Robert Townsend was fed up. As an actor he’d been auditioning in New York and L.A. for eight years, and all he was getting were offers for the usual black stereotypes: pimps, junkies, slaves. In his first film, 1975’s Cooley High, Townsend, now 30, played a teen hood, whose most memorable line was: “Somebody should kick his ass.” Such demeaning work rankled. “People aren’t going to say, ‘Hey, caught you stealing that TV set on Cagney & Lacey.’ If you whore around, people will say you are a whore.”
Townsend decided he wanted to say something about the plight of black actors in the movie business—and to say it the only way he knew how: through humor. The result is Hollywood Shuffle, a satire produced, directed, written by (with his pal Keenen Ivory Wayans) and starring Townsend. The movie is loosely autobiographical, a series of funny vignettes that chart Townsend’s misadventures as he tries to get work in the movie industry.
He shows classically trained black actors auditioning with such lines as “I ain’t be got no weapon.” He imagines himself the beanie-capped star of a sitcom about a bat hero from Detroit living with a white suburban family and, later, as the superhero RamBro.
At the film’s climax, the main character, Bobby, walks off an exploitation film in disgust, refusing to go on with his Stepin Fetchit role. “Black actors have to be more responsible,” Town-send says. “A lot of my friends feel that if they turn down a role, they won’t have another chance. But I think they do have a choice. If you need the money, get a regular job.”
The force and dignity behind the film’s comedy won critical raves and is racking up nice box office receipts ($1.4 million to date). But mostly Townsend is glad he got the movie made at all.
His own story began in Chicago, where he was one of four children. When Robert was a baby, his parents were separated, and he was raised by his grandmother and mother, a post office employee. Though he dreamed of playing pro basketball (he grew to just 6’1″), it was clear in high school that acting was his forte. By 1977, when he moved to New York, Robert had started doing commercials, off-Broadway theater and then stand-up comedy.
The making of Hollywood Shuffle is a textbook lesson for anyone trying to buck the system. The film was shot in 14 days, scattered over three years. Townsend used money (about $60,000) he’d earned in small roles in Streets of Fire, A Soldier’s Story and American Flyers, plus a retainer from Richard Pryor’s now-defunct company for a three-picture deal. “It was time for me to put my money where my mouth is,” he says. With the money spent, he applied for credit cards and ran through his $40,000 credit line. He was so nervous he didn’t tell his family what he was doing.
Townsend worked with 83 friends, shuffling them to and from locations in rented vans. Footage was done on the run. Police would have shut down the film since Townsend had failed to obtain city permits.
Luckily, the Samuel Goldwyn Company picked up a rough draft of the film, contributed $750,000 to reshoot scenes and added an additional $2 million for distribution and promotion. The company also covered Townsend’s debts. Otherwise, says the new filmmaker, “I’d probably be in some comedy club in New Jersey trying to pay off the interest rates.” Instead he’s living in a two-story, Art Deco condo in L.A. and fielding offers to act, write and direct before deciding on his next project. His girlfriend of six months, actress Stephanie (The Young and the Restless) Williams, 28, says she’s proud of Robert for taking a chance that worked out. But it’s not the money he’s after. “I’m looking for respect,” he says. “When I negotiate, I negotiate for control and quality work.” Townsend has just finished directing Eddie Murphy’s new concert film, Eddie Murphy Raw.
Still, Townsend knows there’s a long way to go to break down the racial barriers that exist in the movie business. He sees Shuffle only as a step along the way. “I got fed up with seeing other people do the work I wanted to do. Why can’t I play roles that Sean Penn is playing?” As ever, he’s ready to put up a fight. “People try to take your dreams away,” he says. “I won’t let them.”