Nicholson) would be partners with Paramount, with all three as co-producers. Towne was to direct. Nicholson would once again star as Jake Gittes.
|Hope Lange and Robert Evans in|
The Best of Everything (1959)
This particular decision would, in part, lead to the collapse of the production and several long-held friendships, so one has to ask - just how did such a strange casting decision come to be made?
According to Evans, he was taken completely by surprise when Towne and Nicholson insisted on his playing the role, and he had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the idea of acting again:
“Lookin’ to put in the last nail, huh? I’m fighting for my life . . . and you guys want me to go back into makeup. That’ll go over real big, now they’ll know I’m nuts. Both of ya: Go fuck yourself!”What Evans never mentions, however, is that Towne largely based the character of Jake Berman on him to begin with. Evans describes Berman as "a combination of Lou Towne (Robert Towne's father), Mark Taper, and every other entrepreneurial Jew responsible for changing the face of the City of Angels to that of a thriving metropolis" (the film was occasionally nicknamed The Iron Jew).
Peter Biskind, in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, points towards a more direct inspiration, quoting a confidential source as saying, "Evans was that person, was the other Jake. A real sleazeball."
The character as written is clearly based on Evans (Towne admitted to including several of his personal mannerisms, such as humming on the golf course), and when one reads the original drafts, it's much easier to picture Robert Evans in the role than the miscast Harvey Keitel of the final film released in 1990.
Jack Nicholson, in a 1997 interview, confirms that Towne originally wrote the character of Jake Berman, "if not for (Evans), then definitely about him."
Hence why the initial choice for the role was Dustin Hoffman.
|Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog (1997)|
However, by 1984, Dustin Hoffman had become a major star, with such huge successes as Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Tootsie (1982) behind him, and it appears the thinking was that he wouldn't want to appear in what was a relatively minor supporting role.
So, allegedly "lubricated by generous amounts of booze and blow", as Biskind salaciously puts it, the three filmmakers somehow agreed that it would be better to simply go to the source for Jake Berman, rather than cast another actor.
Nicholson called Barry Diller, then the head of production at Paramount, who went for the deal. Towne, Evans and Nicholson would work for scale (a major saving, with Nicholson commanding $5 million per picture at the time), the budget would be capped at $12-13 million, and TEN Productions would split the profits with Paramount once the picture took $18 million. 1
Paramount then suddenly underwent a change of management - Barry Diller left as head of production and was replaced by Frank Mancuso. Chairman Michael Eisner was replaced by Ned Tanen. The new executives were eager to make their mark, and the highly anticipated Two Jakes was quickly scheduled for a Christmas 1985 release. 2
The script, meanwhile, still wasn't finished, and to make the Christmas deadline, shooting would have to begin in the spring of 1985. Evans gave Towne a generous incentive - finish the script and he'd throw him and his fiance, Luisa, the wedding of their dreams. The first draft of The Two Jakes was delivered in October of 1984, and Robert Towne and Luisa Gaule were wed at Evans' home, Woodland, to the tune of over $100,000 of Evans' own money (Evans claims that he heard Towne was miffed that he didn't give him a wedding gift - Evans was equally annoyed at being given a script that was only 80 percent complete, one which, he says, remains 80 percent complete to this day).
In January of 1985, the production was officially announced to the world, as Two Jakes. It was revealed that the story would be set in 1948, 11 years after the events of Chinatown, dealing with the role of land and oil in Los Angeles' post-WWII boom era, just as Chinatown explored the relationship between water and political power in L.A.'s early history.
Renowned photographer Helmut Newton, a friend of Evans, shot a series of publicity photos of Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans in character as the two Jakes, Gittes and Berman, and Two Jakes was included in an in-house Paramount promotional reel as part of its 1985 lineup:
It was also at this time that the filmmakers began spinning the idea that Chinatown and The Two Jakes were the first and second parts of a three-part series (or 'triptych' as Jack Nicholson is fond of calling it), chronicling the growth of the city of Los Angeles, and that this was how Towne had always planned it.
"Two Jakes" is actually Part Two of what Nicholson, an art buff, refers to as Towne's L.A. "triptych." The third saga is set in the late '50s. "I don't think of ("Two Jakes") as a sequel since it's all part of the same story," says Towne. "It's about the things that people have traditionally been greedy over, the things that have shaped, and misshaped, this city."
- Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1985
We always had the idea of three films in the back of our minds, but at the time of Chinatown's release (1974), sequels weren't a big part of the industry. The first film began in 1937 - which is the year of my birth - and follows my character eleven years later after he's been through the war. That's 1948; and the third story finishes off at about the time Robert (Towne) and I actually met.
