DAR Legends: Robert Townsend

By @TrueGodImmortal

In bringing back this DAR Legends series, we wanted to make sure we discuss people who are somewhat overlooked but still have an extremely big mark on the world and of course, culture. Today, I wanted to take a brief look back at the legacy of Robert Townsend, a renowned actor, writer, and director who definitely made his mark and never looked back. He was born in the city of Chicago, with an early fondness for acting developing and beginning with an uncredited role in the classic film Cooley High and a small uncredited role in the 1976 film The Monkey Hustle. After attending college for some time, Robert decided his passion for acting was far greater than expected and he would drop out to move to New York. The truth is, when your passion is calling you, you have to follow it. While the path Townsend took is not the most popular one, he did so with an agenda in mind and a plan, and sure enough, he would end up working his way into a decent role or two starting out.

The first moment that would shape his career in many ways came from a perceived failure. Townsend tried out and auditioned for Saturday Night Live, but was apparently passed over for Eddie Murphy. In retrospect, that was the right call, as Eddie went on to become a huge star, and Townsend had to find his own way, which benefited him more in the long run. If Townsend gets casted on Saturday Night Live, perhaps his story is a different one, or it goes an entirely different way. He would land a role on the PBS educational program Another Page in 1982, which would be somewhat pivotal to his career, as it at least brought more eyes to his talent and drew them in. That moment would lead him to a small role in the popular film A Soldier's Story in 1984, which would then bring more roles and possible success his way, but Townsend had even more lofty goals in mind apparently besides just acting. Perhaps with a bitter taste from the SNL debacle, or maybe growing frustration with how the industry treated black actors in general, Townsend set out to step behind the camera as well as in front of it for the first time, and from that point, his career would never be the same.

After very small roles in films like Ratboy and American Flyers, both of which were failures, Townsend stepped up to direct his first feature film and it would become a movie that is the basis for a lot of the satire today. That film? Hollywood Shuffle. A satirical film based around the hardships and struggles of black actors in the industry, this film definitely drew immense inspiration from the countless auditions that Townsend and many others went through. Starring as Bobby Taylor, Townsend owned his role, and the ridiculous methods of Hollywood being exposed definitely makes for an intriguing watch. Every scene in the movie could still apply in the current state of Hollywood in a way, which makes the movie that much more of a classic honestly. The premise of an actor not being "black enough" for a role definitely is something you could believe happens in the industry and the fact that this was essential an obstacle Townsend faced in his career is amazing, for many reasons. Hollywood Shuffle would become a moment in black film, as the misrepresentation of black actors and black images in movies was something that was hinted at or discussed, but never presented on a grand scale. The movie was funded by Townsend on the back of his own credit card debt essentially (60,000 of the rumored 100,000 budget came from his credit cards), which is a prime example of being willing to gamble for something you believe in. The movie would be a minor independent success, grossing 5 million at the box office and it has since received cult classic and legendary status. For Townsend, his career was in motion after Hollywood Shuffle, even if he might have pissed off some execs with his satire.

His next step would be as a director on Eddie Murphy's classic RAW standup comedy film, which would end up being hugely successful at the time. You could see many black celebrities working together at the time, and with Townsend having a part in the success of Eddie, his name began getting more traction, and he was inspiring more and more in the industry. After working with Keenan Ivory Wayans on Hollywood Shuffle, one could assume the satirical film was a huge inspiration for Keenan's satirical classic I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, which was yet another hilarious film. Townsend was making waves in the industry, but I actually think it was his role in the 1989 feature film The Mighty Quinn that put him over the top. While the film wasn't as successful as most feature films at the time, the movie was a pivotal role for Townsend, as his lighthearted yet intriguing role as Maubee earned praise and rave reviews from critics. Townsend was rolling and earning the praise for his work, but everyone reaches their apex, their highest point, and he was nearing that moment. He would reach that point in 1991, with the release of perhaps one of the greatest, if the not the greatest music related film ever.

Whenever I think of the work Robert Townsend did in his career, my mind instantly goes to one thing and usually one thing only: The Five Heartbeats. It was one of the first movies I actually remember watching as a kid, and it became an instant favorite for me. It was a musical drama based around the lives and times and music of several artists during the 50s, 60s, and even the 70s. Townsend would be the director and a writer for the film, as well as an actor in the film, starring as the focal point of the movie, Donald "Duck" Matthews. Boasting a solid cast, as well as some great music throughout, The Five Heartbeats had a ton of excellent performances and was an amazing film. While Townsend as Duck wasn't the most prolific performance in the film, he was a centerpiece of the movie, and surprisingly, the movie was not well received by critics, which shows the divide between the audiences and the stuffy critics in some way. The same critics who praised Townsend for The Mighty Quinn seemed to not be nearly as fond of The Five Heartbeats, despite the Five Heartbeats being a much better movie. Still, The Five Heartbeats is the biggest accomplishment in Townsend's career, and while it was only a moderate success at the box office (likely due to only being released in 860 theaters), it is a cult classic and honestly one of the greatest movies of all time, in my humble opinion.

After The Five Heartbeats, Townsend would actually see more success as a director and actor simultaneously, starting with the 1993 film The Meteor Man, along with his first sitcom endeavor with The Parent 'Hood, which ran for 5 seasons. Both of these were very impactful to his career and while The Meteor Man isn't a classic in the way that Hollywood Shuffle and The Five Heartbeats are, it still made some noise amongst black audiences, while being seen as a commercial failure. Townsend knew his audience and how to engage them, and that is what he banked on for The Parent 'Hood, which is probably his most commercially successful endeavor. After a failed sketch and standup comedy show titled Townsend Television, The Parent 'Hood would bring Townsend true success, as the show would eventually find its way into syndication (usually a sign of a successful program). The show would promote positive black family values and despite the show not necessarily being my favorite growing up, when we look at the black sitcoms of the 90's, this is definitely one that sits in the favorable category.

Following the five year run of The Parent 'Hood, Townsend would find himself producing and directing more than acting, as his name can be found on the credits of various movies, from Holiday Heart to Carmen: A Hip Hopera, and many more. Townsend would never experience box office success as the 2000s got under way, but he found success in other ways, directing passion projects and straight to DVD films, including a Sonny Liston biopic. His daughter Skye has accumulated some success on her own as well, showcasing that the Townsend name has talent behind it regardless of generation. Still, over the years, whether it was the award winning Robert Townsend and His Partners In Crime on HBO, The Five Heartbeats, The Meteor Man, being nominated in 2013 for an Ovation award, becoming the programming director for the Black Family Channel, or even having a non profit organization that helps to benefit young and ambitious filmmakers, Robert Townsend is a true legend that paved his own path and succeeded at that. One can only wonder how much different his career could have been if that SNL audition went another way, but his career is legendary regardless. Robert Townsend is a true legend in every sense of the word and an inspiration to many, especially black filmmakers on the rise.



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