How would one describe Robert Townsend? A talented actor, Hollywood trailblazer, passionate visionary, or just a regular guy seeking to make a difference, these are all phrases that apply to the multitalented entertainer. Townsend is the last of a rare breed of artists that scrutinizes every word and syllable that is expressed in his work. It’s no wonder that so many people regard Townsend’s body of work as classics. A Hollywood pioneer well ahead of his time, Townsend, is often referred to as one of the “Godfathers of the Independent Film World.” With more than 30 years in the entertainment business, he has made an indelible mark in Hollywood with an extensive list of credits.
Robert’s genius first revealed itself in elementary school. As a kid Robert was always fascinated with television, watching and studying it tirelessly, he began to practice acting out scenes and impersonating famous characters. At his school during a reading of Shakespeare’s Oedipus Rex he dazzled the class with his ability to transform effortlessly into character, and as a result Robert’s remarkable adaptable talent as a young actor was born and caught the attention of Chicago’s X Bag Theatre (the Experimental Black Actors Guild). Robert made an unforgettable mark in his hometown of Chicago, then he took the next step and where went to New York and became a regular at the Improvisation, the renowned comedy club, which jump-started his career as a stand-up comedian. Then for Robert it was on to Hollywood, where he dabbled in a mixture of industries and found that with his undeniable talent, he was able to adapt easily from being a comedian to working as an actor on the silver screen.
Robert’s first film appearance was as an extra in the urban classic, Cooley High. His break came while performing on various television comedy specials including “Rodney Dangerfield: It‘s Not Easy Bein’ Me” and “Uptown Comedy Express.” Although comedy had been his forte during the early part of his career, he knew he was destined to be on the big screen. He landed the role of a lifetime co-starring opposite Denzel Washington in A Soldier’s Story, and appeared with Diane Lane in Streets of Fire and Kevin Costner in American Flyers.
Once in Hollywood, seeing the difficulty black actors had and the lack of good work available in the film industry left a burning desire for Robert to step behind the camera. With his acting career in high gear,
Robert’s career took a turn for the best when Robert Townsend the “independent filmmaker” was born. He wanted to do something to fill this void. Without formal film education or outside funding (using his own credit cards to finance), Robert wrote, directed, produced and starred in his own first film. The result was the critically acclaimed, Hollywood Shuffle, a satire depicting the trials and tribulations of black actors in Hollywood. The success of this film forced Hollywood to recognize and appreciate the visionary and multifaceted talent of Robert Townsend, Tinseltown’s newest, talented actor and filmmaker.
Following the success of Hollywood Shuffle, film projects continued to pour in. He was soon directing Eddie Murphy in Eddie Murphy Raw. His next film endeavor was the inner-city fable: The Meteor Man that he also wrote, directed and starred in, was another huge success. The stellar cast included James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby, and Eddie Griffin. As a filmmaker, director and producer, his unbridled success continued.
The movie that landed Robert the credit of a lifetime was the popular soul musical The Five Heartbeats, a semi-autobiographical piece, reminiscent of the 60’s R&B male groups and the up’s and down’s of the music industry. This classic continues to be a favorite among audiences and one of the most talked about films in the industry. In between features, Robert created and produced his ground breaking Cable Ace award-winning “Partners in Crime” variety specials for HBO and highly praised “Townsend Television” for FOX television. He also created and starred in the WB Network hit series “The Parent ‘Hood”.
Townsend has made history by being nominated for more than 30 NAACP Image Awards for film and television. At the 2001 NAACP Image Awards he directed three performers nominated in the best actor/actress category in three different films: Leon, for his role in NBC’s Little Richard, Alfre Woodard in the Showtime Movie Holiday Heart (which also garnered her a Golden Globe nomination) and Natalie Cole for her gripping self-portrayal in Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story (for which she won the coveted Image Award for best actress).
Townsend continued to helm films for the small screen including: Carmen: A Hip Hopera for MTV Films, starring Beyonce Knowles (one of the highest rated programs for MTV) and Image Award winner, 10,000 Black Men Named George for Showtime, a highly acclaimed period piece about the Pullman porter strike, starring Andre Braugher, and Charles Dutton.
Robert has worked with some of the top talent in Hollywood including: Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Alfre Woodard, Lou Gossett, Jr., Keenan Ivory Wayans and Chris Tucker, just to name a few and is responsible for discovering many of Hollywood’s A-List talent before they became household names. He is the mastermind behind many of Hollywood’s favorite and best-remembered movies and hit series. Robert’s body of work has been seen on various networks including Disney, Fox, NBC, HBO, WB, The N, USA, Nickelodeon and MTV.
Looking to give back and make an even bigger imprint on the movie industry and the community as a whole, Robert Townsend has created his 501 (c) 3 non-profit, The Robert Townsend Foundation, as a venue to inspire, create and fund new film content and set up a new distribution model. The foundation’s mission is to open the doors to new and underrepresented artists and create a new model to showcase the new filmmakers to the world.
What does Townsend want in the future? He simply wants to continue to create: creating more for the web, creating more for television, and returning to the silver screen with his unique brand of storytelling.
“I am truly blessed to do what I do,” said Townsend. “And as I write this next chapter of my life I will bring my ‘A’ game like never before, with more zest, more passion, more vision, and more love.”