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Townsend brings it back home for 'Heartbeats'

Now that I have met him, I know why Robert Townsend's first movie was about the movies. He loves movies. He loves going to them, seeing them again, reading about them, remembering them, trying to make movies like the ones he loves. 

I get letters all the time from kids who want to be movie directors. They want to know which school they should go to. UCLA, or USC? NYU maybe? Robert Townsend came out of a poor black neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago and he didn't have to agonize over choices like that. A lot of what he learned about the movies, he learned while he was sitting in front of a TV set, watching them. Maybe it was that love that made him into movie director.

I talk to him, and the great names pour forth: Capra, Hitchcock, Gable, Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart and Errol Flynn, "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Godfather." When he finally broke into films, it was as an extra: "My mother spent four years going to the movies and looking for the back of my head." In 1987 Townsend finally made his own film, "Hollywood Shuffle," and the story of its making became a legend. How he borrowed money and stretched the credit cards of everybody he knew, begged for leftover film stock, talked people into working for free or on deferral, and made a feature film for $100,000 that turned into a box office hit.

It was a ragged film, no masterpiece, but it had spirit. It was a satire on Hollywood movie genres, starring Townsend as a young black actor trying to make it, and running up against one stereotype after another. Townsend wrote it with Keenan Ivory Wayans, who went on to adapt a similar approach to the TV comedy series "In Living Color." Townsend spent the next three years acting in movies like 'The Mighty Quinn" (where he was Denzel Washington's friend and foe, the unflappable Maubee). At the same time he was putting together his own movie, the story of a singing group named "The Five Heartbeats," and it will open around the country on March 29.

There's a lot of people who did it for the money, and it shows. I think when [Disney boss] Jeff Katzenberg wrote that memo that everyone has been talking about, basically he was saying that films aren't as magical as they used to be. We're spending all this money on explosions and stuff, but why don't we take some time and look at the words again?"

He took some time, and the screenplay that he and Wayans wrote for "The Five Heartbeats" is a thoughtfully, carefully drawn portrait of a five-man rock singing group that forms in the 1960s, and goes through hard times and good times and a lot of changes. The lead singer drops out, a victim of drugs, and the other members learn by hard experience how to deal with success, romance and life on the road. There have been a lot of musical biopics, but rarely one as interested in the singers as in the song.

"Our original inspiration for the group is sort of a mixture of the Dells, the Temptations, and the Spinners," Townsend said. "The Dells, who served as my technical advisors gave me a lot of stuff that was going on back then with black singing groups. They told me about their how they weren't allowed to appear on their first album cover, so white record buyers wouldn't know they were black. That's where the scene in the movie came from. There's fiction in the movie, but also a lot of real stuff they gave me."

We were talking not long after Townsend brought his movie home to Chicago for its first public screenings, which were especially important because his mother was in the audience--not to mention the high school teacher and the local 12-year-old he cast in two of the key roles, and various people who knew, or were, the original inspirations for the characters. I wondered if there was anything particular about this story that made him want to tell it.

"The material let me do a lot of different things in one movie," he said. "There is comedy, drama, and five totally different personalities trying to be one singing group. The more time I spent around the Dells, the more fascinated I was. They've been together for 38 years! I don't know anybody who's been together that long. They were friends in high school. It's like they're married together, because you can't see one without the other. And as an actor in the movie, I get to sing, dance, and play the piano, so the story gave me a chance to go in all those directions."

It's not simply a showbiz movie, though, I said. There's a lot of drama about families in it, and about how some of the guys grow up faster than the others, and one wanders off into drugs.

"Yeah. I wanted it to have more body, to go a little bit deeper. A lot of movies don't have real values anymore. They're disposable, geared toward one weekend. They just throw a lot of noise and action at you. They don't care. You look at the shape of the country, and the crime statistics, and then you look at the movies, and a lot of them are catering to that climate of violence, helping to feed it. I just have different values."

His values were formed, he said, as he was growing up in Chicago. "You know, my mother told me I could do anything. We were on welfare for many years, and still she was telling me this, and I listened. So when people look at me and say Townsend's a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer-actor, I really thank my mother for that. She didn't think there was anything you couldn't do. Success to me is a lot more than just getting out of the limo.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

There's a lot of people who did it for the money, and it shows. I think when [Disney boss] Jeff Katzenberg wrote that memo that everyone has been talking about, basically he was saying that films aren't as magical as they used to be. We're spending all this money on explosions and stuff, but why don't we take some time and look at the words again?"

He took some time, and the screenplay that he and Wayans wrote for "The Five Heartbeats" is a thoughtfully, carefully drawn portrait of a five-man rock singing group that forms in the 1960s, and goes through hard times and good times and a lot of changes. The lead singer drops out, a victim of drugs, and the other members learn by hard experience how to deal with success, romance and life on the road. There have been a lot of musical biopics, but rarely one as interested in the singers as in the song.

"Our original inspiration for the group is sort of a mixture of the Dells, the Temptations, and the Spinners," Townsend said. "The Dells, who served as my technical advisors gave me a lot of stuff that was going on back then with black singing groups. They told me about their how they weren't allowed to appear on their first album cover, so white record buyers wouldn't know they were black. That's where the scene in the movie came from. There's fiction in the movie, but also a lot of real stuff they gave me."

We were talking not long after Townsend brought his movie home to Chicago for its first public screenings, which were especially important because his mother was in the audience--not to mention the high school teacher and the local 12-year-old he cast in two of the key roles, and various people who knew, or were, the original inspirations for the characters. I wondered if there was anything particular about this story that made him want to tell it.

"The material let me do a lot of different things in one movie," he said. "There is comedy, drama, and five totally different personalities trying to be one singing group. The more time I spent around the Dells, the more fascinated I was. They've been together for 38 years! I don't know anybody who's been together that long. They were friends in high school. It's like they're married together, because you can't see one without the other. And as an actor in the movie, I get to sing, dance, and play the piano, so the story gave me a chance to go in all those directions."

It's not simply a showbiz movie, though, I said. There's a lot of drama about families in it, and about how some of the guys grow up faster than the others, and one wanders off into drugs.

"Yeah. I wanted it to have more body, to go a little bit deeper. A lot of movies don't have real values anymore. They're disposable, geared toward one weekend. They just throw a lot of noise and action at you. They don't care. You look at the shape of the country, and the crime statistics, and then you look at the movies, and a lot of them are catering to that climate of violence, helping to feed it. I just have different values."

His values were formed, he said, as he was growing up in Chicago. "You know, my mother told me I could do anything. We were on welfare for many years, and still she was telling me this, and I listened. So when people look at me and say Townsend's a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer-actor, I really thank my mother for that. She didn't think there was anything you couldn't do. Success to me is a lot more than just getting out of the limo.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

He took some time, and the screenplay that he and Wayans wrote for "The Five Heartbeats" is a thoughtfully, carefully drawn portrait of a five-man rock singing group that forms in the 1960s, and goes through hard times and good times and a lot of changes. The lead singer drops out, a victim of drugs, and the other members learn by hard experience how to deal with success, romance and life on the road. There have been a lot of musical biopics, but rarely one as interested in the singers as in the song.

"Our original inspiration for the group is sort of a mixture of the Dells, the Temptations, and the Spinners," Townsend said. "The Dells, who served as my technical advisors gave me a lot of stuff that was going on back then with black singing groups. They told me about their how they weren't allowed to appear on their first album cover, so white record buyers wouldn't know they were black. That's where the scene in the movie came from. There's fiction in the movie, but also a lot of real stuff they gave me."

We were talking not long after Townsend brought his movie home to Chicago for its first public screenings, which were especially important because his mother was in the audience--not to mention the high school teacher and the local 12-year-old he cast in two of the key roles, and various people who knew, or were, the original inspirations for the characters. I wondered if there was anything particular about this story that made him want to tell it.

"The material let me do a lot of different things in one movie," he said. "There is comedy, drama, and five totally different personalities trying to be one singing group. The more time I spent around the Dells, the more fascinated I was. They've been together for 38 years! I don't know anybody who's been together that long. They were friends in high school. It's like they're married together, because you can't see one without the other. And as an actor in the movie, I get to sing, dance, and play the piano, so the story gave me a chance to go in all those directions."

It's not simply a showbiz movie, though, I said. There's a lot of drama about families in it, and about how some of the guys grow up faster than the others, and one wanders off into drugs.

