Everybody wants to work with Robert Townsend. He’s the Sara Lee of quadruple threats (actor/writer/director/producer): nobody doesn’t like him. Not in a harmless or an unobjectionable way; in the instinctive and helpless way you are drawn to someone who makes you believe in the best and most honest version of yourself.
He is perhaps the only person in Hollywood to have directed himself as not one but two separate superheroes (The Meteor Man in The Meteor Man and The Bronze Eagle in Disney’s Up, Up, and Away. The Meteor Man is well worth seeing; it is fine if you miss Up, Up, and Away).
Robert Townsend does what he wants. He cast Bill Cosby as “Marvin, a vagrant” at the height of his Bill Cosby-ness. The second film he ever directed was Eddie Murphy’s Raw. He directed Beyoncé in her acting debut (2001’s Carmen: A Hip-Hopera).
In an interview with Aymar Jean Christian back in 2010, Townsend talked about his ability to cast some of the biggest names in Hollywood:
I’m really blessed. Because when they do interviews, and they’re asked, you know, ‘why did you do a web series, you’re a legend, etc.’ And everybody says it’s because of Robert Townsend. I’ve always tried to do quality work in my career and tried to do the right things. So whenever I call somebody, like the last documentary I did, Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy, I called everybody, and Bill Cosby calls me back and says, ‘hey man, do you want me to do an interview for this documentary, I’m in.’ Chris Rock: ‘I’m in.’ Wayans Brothers: ‘I’m in.’ Steve Harvey. And it just makes you feel really good, because they know that whatever I’m working on, I’m trying to do something special. Diahann Carroll told me, ‘I don’t know what a web series is, but it’s you.’ [Laughs] I’m like, ‘okay, thank you!’
There are people who make movies I’m wild about but I have no desire to know (anyone from Wet Hot American Summer or The Ten); there are people who make movies that leave me cold but who I am desperate to befriend (Josh Gad). Robert Townsend makes movies I’m wild about. Once he favorited something I said on Twitter, and it brought me to tears.
If I ever found out that Mister Rogers secretly had a terrible temper and often berated his staff in anger, I would be sad and disappointed, but I would move on with my life. If Tom Hanks or Denzel Washington left their respective partners for women half their age, I would tsk and nothing about the way I saw the world would change a whit.
I believe in both the genius and the goodness of Robert Townsend with perfect trust and perfect faith. Have you seen The Five Heartbeats? He is a good person. No one who directs Leon like this could possibly be anything else.
I first discovered him as a child on the WB’s The Parent ‘Hood, which he both starred in and executive produced. It aired on Wednesday nights, either immediately before or immediately after The Wayans Bros., and I instantly and irrevocably fell in love.
Robert Townsend squeezed more fathering into the show’s 40-second intro than most of our own dads did during the entirety of the 90s. The suspenders, the wife dip-and-kissing, the distribution of apples instead of cookies to his disappointed children — Robert Townsend represented the Peak Sitcom Dad high-water-mark. Bob Saget prepared a way for him in the wilderness.
“After me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.”
Most importantly, though, Robert Townsend is responsible for Hollywood Shuffle, easily one of the greatest movies about movies of the last fifty years. It’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty meets The Jerk meets Sullivan’s Travels. It’s the sharpest satire with the warmest heart. It took seventeen days to shoot, but two years to film. The budget was about $100,000 and the box office was over five million — not bad for a movie that received next to no promotion from its own studio. Townsend borrowed film stock from other filmmakers and occasionally paid his cast in gas:
By the time I was finished I had $40,000 in credit cards. What can’t you charge in this country? I racked up wardrobe, catering, film stock. I would tell my cast, ‘I can’t pay you now but come on down to the Shell station and I’ll put gas in your car.’ ‘See those 20 cars?’ I’d tell the attendant. ‘Fill them up. Visa.’
