Spending an hour with Robert Townsend — producer/director/writer/star of the anarchic shoestring extravaganza The Hollywood Shuffle — is like watching a television commandeered by a hyperactive ten-year-old kid with a remote control unit.
“I was a weird kid,” he begins in answer to a question about his upbringing on Chicago’s west side. “My mother used to keep us in the house because there were so many gangs. I would watch TV all the time. I was like a chameleon. I would watch a movie and walk around the house saying [switch to Bogart in Casablanca] Here’s looking at you, kid. When kids in the neighborhood started talking about each other’s mothers [switch to Willy, kid in the neighborhood] Yo’ mama is so fat . . . I would do dialects — Hey, Willy, I saw your father, he looked like an African! [click to Garrett Morris as a Somalian exchange student in an early Saturday Night Live] Wheel-lay! Bringa yoo butt hom, Wheel-lay! When I played on the basketball team I spent a lot of time on the bench and I’d do impressions for the other players: [snap to Walter Brennan in The Guns of Will Sonnett] Dagnabit! I’m . . . I’m GOOD! The coach better put me; I’d . . . I’d slam DUNK it! No brag, just fact. But it was in fifth-grade English class that I discovered I really had something. We were doing a play called Oedipus and the teacher gave us different roles. Now this is a typical inner-city school. Willy Jenkins does the sibyl: [switch back to Willy, typical inner-city schoolkid] Oed-o-piss. You . . . will . . . marry . . . yo’ mothuh . . . and . . . kill . . . yo’ fathuh. Then I’d be Tiresias the prophet [cut to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Great Performances] OEDipus! Jocasta loves not YOU but yourSELF! It is your destiny! . . . ‘Where did you learn that?’ that teacher asked. ‘PBS,’ I told her.”
Sophocles is switched off and we are, for the moment, tuned into Robert Townsend, a slim young man in a hotel room wearing a navy blazer and a T-shirt printed with stylized ducks. Touted as the latest addition in the Richard Pryor-Eddie Murphy line of blockbuster black movie talent, he is surprisingly self-effacing. He has some of Murphy’s taut good looks — the skull-tight hair and the insouciant mustache — but not yet much of the superstar’s swagger or flinty aplomb. To a certain extent Townsend remains that precocious fifth-grade kid amazed at his ability to speak in voices and to command an audience and make them laugh.
Though there are great hopes for The Hollywood Shuffle, Townsend’s career so far has not been exactly meteoric. Some years after his fifth-grade debut in Oedipus Townsend worked with Chicago’s X-BAG (Experimental Black Actors Guild) and with Second City. In 1974 he got his first movie role — two lines of dialogue as playground punk in Cooley High — followed nine years later by a more substantial part in Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire. Immediately afterward came the role of the wisecracking jeep driver in Soldier’s Story, and suddenly the years of shuffling in New York and Hollywood, of bit parts and TV commercials, looked like they were about to pay off.
“I had all this money in the bank from Streets of Fire and Soldier’s Story,” recalls Townsend. “My friends were asking, ‘What are you gonna do? Get a Porsche, a town house?’ But I was happy where I was living and my Mustang was still running. What I really wanted to do was act. My agent told me there were no roles, nothing was happening. So, I said, ‘Why don’t we create something? All these people bitching and moaning about no work, why don’t we make our own movie?’ Everybody said it was a big mistake, you’ve never made a movie, you didn’t go to film school, you’re going to waste your money. But it was my money. I told them I’d get more joy out of watching out-of-focus dailies than driving around all day in a BMW doing nothing.
“So in the fall of ’84 I withdrew some money and shot the first scenes of the movie — the ‘Sam Ace’ private eye spoof in black and white. I liked the way it looked so I took out some more money. At the time the TV critics had just blasted a film I liked and I was thinking, we need our own critics, brothers that will tell us what these movies really are about. So that’s when my partner, Keenen Wayans, and I wrote ‘Sneaking Into the Movies.’ About this time too I had gotten a string of auditions for some really bad movies. My agent would call and say, ‘Hey, Robert, there’s a slave role on North and South, a pimp on Hill Street Blues, a mugger on Cagney and Lacey.’ I figured they should have a school for this kind of stuff, so that’s when we came up with the idea for ‘Black Actor’s School’ . . .”