"Yeah. I wanted it to have more body, to go a little bit deeper. A lot of movies don't have real values anymore. They're disposable, geared toward one weekend. They just throw a lot of noise and action at you. They don't care. You look at the shape of the country, and the crime statistics, and then you look at the movies, and a lot of them are catering to that climate of violence, helping to feed it. I just have different values."

His values were formed, he said, as he was growing up in Chicago. "You know, my mother told me I could do anything. We were on welfare for many years, and still she was telling me this, and I listened. So when people look at me and say Townsend's a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer-actor, I really thank my mother for that. She didn't think there was anything you couldn't do. Success to me is a lot more than just getting out of the limo.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

"Our original inspiration for the group is sort of a mixture of the Dells, the Temptations, and the Spinners," Townsend said. "The Dells, who served as my technical advisors gave me a lot of stuff that was going on back then with black singing groups. They told me about their how they weren't allowed to appear on their first album cover, so white record buyers wouldn't know they were black. That's where the scene in the movie came from. There's fiction in the movie, but also a lot of real stuff they gave me."

We were talking not long after Townsend brought his movie home to Chicago for its first public screenings, which were especially important because his mother was in the audience--not to mention the high school teacher and the local 12-year-old he cast in two of the key roles, and various people who knew, or were, the original inspirations for the characters. I wondered if there was anything particular about this story that made him want to tell it.

"The material let me do a lot of different things in one movie," he said. "There is comedy, drama, and five totally different personalities trying to be one singing group. The more time I spent around the Dells, the more fascinated I was. They've been together for 38 years! I don't know anybody who's been together that long. They were friends in high school. It's like they're married together, because you can't see one without the other. And as an actor in the movie, I get to sing, dance, and play the piano, so the story gave me a chance to go in all those directions."

It's not simply a showbiz movie, though, I said. There's a lot of drama about families in it, and about how some of the guys grow up faster than the others, and one wanders off into drugs.

"Yeah. I wanted it to have more body, to go a little bit deeper. A lot of movies don't have real values anymore. They're disposable, geared toward one weekend. They just throw a lot of noise and action at you. They don't care. You look at the shape of the country, and the crime statistics, and then you look at the movies, and a lot of them are catering to that climate of violence, helping to feed it. I just have different values."

His values were formed, he said, as he was growing up in Chicago. "You know, my mother told me I could do anything. We were on welfare for many years, and still she was telling me this, and I listened. So when people look at me and say Townsend's a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer-actor, I really thank my mother for that. She didn't think there was anything you couldn't do. Success to me is a lot more than just getting out of the limo.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

We were talking not long after Townsend brought his movie home to Chicago for its first public screenings, which were especially important because his mother was in the audience--not to mention the high school teacher and the local 12-year-old he cast in two of the key roles, and various people who knew, or were, the original inspirations for the characters. I wondered if there was anything particular about this story that made him want to tell it.

"The material let me do a lot of different things in one movie," he said. "There is comedy, drama, and five totally different personalities trying to be one singing group. The more time I spent around the Dells, the more fascinated I was. They've been together for 38 years! I don't know anybody who's been together that long. They were friends in high school. It's like they're married together, because you can't see one without the other. And as an actor in the movie, I get to sing, dance, and play the piano, so the story gave me a chance to go in all those directions."

It's not simply a showbiz movie, though, I said. There's a lot of drama about families in it, and about how some of the guys grow up faster than the others, and one wanders off into drugs.

"Yeah. I wanted it to have more body, to go a little bit deeper. A lot of movies don't have real values anymore. They're disposable, geared toward one weekend. They just throw a lot of noise and action at you. They don't care. You look at the shape of the country, and the crime statistics, and then you look at the movies, and a lot of them are catering to that climate of violence, helping to feed it. I just have different values."

His values were formed, he said, as he was growing up in Chicago. "You know, my mother told me I could do anything. We were on welfare for many years, and still she was telling me this, and I listened. So when people look at me and say Townsend's a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer-actor, I really thank my mother for that. She didn't think there was anything you couldn't do. Success to me is a lot more than just getting out of the limo.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

"The material let me do a lot of different things in one movie," he said. "There is comedy, drama, and five totally different personalities trying to be one singing group. The more time I spent around the Dells, the more fascinated I was. They've been together for 38 years! I don't know anybody who's been together that long. They were friends in high school. It's like they're married together, because you can't see one without the other. And as an actor in the movie, I get to sing, dance, and play the piano, so the story gave me a chance to go in all those directions."

