Three Great Things: Robert Townsend

The legendary writer-director-actor, whose 1987 classic Hollywood Shuffle just hit the Criterion Collection, shares some essentials.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current Blu-ray release on Criterion Collection of Robert Townsend’s classic 1987 comedy Hollywood Shuffle, a sly satire of Reagan-era cinema and the typecasting of African-Americans, the legendary writer-director-actor shared some of the things he loves most in life. — N.D.

Performing My One-Man Show
A few years ago, I did a one-man show about my life called Living the Shuffle. I had not been on stage in forever, and then I did the show right before COVID hit. When I finished my last performance, people were saying, “Theres something mysterious going on. Stay in the house.” I had one of the best times of my life doing that show at the Marsh Arts Center in Berkeley; the exhilaration I got from performing all these characters every night was just incredible.

Living the Shuffle starts with a little boy on the West Side of Chicago and contains all these amazing stories about my life and my journey in Hollywood. There’s a story about how I almost died because I wanted to meet Elia Kazan, and then I finally got to meet him and it turned into a wonderful evening. And the time I got an invitation from Frank Sinatra for his 77th birthday, when I ended up at the front table with the heads of the Five Families. The day I almost died on a basketball court, and how being funny saved my life. It was a really beautiful experience to put all these stories together as an artist.

I think I loved performing Living the Shuffle because it allowed me to live in my art like never before.

We all have different gifts as artists, as people, and one of my gifts is being a storyteller. I’m having a discussion now with my team about shooting it as a film. At first I wanted to tour the show, but then the world got weird and strange with COVID restrictions, so we had to change our plans. That show created a moment, and I want to return to that beautiful moment.

The Ocean
I love the water and going to the beach. I go out to the beach in Malibu all the time, and I watch the erosion and corrosion of the beach, which keeps getting worse. And then I look at the wildlife that sometimes gets washed up on the beach, and it makes me think about how we are failing to take care of the planet. I love going to the beach, as it clears my head, but sometimes the sand is black and it makes me ask, “Is that from an oil spill? What are we doing?!” There’s a part of me that deeply cares, because some people like the mountains and the forest, but for me, it’s the ocean.

I don’t swim or surf, I just walk on the beach. I love the waves and the sunset. Being in that environment clears my brain. When I look into the ocean, I see the endless possibilities of life. It’s like beautiful medicine, because it relaxes, calms and soothes me. But I’m concerned because I see now the waters look different. During the height of COVID when people were locked down, all of a sudden I started seeing lots of dolphins again, which was a beautiful thing.

It was really when I moved out to Los Angeles that water became an important part of my life, because when I lived on the West Side of Chicago, we didn’t go downtown and hang out by Lake Michigan. I never learned to swim, because in the hood we only had one swimming pool; there would be 60 people in that one pool, so people would just float. I have a swimming pool at my house and my kids swim, but I still don’t know how to.

When I was shooting my film The Five Heartbeats, Robert Altman’s godson was a P.A. on the film, and Altman came to the set one day. I liked him and he liked me, so he invited me to a party at his house on Malibu Road. When I went there, he said, “Everybody’s outside on the deck and there are hors d’oeuvres there for everyone.” When I went outside, his deck was right on the water and you could see dolphins from the deck. I thought, “Oh my, you can live like this?!” That’s when I moved out to Malibu and lived on Malibu Road, all because of Robert Altman.

Sidney Poitier
When I was a kid, Sidney Poitier was one of the few men of color that I saw on television who had dignity, who walked with his head up high. When I first became famous because of Hollywood Shuffle, I said to my agent, “I want to meet Sidney Poitier.” He said, “Really?” I told him, “Yeah, because when I was a kid looking at that little black-and-white TV, he made me want to stand taller as a man.” So he reached out and Sidney Poitier agreed to meet with me at the Polo Lounge. When he came in, he was so tall and dignified, it was like God walked in. I remember asking him, “How did you get to have dignity when so many Black people didn’t?” He said, “The power to say no.”

He became my mentor, and when I was going through my divorce, he was the first one to call. When I think about people that came into my life who were larger than life, I think about him. He really was that man who you saw on screen. But he was complicated, too. I got to know different layers to the man.

I think as an artist, he understood me and I understood him, but I had never been to the levels that he’d gone to. And he handled himself with such ease. When we talked, I would think, “I want to be like that. I want to emulate that essence and that energy.” He just had such beautiful grace.

I always want to raise the bar as an artist and as a person, and be the best version of me that I can be. We’re all trying to figure out life, but when I looked at him, I saw that he’d already figured it out. But he talked about his struggles as well, and it was a beautiful thing to experience this giant of a man who was open to sharing his journey. And hearing that made me stronger.

Robert Townsend is often referred to as one of the “Godfathers of Independent Film.” In 1987, Townsend wrote, directed, produced, and starred in his feature debut, the critically acclaimed, Hollywood Shuffle, a satire depicting the trials and tribulations of black actors in Hollywood, which is newly released on Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection. Townsend next directed the highest-grossing stand-up comedy concert film of all time, Eddie Murphy Raw, followed by The Meteor Man, which is heralded as Hollywood’s first Black superhero film, and the popular soul musical, The Five Heartbeats. Other films include B*A*P*S, The Holiday Heart, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, In the Hive and th3 documentary Making The Five Heartbeats. In television, Townsend created, starred in, and executive produced The Parent ‘Hood, which successfully ran for five seasons on the WB, after which he became President and CEO of Production for The Black Family Channel (BFC). Recently, Townsend has directed episodes of The Last O.G., Colin in Black & White and The Wonder Years.