- Jack Nicholson, Film Comment, June 1985It's uncertain to what extent this was true - Towne's original ending for Chinatown, with a brief epilogue showing the 1937 Los Angeles landscape dissolving into the polluted landscape of modern times, doesn't really imply "To be continued", nor does the bleak ending of the finished film.
What's far more likely is that they're merely exaggerating how Towne used the ecological aspect of his original Chinatown drafts (something which became somewhat less prominent with Polanski's involvement in the film, particularly in the case of the much darker ending) to act as a common theme when he was called upon to continue the story of Jake Gittes - after Chinatown became a success.
|Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes|
|Robert Evans as Jake Berman|
Budd Boetticher, a veteran director of Westerns, would play oil tycoon Earl Rawley, the real villain of the piece - a role intended to echo Chinatown's Noah Cross, played by John Huston.
Sets were built, locations were scouted and principal photography was scheduled to commence on Tuesday, April 30, 1985.
It wasn't to be.
Towne had promised three weeks of rehearsals, confident he could extract an adequate performance from Evans, who hadn't acted in nearly three decades - he'd done so successfully with athlete Patrice Donnelly on Personal Best, who hadn't acted before.
Towne spent several weeks coaching Evans at night, but it soon became apparent that they weren't getting anywhere. Evans simply couldn't act. Kelly McGillis, who was to have played Berman's wife, was even reported to have been giggling openly at his efforts during rehearsals.
To make matters worse, Evans was behaving like a complete prima donna. Before they began, Evans had gone to Tahiti to have Alain Delon's plastic surgeon work on his face, hoping for an exotic look - and returned looking like "a Jewish Chinaman", according to one anonymous source.
When the time came for standard makeup tests, he refused to have the film's barber cut his hair in a 1940s style, insisting on his own hairdresser - and rather than having his hair cut, demanded that the hair be removed carefully with tweezers. This dragged on for hours, and once the hairdo was finished, the sutures from his recent plastic surgery were visible.
(Evans himself skips this entire period in his autobiography, making no mention of rehearsals or his attempts at acting at all)
Towne finally realised that Evans might not only be a disaster as Jake Berman, it could cost him a fortune. Futile attempts to get Evans to act his way out of a paper bag might result in delays of days or even weeks, and as per the agreement with Paramount, any overages would come out of Towne's share of the profits.
He expressed his concerns to a number of colleagues before mentioning it to Evans. Nicholson urged Towne to go ahead regardless, and 'shitcan' Evans if it didn't work out - he wasn't even required until several weeks into the shoot, by which time Paramount would have been helpless to pull the plug. Nicholson claimed later that "He said, no, his integrity wouldn't allow him to do it that way."
On Friday April 26, with shooting due to begin the following Tuesday, Robert Towne finally confronted Robert Evans - and the already tense situation exploded. As Richard Sylbert puts it, "Evans went crazy. He went crazy. The calls, the screaming, the threats. He wanted to kill Bob Towne. Jack wanted to beat the shit out of him [Towne] for doing what he did that night."
According to Evans, Towne said he'd spoken to Nicholson and that he was OK with it. Evans immediately called Nicholson, who demanded he come to his house right away. Upon arriving, Jack called Towne, accused him of "leaving his game in the locker room", and hung up. Jack then said that Towne had told him that Evans himself had pulled out, not wanting to play a Jew. They laughed, and Nicholson decided to back Evans all the way.
The next day, Towne broke the news to Paramount. Saturday night, the three met, and the raging arguments lasted until the early hours of Monday morning. By Sunday, their lawyers had been dragged into it, along with Paramount executives Frank Mancuso and Ned Tanen.
Neither side would budge. Nicholson and Evans insisted that the picture would not go ahead without Evans playing Jake Berman. Towne insisted he was out, and according to Evans, threw "every insult imaginable" at him.
While the accusations and insults flew, Ned Tanen suddenly received a phone call and was forced to leave the ugly scene to attend to one far uglier - his ex-wife had committed suicide, and their two young daughters were the ones to discover the body.
Despite this shocking news, the meeting continued, and eventually, Nicholson made a final offer to Towne, of sorts. If Evans stayed on as Berman, he'd work for nothing. No Evans, he'd demand his full salary of six million dollars, plus fifteen percent of the gross. Alternatively, he'd buy Towne's script for two million. Towne refused.
|The Bel Air Bay Club|
Paramount had pulled the plug, or, at least, put the production on hold. Rumours swirled as it became obvious that the picture was in serious trouble. Warren Beatty was coming on board both to play Jake Berman and replace Towne as director. Roy Scheider was replacing Evans as Berman. Nicholson had asked John Huston to direct.4
Exactly who was to blame for the production melting down at the last minute depends on who's telling the story. At the time, reports pointed the finger squarely at the controversial casting of Evans as Berman, and Evans' stubborn refusal to step aside when it became clear that it wasn't going to work. The film was a victim of "ego overdose", as the Los Angeles Times put it. One Paramount executive was quoted as saying, "Everyone was shocked it went this far." Evans' reaction also took Towne and others by surprise - "Bob Evans got very upset, much more upset than anyone could have imagined," said another observer.
