On this day in comedy on February 6, 1957 Comedian, Director, Actor, Writer, and Producer, Robert Townsend was born in Chicago, Illinois!
After honing his skills at Chicago’s X Bag Theatre; The Experimental Black Actors Guild and at Second City, Townsend got his start in comedy at The Improv. He moved to New York to further his education with the Negro Ensemble Company. Then following a string of small stereotypical parts (Cooley High, Monkey Hustle, American Flyers, Streets of Fire, Ratboy) and finding rare fulfillment as an actor (he did A Soldier’s Story with a predominantly black cast and was chest-fallen when he discovered that might be the only one he would make in his entire career) Townsend co-wrote (with Keenen Ivory Wayans) and directed Hollywood Shuffle. This parody of how it is for minority talent in Tinsel Town put the struggling entertainer on the map. The film, financed with Townsend’s own funds from acting and his credit cards, was a low budget risk and major box office success. A star was born.
Robert Townsend’s initial success allowed him to pursue an aggressive agenda of black projects. He directed Eddie Murphy’s Raw. He did Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime for HBO featuring unsung comedians at the time such as Paul Mooney, Franklyn Ajaye, Robin Harris and Damon Wayans, to name a few. Townsend co-starred with Denzel Washington in The Mighty Quinn. His next theatrical release was The Five Heartbeats, an enduring musical focusing on the trials and tribulations of a fictional 60s R&B singing group. He made Meteor Man; about a black super hero with limited powers. He returned to television with his own variety show on Fox, Townsend Television and a few seasons later he created his own sitcom for the WB; The Parent ‘Hood. He directed B*A*P*S with Halle Berry, Carmen: A Hip Hopera with Beyoncé and 10,000 Black Men Named George; also, Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy; a documentary on the history of black comedy, Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story, Holiday Heart, Bill Cosby 77 and others.
Robert Townsend won the Cable ACE Award for Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime and he was the Programming Director for the now defunct Black Family Channel.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: