Film Director, Former LA County Supervisor to Receive Honorary Doctorates from CSUN

California State University, Northridge will confer honorary doctorates on acclaimed film director Robert Townsend and former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky during its commencement ceremonies in May.

Townsend will receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts during commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 16. Yaroslavsky will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during the commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 17.

Hollywood legend Robert Townsend talking about the power of film during at lecture at CSUN last year. Photo by Victor Kamont.

Hollywood legend Robert Townsend talking about the power of film during at lecture at CSUN last year. Photo by Victor Kamont.

“I am pleased that we can honor both Robert Townsend and Zev Yaroslavsky for their achievements in their respective fields, but also for their contributions to the greater community and to our students,” said CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison.

“Robert Townsend is a successful actor, comedian, screenwriter, director, producer. Yet, he has also found time to mentor our cinema and television arts students,” Harrison said. “Zev Yaroslavsky has a distinguished record of four decades of public service to both the city and county of Los Angeles, and he played a visionary role in such areas as health care, transportation, the arts, the environment and civil rights. He also was a key supporter in CSUN’s efforts to develop the Valley Performing Arts Center as well as our public transportation station.

“I am grateful to both men for what they have done for CSUN and the community at large,” she said.

Yaroslavsky and Townsend said they were honored to be receiving the recognition from CSUN.

“California State University, Northridge is a great university,” Yaroslavsky said. “It has a rich and storied history and a very illustrious group of alumni. It’s an economic engine of the San Fernando Valley and an important player in the region. To be recognized at the end of one’s career by an institution of higher learning such as CSUN is quite an honor.”

Townsend agreed.

“As an artist, you always try to do good work and, hopefully, your work will affect people and matter on some level,” he said. “When the dean called me and told me about the honorary doctorate, I thought ‘Oh, my God, what a gift!’ My sweet spot as an artist is teaching and giving back. I give from my heart and don’t expect anything in return, so to be acknowledged like this is truly an unexpected honor.”

Townsend grew up on the west side of Chicago and was one of four children raised by a single mother on welfare. He caught the acting bug while in high school and studies acting and performed at Chicago’s X-Bag, the Experimental Black Actors Guild. He appeared in his first film at 16 years old, landing a speaking role in the urban classic “Cooley High.” He moved to New York and became a regular at the acclaimed comedy club, The Improv.

 Townsend then made the move to Hollywood. His break came while performing on several TV comedy specials, including “Rodney Dangerfield: It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me” and “Uptown Comedy Express.” He co-starred opposite Denzel Washington in “A Soldier’s Story” and appeared with Diane Lane in “Streets of Fire” and Kevin Costner in “American Flyers.”

Former LA County Supervisor speaking during a ceremony celebrating the naming of a rehearsal room the the Valley Performing Arts Center in his honor. Photo by Nestor Garcia.

Former LA County Supervisor speaking during a ceremony celebrating the naming earlier this month of a rehearsal room the the Valley Performing Arts Center in his honor. Photo by Nestor Garcia.

While in Hollywood, he noticed the difficulty black actors had and the lack of good work available for African Americans in the film industry. He used those observations to create “Hollywood Shuffle,” the 1987 critically acclaimed satire depicting the trials and tribulations of black actors.

The film’s success led to other directing and producing opportunities, including “Eddie Murphy Raw,” “The Meteor Man,” “The Five Heartbeats,” “Carmen: A Hip Hopera” and “10,000 Black Men Named George.” He also served as president and chief executive officer of production for The Black Family Channel for four years before it was sold to the Gospel Music Channel in spring 2007. Townsend has been nominated for more than 30 NAACP Image Awards for film and television.

He continues to act, direct and produce. One of his latest projects is a romantic comedy entitled “Playin’ For Love,” that will premier on television this summer. He recently signed on as director for the remake of the Hollywood classic “Brewster’s Millions.”

In recent years, Townsend regularly mentors students in CSUN’s cinema and television arts program, which the Hollywood Reporter recently named one of the top 25 film programs in the nation. Townsend has provided students with access to network projects and the benefit of his decades in the entertainment industry.

Yaroslavsky retired last December after nearly four decades in public office, including five terms as a Los Angeles County supervisor. His district included most of the San Fernando Valley.

During his political tenure, Yaroslavsky was a key player on such issues as health care, transportation, judicious municipal growth and development, the environment and civil rights. His passion for the arts and his appreciation for the important role the arts play in education were well known. Though downtown Los Angeles was not part of his supervisorial district, civic leaders credit Yaroslavsky with playing a key role in leading the artistic and cultural revitalization of the area.

Seeking to expand arts opportunities in the San Fernando Valley, Yaroslavsky worked closely with CSUN officials in the mid-2000s to develop plans for what is now the Valley Performing Arts Center. Yaroslavsky cemented his commitment to the project by contributing $2 million from his district’s discretionary capital funds for the project in 2007.

Serving on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Yaroslavsky’s direction was instrumental in creating the CSUN public transportation station. That hub offers local and non-local service through Metro bus lines, the CSUN Metrolink shuttle service and Antelope Valley Transit Authority bus lines.

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