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Robert Townsend              

Award-Winning Filmmaker & Former CEO of the Black Family Channel

Raised by a single mom on the rough West Side of Chicago, Robert Townsend transcended his environment to become an actor, writer, director, comedian, producer and ultimately, the President and CEO of the Black Family Channel.

As the second oldest of four children, Townsend entertained his mother doing impressions of TV personalities, including Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Alfred Hitchcock and Bill Cosby. His remarkable talent eventually caught the attention of Chicago’s Experimental Black Actors Guild X-Bag Theatre, and he soon became a stand-up comedian at The Improvisation, New York’s premier comedy club. Hollywood came calling, and Townsend found himself performing on television comedy specials, including "Rodney Dangerfield: It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me" and "Uptown Comedy Express." Then came roles opposite Denzel Washington in A Soldier’s Story, Diane Lane in Streets of Fire and Kevin Costner in American Flyers.

When Townsend became an independent filmmaker, things really started happening. Without formal film education or outside funding (he used his own credit cards), Townsend co-wrote, directed and starred in the critically acclaimed Hollywood Shuffle, followed by the inner-city fable The Meteor Man (which starred James Earl Jones and Eddie Griffin). The popular soul musical, The Five Heartbeats, reminiscent of 60s R&B groups was his next cinematic accomplishment. Townsend went on to direct many amazing performers, including Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry, Martin Landau, Louis Gossett, Jr. and Beyonce Knowles. In addition to recounting these funny and moving experiences, Townsend teaches audiences to empower themselves, discusses the image of African Americans in Hollywood and talks about how to find success.

The energetic and gregarious Townsend always makes time to participate in humanitarian efforts. As a longtime speaker for the United Negro College Fund, his concern for inner-city youth takes him across the country to inspire young people to follow their dreams. As a testament to his versatility, Townsend shares his business expertise with various Fortune 500 companies. During the first five months of his tenure as President and CEO of Productions for the Black Family Channel, he produced eight new television programs.

Speech Topics

Robert Townsend: From the Hood to Hollywood

Growing up in a rough neighborhood is a disadvantage to some. Others, like Townsend, used his environment as a motivator to escape. Each day after school, he ran home—past the pimps, dealers and gangbangers—to watch television. He connected with the amazing stories he saw coming through that little black and white TV, and preferred the TV fantasies to the harsh realities of the West Side of Chicago. In fact, he watched so much TV, his family nicknamed him “TV Guide.” Townsend discovered that he had a gift to do impressions of the actors he saw on television (over 30 voices). In fact, his talent revealed itself in elementary school while reading the classic “Oedipus Rex.” One day, he dazzled the class with his ability to transform effortlessly into a character, and in that moment, he knew he was going to be in show business.

Townsend has gone on to act, write, direct and produce television shows and films, including projects starring Academy Award winners Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Michael Clarke Duncan, as well as a who’s who of comedy superstars, like Eddie Murphy, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Chris Tucker. Without formal film education or outside funding, Townsend became part of Hollywood legend when he used his credit cards to finance his first film—a satire depicting the trials and tribulations of African American actors in Hollywood. The film of course, was the critically acclaimed Hollywood Shuffle, which he co-wrote with Keenan Ivory Wayans, and starred in, directed and produced. Townsend’s body of work truly shows his range as an artist. From comedies such as Eddie Murphy Raw; BAP*S with Halle Berry; musicals like Carmen: A HipHopera starring Beyonce; The Natalie Cole Story with Natalie Cole; dramas like 10,000 Black Men Named George, which garnered Charles Dutton an Image Award for best supporting actor; as well as Holiday Heart, in which Townsend directed Alfre Woodard in a Golden Globe-nominated performance. Additionally, Townsend created, starred, produced and directed the first African American superhero action-comedy The Meteor Man and produced the beloved film, The Five Heartbeats Townsend. For his efforts to improve portrayals of African Americans in film and television, he has been nominated for over 30 NAACP Image Awards.

Forever the visionary, Townsend even ran a small television network called the Black Family Channel and created over 15 original series as President and CEO. Today, he continues to create films and TV shows—as well as lecture on “Images of Color in Hollywood,” “The Spirit of an Entrepreneur” and “How to Develop and Create Stories from the Script to the Screen.” Townsend knows that he wouldn’t have gotten where he is today without faith, determination and strength. In this presentation, he discusses how he got out of the inner city and created the life he wanted. The famous funnyman tailors his talks to each organization; but no matter which type of audience attends, they are sure to be inspired and changed by his uplifting positive message.

Robert Townsend: Shakespeare, Pimps and Hollywood

Acclaimed director, writer and actor Townsend will take you on a hilarious rollercoaster ride through life’s failures, roadblocks and triumphs. In this riotous one-man show, Townsend recounts growing up on Chicago’s rough West Side. You’ll hear about how he escaped gangbangers, thugs and pimps by running home to watch TV and hone impressions of popular actors. He blossomed into a young theater actor and then a New York City comedian—and learned life lessons that changed him forever.

In this performance, Townsend shares his Hollywood journey. He’ll recount how he: funded his first film entirely on credit cards while running from the police; screened his film Hollywood Shuffle in a disastrous way for Eddie Murphy; attended Frank Sinatra’s 77th birthday party; found himself heckled by Don Rickles; and almost lost his life while meeting Elia Kazan. You’ll also hear about the phone call from Sidney Poitier that nearly broke his heart. This unforgettable evening will inspire the dreamer in all of us.


Hollywood's Heartbeat: A Conversation With Robert Townsend : NPR
Robert Townsend is a pioneer in Hollywood. As a writer, director and actor, he's built an extensive resume of television and film work, bringing black stories to ...
Robert Townsend's 'The Five Heartbeats' Is Now Broadway Bound ...
EXCLUSIVE: The Five Heartbeats, Robert Townsend's story about the trials and tribulations of a band of five talented guys in a musical group during the rise of ...

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