Actor, comedian and director Robert Townsend broke down doors for Black talent in the 1980s and ’90s. The success of his 1987 film, “Hollywood Shuffle” — a film highlighting the struggles of being Black in Hollywood — led to a surge of Black media created by Black people.
“In Living Color” and other iconic titles were possible because of Townsend’s groundwork.
Here are 10 things to know about this pioneer.
Townsend started his film journey in his hometown of Chicago. He showed impressive acting abilities in elementary school, eventually gaining the attention of the Experimental Black Actors Guild (X-Bag) Theater.
Townsend’s first Hollywood role was as an extra in the 1975 comedy-drama, “Cooley High.” From there, he would go on to play roles in various comedy specials before co-starring with Denzel Washington in the 1984 drama, “A Soldier’s Story.”
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His first major directing role, Townsend was inspired to create “Hollywood Shuffle” by his difficulties being Black in the industry. He raised $100,000 independently to make the movie. It made over $5 million in theaters.
After “Hollywood Shuffle,” Townsend directed “Eddie Murphy Raw,” “The Meteor Man,” and “The Five Heartbeats.”
Townsend has been nominated for more than 30 NAACP Image Awards and has worked with some household names in Hollywood, including Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, and Ruby Dee. Cable World Magazine voted him one of the Most Influential Minorities in Cable.
In 2001, he directed MTV’s “Carmen: A Hip Hopera.” Starring Beyonce, it was one of MTV’s highest-rated movies. Townsend said of this experience, “I had the best time working on it. I’m so proud to work on that film.”
Townsend has four children. His three daughters Alexia, Sierra, and Skylar (Skye) are also in the entertainment industry.
In a video for the Associated Press, Townsend calls himself “ahead of his time” for “The Meteor Man.” He believed that a Black superhero film could be a billion-dollar franchise. When Marvel’s “Black Panther” reached that milestone, he said he felt satisfied knowing that he was not wrong.
In 2003, Townsend served as president and CEO of production for the Black Family Channel (BFC). For four years, he led creation of original programming, at times with limited funding. BFC was sold to the Gospel Music Channel in 2007.