Robert Townsend: one-on-one with the Hollywood pioneer



By Charles Hallman

Robert Townsend Photo by Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

Robert Townsend is a Hollywood pioneer. The actor-comedian, who was in town last week for the screening of his latest film, In the Hive, has a lengthy résumé as a producer and director.

However, according to Townsend, who discussed his career with the MSR, his becoming a filmmaker “was an accident” and that he originally wanted only to be an actor. “I did a movie called A Soldier’s Story (1984) and I was in it with Denzel (Washington), Adolph Caesar, Howard Rollins and David Allen Grier, and that movie changed my life.”

His first big-screen roles was as an extra in Mahogany and Fast Break, but his first theatrical break came in an uncredited role in Cooley High (1975). After playing a string of stereotypical bit roles, his Corporal Ellis character in A Soldier’s Story “was the first time I got to just play a human being,” recalled Townsend. “I told my agent, ‘I want to do more of these,’ but my agent said, ‘They only do one Black movie a year.’ That when I decided I make my own movie.”

The critically-acclaimed Hollywood Shuffle (1987) elevated Townsend to icon status because he financed the $100,000 production on his credit cards. He went on to produce and star in The Five Heartbeats (1991), The Meteor Man (1993), Robert Townsend & His Partners in Crime comedy specials on HBO, and The Parent ’Hood (1995-99) on the WB Network.

When asked if he has any favorites, “They’re all my children,” continued Townsend. “I can’t really pick. The Five Heartbeats represents me growing up with the Temptations — when [the group] broke up, I wanted to know what happened, and I created my movie about it. I always wanted to be a superhero [The Meteor Man], and I like superheroes.”

Famed director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd among others) was an inspiration for him as a director, said Townsend, who admits that he is a “self-taught filmmaker.”

“When I was a little kid, I had to stay in the house and I watched a lot of television. I watched those great movies.”

Over his career, Townsend has worked with the likes of Washington as an actor and directed the likes of Halle Berry, Alfre Woodard, Beyoncé and Andre Braugher. The films he’s produced and directed have earned him many awards as well. However if there is a regret, Townsend said it is that he hasn’t yet worked with his acting role model — “my hero,” he noted.

“When I first got to Hollywood, the first person I met was Sidney Politer. When I was a little kid, he was the only man of color I saw that had dignity. I had lunch with him and I asked him, ‘How did you get to have dignity in the ’50s?’ He just simply said, ‘The power to say no. I didn’t accept everything.’

“To this day,” summed up Townsend, “I work when I want to work, and I work on projects I believe in. I love to do a lot of movies but if it doesn’t really speak to me, I won’t do it for the sake of doing it.”

Although his latest film In the Hive is R-rated for its use of profanity, “I’m really proud of it,” said Townsend of the educational drama that co-stars Michael Clarke Duncan, Loretta Devine and Roger Guenveur Smith. It is about an alternative school in North Carolina for teenagers who have been expelled from their public schools.

“It is a part of me that grew up in the ghetto,” said the Chicago-born Townsend, “and a lot of my boys went to jail or got killed for gangbanging. Somebody has to make a statement about what is going on with our kids — they are out of control.

“This movie is dear to my heart because I know that it is going to save some kids and is going to help some teachers,” believes Townsend, who sees his film work as “his ministry.

“As a filmmaker, I always aspire to make movies that touch people. That’s how God uses me.”

Townsend also was executive producer for On Diary of a Single Mom, a web-based original series that ran from 2009 through 2011 and stars Leon (who starred in The Five Heartbeats), Monica Calhoun, Richard Roundtree and Billy Dee Williams. The series chronicles the lives and challenges of three single mothers and their families. It won two Indie Soap Awards in 2009.

“It was my first web series,” said Townsend. “The show was very successful and people really enjoyed it. People still can watch it online,” at

It bothers Townsend, who once was president and CEO of the now-defunct Black Family Channel, that regular television these days seems to lacks variety. “All the crazy reality shows got these young women thinking that that’s the way they should behave, instead of understanding that’s not good behavior.”

“I’m proud of everything I ever done, and have no regrets,” noted Townsend. “All my movies have morals and values. All my TV shows have morals and values. I will continue on the path that I am on, telling great stories. I’ve done a lot of stuff in my body of work. I just want to step up my game even more.”

The Wendy Williams Show hosted a reunion program with The Five Heartbeats cast. Townsend was asked will there be one day a Hollywood Shuffle reunion as well: “I haven’t thought about it,” he mused.


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