It's not simply a showbiz movie, though, I said. There's a lot of drama about families in it, and about how some of the guys grow up faster than the others, and one wanders off into drugs.

"Yeah. I wanted it to have more body, to go a little bit deeper. A lot of movies don't have real values anymore. They're disposable, geared toward one weekend. They just throw a lot of noise and action at you. They don't care. You look at the shape of the country, and the crime statistics, and then you look at the movies, and a lot of them are catering to that climate of violence, helping to feed it. I just have different values."

His values were formed, he said, as he was growing up in Chicago. "You know, my mother told me I could do anything. We were on welfare for many years, and still she was telling me this, and I listened. So when people look at me and say Townsend's a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer-actor, I really thank my mother for that. She didn't think there was anything you couldn't do. Success to me is a lot more than just getting out of the limo.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

It's not simply a showbiz movie, though, I said. There's a lot of drama about families in it, and about how some of the guys grow up faster than the others, and one wanders off into drugs.

"Yeah. I wanted it to have more body, to go a little bit deeper. A lot of movies don't have real values anymore. They're disposable, geared toward one weekend. They just throw a lot of noise and action at you. They don't care. You look at the shape of the country, and the crime statistics, and then you look at the movies, and a lot of them are catering to that climate of violence, helping to feed it. I just have different values."

His values were formed, he said, as he was growing up in Chicago. "You know, my mother told me I could do anything. We were on welfare for many years, and still she was telling me this, and I listened. So when people look at me and say Townsend's a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer-actor, I really thank my mother for that. She didn't think there was anything you couldn't do. Success to me is a lot more than just getting out of the limo.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

"Yeah. I wanted it to have more body, to go a little bit deeper. A lot of movies don't have real values anymore. They're disposable, geared toward one weekend. They just throw a lot of noise and action at you. They don't care. You look at the shape of the country, and the crime statistics, and then you look at the movies, and a lot of them are catering to that climate of violence, helping to feed it. I just have different values."

His values were formed, he said, as he was growing up in Chicago. "You know, my mother told me I could do anything. We were on welfare for many years, and still she was telling me this, and I listened. So when people look at me and say Townsend's a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer-actor, I really thank my mother for that. She didn't think there was anything you couldn't do. Success to me is a lot more than just getting out of the limo.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

His values were formed, he said, as he was growing up in Chicago. "You know, my mother told me I could do anything. We were on welfare for many years, and still she was telling me this, and I listened. So when people look at me and say Townsend's a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer-actor, I really thank my mother for that. She didn't think there was anything you couldn't do. Success to me is a lot more than just getting out of the limo.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

"I grew up on the west side of Chicago. I went to Austin High School. I have a lot of friends who are still there. So, I make it a point to go back to the neighborhood because sometimes kids will cynically say, 'Robert Townsend didn't go here!' and the teachers will say, yes he did, and then when I turn up...I think it just does something. I went back to my high school. I went back to my grammar school. I talked to the kids, and I say you might not have listened to your teachers, but take it from me, you need an education."

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

For everybody who directs a Hollywood film, a thousand probably try and fail. What did you do that was different?

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

"For me, how it started was, I studied great movies. I would look at 'Casablanca,' I would look at 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and I studied those films until they became my film school. I would look, and listen to the words, and look at the extras in the background, and read books on the directors, like Frank Capra.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

"I really have a love and a respect for movies. When I'm behind the camera, l genuinely love it. When I hear the audience applaud or boo or hiss or whatever, and I've got 'em, and I threw a curve in there and they didn't know it was coming--it makes me feel good. That's what all movies should do.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

"I think that Hollywood doesn't value writers anymore, and I think that's a big mistake, because back in the old days, writers nurtured the words. I think it's sad today. You go to see a movie, and everyone's ahead of the story. People yell at the screen, because they know how it's going to unfold." Townsend's first successes were as an actor. He started as the youngest member of the Chicago Theater Company, he went through Second City, he did a lot of standup comedy, and of course he did all those years as an extra before he put together "Hollywood Shuffle." He still remembers his fear on the day he went for his first audition.

He did the characters for me, falling effortlessly into accents and body language. "I can be an old man. It could be in Paris. It could be in Africa. It could be at Bill Cosby's house."

