September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Here is what gazillion-dollar checks from movie studios can buy: a home in the Pacific Palisades where the garden, filled with roses and figs and blackberries on steroids, could give God an insecurity complex about Eden; a lap pool, alongside which your wife and child may sit while feasting on a gourmet lunch prepared by the housekeeper; a trainer to take your herding dog on a jaunt to chase sheep every morning.

And such are the rewards of hanging in there — if, like Robert Towne, you’ve endured more ups and downs than Scarlett O’Hara. ”This,” enthuses Towne, 63, throwing out his arms to embrace the landscape, ”is all I’ve ever wanted.” And what a price he’s paid.

Towne, whose third directorial effort, Without Limits, has just been released in New York and Los Angeles, won an Oscar for 1974’s Chinatown and cowrote 1975’s Shampoo with Warren Beatty, but he’s most respected in the industry for being a pinch hitter: His rewrites of The Firm and Mission: Impossible are testaments to his gift for dialogue, storytelling, and conjuring up what friend Tom Cruise calls ”the best swearwords” in the business. But Towne is equally famous for immersing himself in trouble. He’s battled with the best — from Beatty (during Shampoo) to producer Robert Evans and director Roman Polanski (over Chinatown).

Once confined to Tinseltown chatter, Towne’s exploits recently went mainstream with Peter Biskind’s tell-all Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, in which Towne is portrayed as a hypochondriacal, unproductive, drug-using, wife-smacking wreck who has taken credit where little is deserved. Towne’s response to the book is rather surprising: ”That f—g guy lied about my quotes. I never denied hitting my [first] wife or doing drugs. The two things that upset me the most was that he said that my father hit me, which he never did, and that my dog bit people, which he never did.” Replies Biskind: ”I never said his father hit him, and I didn’t say his dog bit people. [Towne told me] on the record that he denied using drugs and hitting his wife, and I stand by that.”

One thing is certain: Age and experience have indeed mellowed Towne, which is probably why he survived the making of Without Limits, a biopic about Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine that ended up being vintage Towne — an offscreen epic crammed with enough Sturm und Drang to bring a lesser man to his knees.

This particular drama began 20 years ago, when Towne first heard about Prefontaine, an unlikely track phenom who had died in a car crash in 1975 at the age of 24. ”I said, ‘It sounds pretty interesting, but I’m involved with something else right now,”’ Towne recalls.

What he was involved in at the time was Personal Best, the groundbreaking 1982 lesbian-themed sports film that he wrote, produced, and directed. It was the beginning of a steep downslide for Towne, both professionally and personally: The production was interrupted by a Screen Actors Guild strike a few weeks into filming, and postproduction arguments about budget overruns grew so rancorous that Towne filed a $110 million lawsuit against Best distributor Warner Bros. and executive producer David Geffen, charging them with fraud, coercion, and defamation of character. Towne later dropped the suit, but the studio wasn’t so forgiving. Towne had written Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes with every intention of directing it himself; when Warner replaced him with director Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire), Towne was so furious he credited the screenplay to his dog — P.H. Vazak — who became the first animal to be nominated for an Oscar.

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director
Robert Towne
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