Francis Coppola Honors Robert Towne: 'You Are the Consummate Screenwriter'

Towne and Cicely Tyson received honorary degrees at the American Film Institute's commencement ceremonies.

Screenwriter and director Robert Towne and actress Cicely Tyson received honorary doctorate of fine arts degrees at the American Film Institute's commencement June 11 at TCL Chinese Theater.

"Before I was a trustee of AFI," said Francis Ford Coppola, who presented Towne with his degree, "Robert Towne was a mentor, someone to look up to. You were a protege of Roger Corman, roommate to Jack Nicholson, muse to Warren Beatty and I'll include myself, as well as action enabler for Tom Cruise. You have in your script for Chinatown provided the de facto blueprint for aspiring screenwriters, a platonic ideal of both structure and style taught as a template around the world. And yet it remains but one of your many celebrated works in an oeuvre that includes Mission: Impossible and many more. You are the consummate screenwriter, an accomplished script doctor, and a celebrated director, an artist whose name denotes quality and integrity, whose voice is varied but whose mark is indelible."

Towne said when he was called to The Godfather set to write -- overnight -- the crucial scene between Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, "It was not going well. Paramount executives were saying that Marlon was mumbling, and the skinny kid cast as Michael Corleone, Al Pacino, was lacking in charisma, or height. Executives excoriated Gordon Willis' cinematography." At Paramount's offices in New York, Towne saw four hours of dailies, and told Coppola it was "without question the best footage I'd ever seen." Towne feared Coppola thought he was "someone who came across the country to kiss his ass." 

But the scene he wrote, and The Godfather itself, worked, propelling Towne to four Oscar nominations, a win for Chinatown, and his current job as consulting producer for Mad Men. Brando didn't memorize his lines. "The speeches were written on large pieces of cardboard," recalled Towne. "They were everywhere, on the grass, in the trees, under the wine -- they were everywhere he looks." The lesson of the film, Towne told AFI's graduates: "Look to your left or your right -- look to your friends, they're the ones who will bring out the best. I want to thank you, Francis, for taking me along for the ride."

Tyson, who earned Oscar and Globe noms for Sounder, Emmys for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and The Oldest Living Confederate Tells All, six Emmy noms and a 2013 Tony for The Trip to Bountiful, was presented an honorary doctorate by Jon Avnet, a 2013 AFI honorary degree recipient who directed Tyson in Fried Green Tomatoes. "She immediately wanted to play it as a mute," said Avnet. "I said, 'That's a great idea, Cicely. Let's save it for our next movie." Avnet showed Tyson's performance in the Watts riot film Heatwave to Nelson Mandela. "He smiled and said, 'Miss Tyson is such a gifted performer, and a beauty as well.'" Directing her again in Alex Hailey's The Marva Collins Story, Avnet said, "No surprise, she found colors to turn a stick figure drawing into a Monet watercolor."

Tyson said she found out at AFI that "I was not good at the mechanics of making a film, [but] I could work well with actors." She thanked AFI for the honor, but said what meant still more to her was the praise her mother gave her -- after giving her grief for her career. "When I told my mother I wanted to [make movies], she didn't speak to me for about two years. I had the audacity to invite her to the premiere of Sounder. She said, 'Ed Sullivan is here, and he's sitting behind me!'" This helped convince her, said Tyson, "that her daughter was not going to live in a den of iniquity. I lived to hear her say, 'I'm so proud of you.' Had I not heard those words, none of it would mean anything."

Tyson joked about her rivalry with the late Maya Angelou, who also received lots of awards. Once, when Tyson won one, Angelou's assistant told her, "Don't tell Doctor, she will be livid." Said Tyson, "Well, [Maya], I'm telling you that I've gotten one [from] AFI, and that's one more than you've got!"

But Tyson warned that her new degree is not the end of her education. "That is not to say, AFI, that I will not return to try to do one more project as a director."