Robert Townsend, writer, producer, director, and actor, was born in Chicago, Illinois on February 6, 1957, the second oldest of four children to Shirley and Robert Townsend. Growing up on the Westside of Chicago, Townsend was raised by his mother in a single parent home. As a child Townsend watched TV where he learned to do impersonations of his favorite actors such as Jimmy Stewart and Bill Cosby for his family and classmates. Eventually his abilities caught the attention of Chicago’s Experimental Black Actors Guild X-Bag Theatre in Chicago and then moved him out to The Improvisation, a premiere comedy club in New York City. Townsend also had a brief uncredited role in the 1975 movie, Cooley High.
Townsend's comedy career began to take off at the Improvisation and he soon headed to Hollywood where he performed on comedy specials such as Rodney Dangerfield: It’s Not Easy Being Me. Townsend also landed minor role in films such as A Soldier’s Story (1984) with Denzel Washington, Streets of Fire (1984) with Diane Lane, and American Flyers, a 1985 movie staring Kevin Costner.
In the late 1980s Townsend decided to become a filmmaker and director. His first film, Eddie Murphy: Raw, appeared in 1987. Without any funding beyond his money he co-wrote, directed, and starred in second first film, Hollywood Shuffle (1987) which received critical acclaim. In 1991 he directed and starred in The Five Heartbeats, a powerful biographical drama based loosely on the lives of the rhythm and blues group, the Dells. He then directed and starred in The Meteor Man (1993) with James Earl Jones and Bill Cosby.
Between films Townsend also produced the award winning show, Robert Townsend and his Partners in Crime, a variety special. His other productions include Townsend Television and The Parenthood. At the NAACP Image Awards in 2001 he made history by directing three performers nominated in the category of best actor or actress in three different films in 2000: Leon Robinson for his role in Little Richard, Alfre Woodard for her role in the Showtime film, Holiday Heart, and Natalie Cole as herself in Livin' for Love: The Natalie Cole Story.
Townsend has been a speaker of the United Negro College Fund; he speaks primarily to inner city youth about the possibilities of following their dreams. Townsend has recently taken on a new role as CEO of Productions for the Black Family Channel. He is married to Cherri Jones and the couple has two children.
Robert Townsend.com, December 5, 2008, http://www.roberttownsend.com/bio.html; Jennifer M. York, ed. Who’s Who Among African Americans, 16th ed., (San Francisco: Thomson Gale, 2003)
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