“It was crazy…A lot of times we had to steal locations, and you can go to jail for that in California. People say, ‘Why didn’t you hold that shot? Why didn’t you zoom for another close-up?’ But they don’t know that the police were coming! I could be in jail! And I look at the movie now and say, ‘Ah, I should have, oh, I would have!” But it was my first time out. I hear Woody Allen reshoots 50 percent of his movies. I couldn’t; my credit cards were overcharged.
Some of the best novels are about struggling writers; some of the best movies are about struggling actors. Hollywood Shuffle is about a struggling actor named Bobby Taylor, and is excellent. Bobby works at a fast-food stand called Winky Dinky Dogs (with the brilliant John Witherspoon playing Winky proprietor Mr. Jones), where he is not appreciated and must wear a deeply degrading paper hat. The hat has two hot dogs coming out of it. Bunless hot dogs, like little naked meat horns.
Robert Townsend is a genius.
One of the most Thurberesque sequences in the movie begins when Bobby’s shift manager, Donald (Keenen Ivory Wayans, also brilliant) begins berating him for spending too much time running off to auditions instead of mopping the floor.
Bobby begins to daydream of a future in which he is a famous and successful actor. Donald and Tiny, filthy and disheveled, stare in shock as his limo pulls up to the nearly-defunct Winky Dinky, now reduced to selling its last hot dog (Tiny wants to eat his half of the last dog; Donald refuses). Bobby, who is wearing a tuxedo and flanked by two gorgeous women in ball gowns, strolls by and chats with his former colleagues. They beg him to film a commercial to save the struggling business, on the verge of collapse now that Mr. Jones has gone mad.
Mr. Jones sits alone in a corner of the parking lot, covered in buns (hamburger buns, confusingly enough. Presumably on the day of the shoot that’s all they had. Robert Townsend was not going to waste what little budget remained on exactingly accurate meat encasements), babbling about Ho Cakes and flinging toilet paper at an empty wine bottle.
Robert Townsend is a genius.
Bobby wants to do Shakespeare and superhero films, but can only get auditions for Butler and Slave #5 or, if he’s lucky, “an Eddie Murphy type.”
Some of the films he watches or auditions for include:
- Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge
- There’s a Bat in My House (“Can a black bat from Detroit find happiness with a white suburban family?”)
- Attack of the Street Pimps
- Amadeus Meets Salieri
- Death of a Breakdancer
Shuffle isn’t a perfect movie; there are times when the $100,000 budget and restricted shooting schedule are obvious, and there are a few jokes at the expense of an effeminate male hairdresser that are best left in the 80s. But it is responsible for six of the most flawless minutes in Hollywood history, the “Black Acting School” dream sequence (go ahead and watch the whole thing. It’s worth it. I’ll wait):
That is six minutes of uninterrupted and exquisite excellence. Townsend carefully sets his jokes up (Mandingo, the house slave/field slave, the mugger, the gang member), then just as carefully murders them, one right after another. Townsend’s timing and ear for voices are masterful: he grew up doing James Cagney and Bill Cosby impersonations, and his talent for mimicry is put to great work in the film. He switches from a scathing, white-hot Stepin Fetchit impression to the stateliest of Received Pronunciation just before the 4:00 minute mark.
“Hi,” he says, plummily, joyfully, locking eyes with the camera. If he could lick his lips or thumb his nose at the audience, he would. “My name is Robert Taylor.”
His comedy is brutal, efficient, masterful, and he’s having a wonderful time. I don’t know any good sports analogies, but feel free to insert your own here.
It’s beautiful to watch someone who is this far into his element play, and play without restrictions. Also, Paul Mooney makes an appearance as the president of the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP. If that does not delight you, then you are someone who cannot be delighted.
One of Townsend’s first major breaks came from a Rodney Dangerfield special in the early 1980s. He comes onstage in a plush white trench coat and a fedora with a brim so sharp you could shave with it. “Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you,” he says in the plummiest English accent. It’s the first of a half-a-dozen imitations and accents he’ll put on in under seven minutes. “My name is Robert Townsend, and I’m from Chicago.”
The crowd loves him. And he’s having a wonderful time.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.