Hollywood Legend Robert Townsend Offers Inspiration During CSUN Lecture

Robert Townsend

Robert Townsend offers insight into how to have a successful career at CSUN’s Commerce of Creativity Distinguished Speaker Series. Photo by Victor Kamont.

Acclaimed actor, director and producer Robert Townsend shared some of the life lessons he has learned over more than 30 years in the entertainment industry, at California State University, Northridge’s Commerce of Creativity Distinguished Speaker Series.

Townsend, who has been called one of the “godfathers of the independent film world,” spoke on Feb. 27 to an overflow audience of more than 360 in the Campus Theatre in Nordhoff Hall. His presentation, “Trusting Your Instincts,” attracted one of the largest turnouts in the series’ three-year history.

“I feel really blessed to make movies and television,” said Townsend, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago as one of four children raised by a single mother on welfare. He caught the acting bug as a child, imitating some of his favorite TV characters.

“I lived in such a fantasy world,” said Townsend, who was nicknamed  “TV Guide” for his extensive recall of TV programs and characters. “It was a ghetto film school.”

During his nearly two-hour lecture, Townsend entertained the audience with stories from his beginnings as a struggling actor and comedian in New York, to his debut as filmmaker and entrepreneur with “Hollywood Shuffle.” Townsend likened entrepreneurship to climbing a mountain — which he did in 2004, scaling Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

“A lot of people want to be at the top but don’t want to go through the mud,” Townsend said. He advised students and aspiring entrepreneurs that it’s OK to get “a little mud” on themselves.

Townsend was the latest speaker in the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication’s Commerce of Creativity Distinguished Speaker Series, which began in fall 2011 as a way to connect members of the CSUN campus, alumni and the community. The series features compelling and provocative storytellers who have made significant contributions to the arts, communications and the art of business.

The final lecture for the semester will take place April 30 with CSUN alumna Judy Baca, an artist/muralist, educator, scholar and activist. To reserve a seat, visit http://www.c2speakers.com/, email jennifer.reifsneider@csun.edu or call (818) 677-7038.

Cynthia Rawitch, interim dean of the Mike Curb College, said the series aims to celebrate the men and women who exemplify connections between the art of creative communication and the art of business.

“We strive to provide the learning environment and programs that will help our students become like our speakers — creative leaders in the commercial world,” Rawitch said.

High school teachers and peers first noted Townsend’s talent during a reading of “Oedipus Rex,” when he dazzled a class with his ability to transform effortlessly into character. After high school, he attended Illinois State University. He went on to work at Chicago’s Experimental Bag Theatre and the Experimental Black Actors Guild. He transferred to William Patterson College in New Jersey, and he later moved to New York and became a regular at the acclaimed comedy club, The Improvisation, also known as the Improv.

After graduation, Townsend made the move to Hollywood. He first appeared on film as an extra in the urban classic, “Cooley High.” His big 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.”

In Hollywood, he noticed the struggles of black actors 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 acting, 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 TV.

Townsend continues to act, direct and produce. His latest projects include Bill Cosby’s first stand-up comedy special in 30 years, a Comedy Central special called, “Why We Laugh,” and the pioneering Internet series “Diary of a Single Mom,” which received critical acclaim and several awards, including “Web Series of the Year.”

He forged a connection to CSUN through professor Nate Thomas, head of CSUN’s film option in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts. Thomas has worked with Townsend on several projects, including the Comedy Central special on Bill Cosby, for which the director hired several CSUN students as production assistants.