Evans paints himself as the victim in his autobiography, standing firm with Nicholson for the good of the production, although he never really explains why he was so determined to continue in a role he was supposedly reluctant to take on to begin with, and downplays his lack of acting ability as an issue. Ultimately, he claims he was merely a convenient scapegoat for Towne's incompetence and insecurity:
Nicholson hit it on the nose. Towne left his game in the locker room. Who better to blame it on than me? A guy who hadn’t been in front of the camera for more than a quarter of a century.Harold Schneider, the line producer, agreed:
I think Towne didn’t want to do the film because he didn’t think he could direct. I think he was chickening out, and Evans was the excuse, the fall guy. Towne got lockjaw, his brains fried.... He was in a fetal position under the couch screaming, ‘I can’t go on. They’re out there, and they’re gonna kill me.’Jack Nicholson, while not blaming anyone so specifically, also seems to agree in a 1997 interview:
- Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind, 1998
(Towne) was captured by the idea that Evans could not play the part which he had originally written, if not for him, then about him. This was not really the issue. As I saw it, they had bungled the producing, so they had made me co-producer. I sat with them and said what any producer would say: `Look, we have to start shooting in three or four days. It has taken a year and a half for the two of you to arrive at a deal - the contract negotiations are two feet thick! If you think you can drop Evans at this time, you're seriously mistaken.' So I said, `Let's shoot and see how it goes' - the second Jake was not due to work until a couple of weeks into the schedule. But there was something else there - at the time I thought it might be stage fright of a kind - on whose part I don't know.
-'Jack and the Women',The Independent, March 2, 1997Robert Towne has always remained tight-lipped about what happened, except to say in response to Nicholson's claim (regarding his refusal to start shooting simply to get Paramount on the hook) that "I have never said on any occasion that something was an 'affront to my integrity.' I can't imagine anybody being able to say that in this town with a straight face."
It's also been said that Nicholson wanted to direct the film all along, and allowed proceedings to fall apart in order to get Towne out of the way, but there doesn't appear to be anything to substantiate these unlikely claims, other than the fact that he would eventually direct the resurrected production in 1989. In a 1990 interview, Nicholson actually claims that it was the two Bobs who suggested at one point that he take over as director and fire them both, which he said was "one thing I wasn't prepared for".
Regardless of who was to blame, no one was prepared to back down and nothing was resolved, although it appears that for several days following the production being shut down, desperate attempts were still being made to get things rolling again. Ned Tanen tried, in vain, to keep everything together, and at one point, a compromise was almost reached - the picture would go ahead as planned with Evans as Berman, but with Nicholson and Evans also liable for any overruns, not just Towne - until Nicholson realised that he was the only one of the three with any money. No deal.
Finally, the next Monday, Robert Towne took a call from Jack Nicholson in his office. He made a thumbs-down gesture to the crew members present and announced, "The picture is dead."
Not quite. It would take five years, a number of lawsuits levelled at the filmmakers, several failed attempts to restart the production, a different director and a largely different cast, but The Two Jakes would eventually make it to the screen.
However, the dream was over. This film that was meant to usher in a new era of creative autonomy for filmmakers, save the fledgling careers of Evans and Towne, and provide a worthy continuation to the story started by the already legendary Chinatown, simply didn't happen. The relationship between Robert Towne and his long-time friends and allies, Robert Evans and Jack Nicholson, would never be the same again, the aborted production contributed even further to Evans' infamy and downward spiral, and the film released in 1990 was doomed to be regarded as a shadow, a pale imitation of what might have been. As Roberts Evans put it, "The Two Jakes circa 1985 never got made."
To be continued...
1 Robert Towne reportedly received a $125,000 'sequel fee', separate to this deal.
2 Certain sources, most notably Evans' autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, incorrectly report an intended Christmas 1986 release, and occasionally a 1986 shoot. Reports and articles from the time (The Los Angeles Times, Variety) confirm the spring 1985 shoot and a planned Christmas 1985 release.
3 In an odd twist of fate, after playing Jake Berman in the resurrected production of The Two Jakes, Keitel played Mickey Cohen in Warren Beatty's Bugsy (1991), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
4 This last rumour, at least, was true - Nicholson did sound out Huston as a potential replacement for Towne, but was reportedly turned down. Jack himself is vague on the details, claiming that "When we had our little contretemps, I put the (Huston) alternative in my bag in case it came up. It didn't."