He did all the voices: The old man, the Parisian, the African, Cosby."By the time it was over, the guy was like, 'You can do things!' He gave a part in a play, and that's how it all started."

He did the characters for me, falling effortlessly into accents and body language. "I can be an old man. It could be in Paris. It could be in Africa. It could be at Bill Cosby's house."

He did all the voices: The old man, the Parisian, the African, Cosby."By the time it was over, the guy was like, 'You can do things!' He gave a part in a play, and that's how it all started."

He did all the voices: The old man, the Parisian, the African, Cosby."By the time it was over, the guy was like, 'You can do things!' He gave a part in a play, and that's how it all started."

This time around, Townsend said, he knows a little more about opening a film than he did after "Hollywood Shuffle." He's been in the business for awhile.

This time around, Townsend said, he knows a little more about opening a film than he did after "Hollywood Shuffle." He's been in the business for awhile.

"I had always dreamed of being on Johnny Carson, right? But I never thought that the first time I was on Johnny Carson it would be to promote a film I had practically done in my bedroom. You always daydream about being in a $20 million epic, and there I was in a film that I'd made for $100,000, sitting there talking to Johnny Carson about it. It was weird. I was sitting there watching the clip, and the only thing that was on my mind, was--those are my sheets!"

"I had always dreamed of being on Johnny Carson, right? But I never thought that the first time I was on Johnny Carson it would be to promote a film I had practically done in my bedroom. You always daydream about being in a $20 million epic, and there I was in a film that I'd made for $100,000, sitting there talking to Johnny Carson about it. It was weird. I was sitting there watching the clip, and the only thing that was on my mind, was--those are my sheets!"

The movie means a lot to Townsend. People have asked him, he said, why he waited so long to make a second film, since after "Hollywood Shuffle" there were a lot of offers. "There were 247 movies that came out of Hollywood last year," he said, "and if there were 20 that people really felt genuine about, I'd be surprised. 

"I-I was 16. I just loved performing, but when I walked into the room, I was nervous, shaking, the whole thing. They wanted me to do an ‘improv.' I hardly knew what that meant. I was so nervous, the guy said `Thank you,' to dismiss me, and I said, wait a minute, I can do things! And the guy said, 'What do you mean?' And I started doing these characters."

Were you like a lot of kids? Did you stage little plays at home for your family? Did you get in front of the TV, and interact with the shows?

"What I would do is--well, we had a little house, my mother raised four kids on her own, so I would go in the bathroom and close the door, and that became my room. I would go in front of the mirror, and be Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, I would be all the characters from the movies, and my mother would hear all these weird, strange noises through the door. The Alfred Hitchcock program would be on, and I would be Hitchcock-- Good even-ning! And my mother would tell me to work on it. When I was fourteen I could do over 40 voices. I mean, I'd spend a whole day talking with a British accent, like I was in the Beatles." He smiled. "I never said I want to be a director. I was going to act. But when I was working as an extra, I'd get as close as I could to the camera, and then as they began to set up shots, I just sat there and watched, until they told me to stand over there with your back to the wall, or whatever, and I began to get it."

Maybe it was the memory of how he got started that led Townsend to give two local actors big breaks in "The Five Heartbeats." One of them is a high school drama teacher named Harry J. Lenox, who plays Dresser, the slickest member of the group.

"Harry is a Chicago actor who came in to meet with me," Townsend said. "I wasn't having anybody read the script, I just wanted to meet people to feel if they were right. And he talked about being a school teacher, and I knew right away, I want this person for that part. I liked him. He's a great man, and I think if you're great inside yourself, you can be a great actor. I'd never seen any film on him. I didn't see him in a play or anything. We talked about teaching. We talked about his kids, and how he works with them, and I said, 'That's Dresser!'"

And what about the young girl with the powerhouse voice who plays your kid sister?

He laughed. "Tressa Thomas. I saw over 7,000 actors for "The Five Heartbeats." I went to Chicago, New York, and L.A. and I had open calls, and she was number 550 in Chicago. She comes in, she has this little voice, and she starts to sing, and her voice isn't little anymore. Her singing was so incredible that at that point, I wrote this scene where I'm having a hard time trying to write a song, and she takes my torn-up scraps out of the wastepaper, and shows me how to write it and sing it."

"But initially it was like breaking ground. When I went to the first premiere of my first film, I was in as much awe as anybody else. That whole period was like a dream.

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