Townsend’s ideas soon exceeded his bank account. Cash from a few more film parts helped out — in American Flyer, Odd Jobs, and Ratboy — as did the short ends of film stock he was able to mooch from the moviemakers. Then one day a hideous temptation arrived in the mail — a preapproved application for a preferred Visa account.
“I was going to toss them out,” says Townsend. “Then I said ‘Wait a minute. I can finish the film on credit cards!’ I got on the phone to the Bank of Boston, Citicorp in New York. 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. But a lot of fun. We shot over a period of two years, but we rehearsed so much that I knew every second where everything was going to be when the cameras started rolling. 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.”
For a film financed with plastic, The Hollywood Shuffle is pretty impressive — sufficiently so at any rate to convince its distributor, Sam Goldwyn, to pay Townsend’s Visa bill. Loosely autobiographical, it is the story of struggling black actor Bobby Taylor, who longs to play Lear and Superman and ‘Rambro’ but gets stuck trying out for roles as a fright-wigged, prancing gangbanger. Taylor’s plight is a framework for Townsend’s wild satirical imagination. As Taylor mopes in audition lines his daydreams of dread and grandeur spin off into sketches such as “Sam Ace,” “Black Actor’s School,” and “Chicago Jones.” The comedy is crude, outrageous, and often wickedly accurate, and only rarely does the manic energy of Townsend and his troupe fail to compensate for low production values and bad taste. One such lapse is Townsend’s characterization of gays as flamboyant hairdressers and bodybuilders in tutus, an indiscretion that seems particularly out of place in a film attacking stereotypes.
Townsend is a bit deflated by this subject. “With comedy,” he says carefully, “you have to take chances. I just do what I think is funny. I don’t mean to offend people but if I worried about all the people I might offend I’d never make anybody laugh. I like comedy because I’m a comedian. But that’s not what the movie is all about. I made the movie to show Hollywood’s insensitivity and the pain of an actor’s responsibility. It’s based on our lives as actors. We’d go to auditions and read each other the lines from the script: ‘I ain’t be got no weapons.’ We would just laugh. ‘Yo’ mama! wha’s happeninnn, bro?’ Who talks like that? We don’t talk like that!”
He is warming up again. A button is pushed and Townsend is on. “We’ve all grown up with the same movies,” he begins, flashing through a rapid montage of Errol Flynn, James Cagney, and E.G. Robinson. “When I got to Hollywood I said — yeah! I’m gonna play those parts! But then they tell me — ‘Townsend, the butler on page five.’ The butler? Cagney never played the butler!
“Then I saw the movies with new eyes. I’d see Bogie come out — That’s right, sweetheart, I’m the tough guy in this movie. But then the black guy would come in and say Yo wan’ me t’ git th’ luggage? An’thin else yo be needin’, suh? And I gotta play that part? Oh, man! Well I’ll do that part a couple of times but I want to play the Bogart role, too.”
Things are bad in Hollywood, one has to admit, but haven’t they improved somewhat since Bogart’s time? Townsend shakes his head. “I’d like to say so,” he replies. “But Bill Cosby is only a half hour on Thursday night. Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy do movies but, how come you never see them with any black friends or family? Except for Soldier’s Story, The Color Purple, and Native Son, what else is there? Muggers, rapists, and pimps. The image hasn’t changed.
“Even a movie like Platoon,” continues Townsend, his mask of seriousness breaking into the grin of the kid with a finger on the remote control. “I mean, it was a good movie but those black guys, I’m sorry, they’re stereotypes. I call it the ‘Father Knows Best as a pimp’ type. You got Charlie Sheen, he’s so straight [switch to Sheen’s excruciatingly Caucasian earnestness] Why . . . why do they . . . treat people like that? Why are things . . . LIKE that? And the brother is always like [cut to older and wiser black grunt cooing between tokes on a hash pipe] Heeyyyy, bebbee . . . this is NAAAMMM, joon-yuh! This what it be like. . . . Let me educate you, junior . . .”
The show goes on, from Ward Cleaver on drugs to sly informers warning Spenser to watch his coattails, as Townsend gleefully exposes one crass Hollywood cliche after another. The laughter is liberating and suggests that maybe by playing with stereotypes we can slip from their bonds.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Slaughter, Nathaniel Bellamy, Aaron Rapoport.