You know the old saw about what to do when life gives you lemons. When Robert Townsend was a struggling actor in the 1980s, he went on one frustrating audition after another chasing demeaning and stereotypical roles. He did not make lemonade, but he did make his own film that was a bracing satirical comment on the barriers Black artists faced in Hollywood. With co-writer Keenan Ivory Wayans, he created Hollywood Shuffle (1987), a comedy, Roger Ebert wrote, “about a young man much like Townsend, who makes the rounds, fights stereotypes and dreams of the day when there will be a Black Rambo.”
Hollywood Shuffle, along with Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), opened the door for a new generation of artists of color who had personal stories to tell – and just wanted the opportunity to tell any stories at all. Townsend spoke with TCM about the real-life shuffle he had to dance when he was starting out, being labeled a “Black Woody Allen” and learning about the power of no from Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier.
I won’t ask you to rehash the stories about how you maxed out your credit cards to make HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE. But could you share the types of stereotypical roles for which you auditioned when you were first starting out as an actor?
RT: They had names like 8-Ball, Raisin, Licorice. Midnight. I auditioned for pimps, of course. There was always a poolhall snitch (“Dude you lookin’ fo’ is on the third flo’”). All those different stereotypes, and I tried my darndest to get the part. I did a movie in Chicago called Monkey Hustle (1976) with Yaphet Kotto, Rudy Ray Moore and Rosalind Cash. There’s dialogue I remember auditioning for that made no sense to me. It was like, “Say baby, flapjack your mother if you’re cool enough for me.” I watched it recently, and the actor who they cast sold it!
I looked it up. In 1987, when HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE was released, there were only five actors of color among the top 100 biggest box office stars.
Eddie (Murphy) was at No. 10, then you had to go down to 46 for Whoopi. Margaret Avery came in at 62, Danny Glover at 76 and Gregory Hines at 100.
RT: Oh, my god. It’s really interesting; when we were making Hollywood Shuffle, Keenan and I were having all these auditions, and rather than complain, we said, “Let’s make our own movie and have some fun.” Keenan and I were both comedians, and the situation was funny but also tragic. The “Don’t sell out” audition scene in Hollywood Shuffle happened to Keenan and me. That guy messed up our heads. He made us feel like, “Yeah, we’ve got to do something.” And (just like in the movie), as soon as they called his name to audition, his energy changed. Keenan and I were talking about that just the other day. On the one hand, it was having to deal with the white studio executives, but on the other, there were black artists who didn’t speak up for themselves.
You were a standup comedian and actor with no filmmaking experience. What was the tipping point that inspired you to make that leap to being a director?
RT: A Soldier’s Story (1984) was the film that changed my life. Norman Jewison directed. It was the first time I got to play a human being. It’s me, it’s Denzel, its David Alan Grier, it’s Howard Rollins, it’s Adolph Caesar. The movie was a hit. It was nominated for three Academy Awards. I remember going to my agent and saying, “This is what I’m talking about, I want to do THIS.” He said, “Robert, they only do one Black movie a year. They just did it. Be happy.” That’s when I said, “I’ll make my own movies.” Once you know quality, you can’t look back.
The making of HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE is the stuff of legend. A making-of documentary could have been called Hollywood Hustle.
RT: Hustling hard! (Laughs) We shot with the short ends from A Soldier’s Story. Norman and producer Ron Schwary offered me the leftover film. Sometimes I only had only one minute of film and we would just do one line. We couldn’t afford the editing houses the studios used. We found a production house in Chattsworth that did porn. And so, it’s me in there with 16 editors in different suites editing porn. I had never heard the directing of porn! And everyone would come down to my suite and say, “You’re making a real movie!”
What do you remember about watching HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE for the first time with an audience?
RT: When we were trying to get a distribution deal, we had a screening for Samuel Goldwyn Jr. in his screening room in Santa Monica. It gets to the scene where I play [private eye] Sam Ace with Keenan as Jheri Curl. Everyone else is laughing, but Sam’s not laughing. After the screening, Sam says, “I want to buy your movie.” He says, “I don’t understand the Jheri Curl thing, but I know it’s funny. Don’t touch it.” That’s a really beautiful memory for me.
When She’s Gotta Have It was released, I remember critics hailing Spike Lee as the Black Woody Allen. And there were reviews of HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE that compared you to a Black Woody Allen. Why were critics so hot to have a Black Woody Allen?
RT: Woody Allen is a hyphenate. He writes, he directs and he acts and he does comedy. And if they want to put you in some kind of box, he was the closest thing. They couldn’t compare us to Clint Eastwood. For me, I was just excited that the film worked.
How did the audition process change for you after the success of HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE? Did the quality of the roles improve?
RT: I was offered a chauffeur. I got offered a crazy street kid. It was still a similar box, and I said no. There’s a part of me that thought, “Okay Robert, you should do one for them and one for you.” But it’s so funny because you get drunk with success with an attitude of “I only want to do what I want to do.”
Eddie Murphy reached out to you to direct his concert film Raw (1987). Did you hear from any other people to whom you looked up following HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE’s release?
RT: I’ll tell you the big one. Growing up on the west side of Chicago, I didn’t see many images on TV or in movies of people of color who had dignity. I watched Charlie Chan movies with Mantan Moreland and Amos & Andy, and I thought, “I don’t to talk and sound that way.” And so when I got to Hollywood, I reached out to the one person I really wanted to meet, and that was Sidney Poitier. He’s the nicest man: “I would love to have lunch with you, Robert Townsend. Meet me at the Polo Lounge, I’ll be there at 12.” I was there at 10:30.
You talk about the best meeting. He was majestic. He came in and the whole room paused. The first question I had for him was “How did you get to have dignity in the ‘50s?” He told me, “I didn’t accept every role. I always chose my roles very carefully. I made sacrifices and my children will attest to that.” The way he broke it down was that he didn’t do that many movies in comparison to other big Hollywood stars. It was the power of “no,” and that was the first lesson I learned about Hollywood.
You talk about a man of character: when I went through my divorce many years later, it was in the trades and the first call I got was from him. He asked if I was okay. It was around Thanksgiving and he invited me to spend it with him and his family. How special that my hero really was a hero.
When you see increased opportunities and platforms for artists of color to tell their stories, do you see HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE in their DNA?
RT: I think it planted seeds and encouraged people to look at themselves with a different kind of lens to say, “This is not cool, these roles could be better. Why not have a Black character who is a superhero?” When I watched the Academy Awards, there was a lot of beautiful work that was done. But it was so many moons ago (in the 1980s) there was only Spike and me and Keenan. And now people say, “We can do our own stories.” It’s beautiful when someone says to me, “You don’t understand what Hollywood Shuffle meant to me. It gave me the courage to write, produce and direct.’
That has to be more rewarding and meaningful to you than getting an Academy Award.
RT: (Takes a perfectly timed beat and breaks into laughter) Dude, I want an Oscar.