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Robert Townsend

Award-Winning Filmmaker & Former CEO of the Black Family Channel
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Biography

Award-winning actor, stand up comedian, writer, director, and producer, Robert Townsend transcends any medium he touches. From the beginning, his remarkable talent was noticed at age sixteen by Chicago’s Experimental Black Actors Guild X-Bag Theatre, where he was the youngest member. Then as a young man performing at New York’s premiere comedy club, The Improvisation, as a stand-up comedian. Shortly afterwards, Hollywood came calling, and Townsend found himself performing on television comedy specials, including The Carol Burnett Show, Rodney Dangerfield: It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me and Uptown Comedy Express, produced by Eddie Murphy. Then came film roles opposite Denzel Washington in A Soldier’s Story, Diane Lane in Streets of Fire and Kevin Costner in American Flyers.

The Chicago native, Townsend is often referred to as one of the "Godfathers" of the Independent Film World." With over 30 years in the entertainment industry, he has made an indelible mark in Hollywood with an extensive list of credits. Townsend’s films and television shows have been nominated for over 30 NAACP Image Awards. Townsend has created films and television shows that many consider classics, including the popular soul musical, The Five Heartbeats, reminiscent of 60s R&B groups, the inner-city fable The Meteor Man (which starred James Earl Jones and Don Cheadle), Holiday Heart (which garnered Alfre Woodard a Golden Globe and Image Award Nomination for Best Actress) and his first film Hollywood Shuffle (co-written by Keenan Ivory Wayans) which started it all and catapulted him into international prominence.

His personal journey is the ultimate story of an underdog succeeding against the odds; raised by a single mother of four in the gang and drug-infested West Side of Chicago. Townsend survived the mean streets by using his wits, talents along with the help of courageous people from the community that invested in him. Townsend lives to inspire and give inner city youth hope and champion the teachers and community leaders that support them. This was evident in one of Townsend’s recent projects that he directed and produced called In The Hive, which starred Michael Clarke Duncan in one of his last performances and Loretta Devine who received an NAACP Image Award nomination for her portrayal as the real life educator and activist, Vivian Saunders. It tells the story of an African American teenager named Xtra who is stuck in between poverty, absentee parents, the gang life that is drawing him in and the teachers who refuse to give up on him.

The energetic and gregarious Townsend always makes time to participate in humanitarian efforts. As a longtime speaker for the United Negro College Fund and the Congressional Black Caucus, he uses his experiences and lessons learned from the streets of Chicago to inspire inner-city youth across the country to follow their dreams. Though his Hollywood resume is beyond impressive, it’s his remarkable journey as a human being that really makes Robert a champion. With comedy and drama, he transports the entire room to real moments in his life; sharing his unique story of surviving poverty and winning against all odds. Robert’s story leaves the audiences hopeful, inspired and changed for the better.

Topics

The Journey of an Artist: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

Everyone in life faces obstacles. Robert believes in only opportunities. In this keynote, he shares personal experiences about how trusting your instincts can turn any obstacle into the ultimate opportunity.

Growing up in a rough neighborhood is a disadvantage to some. Others, like Townsend, used his environment as a motivator to escape. Each day after school, he ran home—past the pimps, dealers and gangbangers—to watch television. He connected with the amazing stories he saw coming through that little black and white TV, and preferred the TV fantasies to the harsh realities of the West Side of Chicago. In fact, he watched so much TV, his family nicknamed him “TV Guide.” Townsend discovered that he had a gift to do impressions of the actors he saw on television (over 30 voices). In fact, his talent revealed itself in elementary school while reading the classic “Oedipus Rex.” One day, he dazzled the class with his ability to transform effortlessly into a character, and in that moment, he knew he was going to be in show business.

Townsend has gone on to act, write, direct and produce television shows and films, including projects starring Academy Award winners Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Michael Clarke Duncan, as well as a who’s who of comedy superstars, like Eddie Murphy, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Chris Tucker. Without formal film education or outside funding, Townsend became part of Hollywood legend when he used his credit cards to finance his first film—a satire depicting the trials and tribulations of African American actors in Hollywood. The film of course, was the critically acclaimed Hollywood Shuffle, which he co-wrote with Keenan Ivory Wayans, and starred in, directed and produced. Townsend’s body of work truly shows his range as an artist. From comedies such as Eddie Murphy Raw; B*A*P*S with Halle Berry; musicals like Carmen: A HipHopera starring Beyonce; The Natalie Cole Story with Natalie Cole; dramas like 10,000 Black Men Named George, which garnered Charles Dutton an Image Award for best supporting actor; as well as Holiday Heart, in which Townsend directed Alfre Woodard in a Golden Globe-nominated performance. Additionally, Townsend created, starred, produced and directed the first African American superhero action-comedy The Meteor Man and produced the beloved film,The Five Heartbeats. For his efforts to improve portrayals of African Americans in film and television, he has been nominated for over 30 NAACP Image Awards.

Forever the visionary, Townsend even ran a small television network called the Black Family Channel and created over 15 original series as President and CEO. Townsend knows that he wouldn’t have gotten where he is today without faith, determination and strength. In this presentation, he discusses how he got out of the inner city and created the life he wanted. The famous filmmaker tailors his talks to each organization; but no matter which type of audience attends, they are sure to be inspired and changed by his uplifting positive message.

Lessons I Learned from Climbing a Mountain

Robert without any preparation decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. There are many ways up the mountain, but Robert took the most dangerous way up to see what he was made of. His journey up the mountain gave him many epiphanies along the way and life lessons. His story will resonate with anyone in the audience that has been afraid to take chances to go into the unknown and climb their personal mountain. His odyssey up the mountain will leave everyone on a high and feeling inspired.

How to Pitch & Sell an Idea

Robert has been in the film industry for over 30 years, acting, writing, directing and producing quality entertainment. In this master class, he breaks down what it takes to nurture an idea; breaking down steps on how to pitch it, develop it and ultimately how to sell it. He educates you to what really happens in the executive offices of the television networks and movie studios. Robert shares personal secrets that he uses to close deals that are truly effective.

Living the Shuffle: Robert Townsend’s One-Man Show

Acclaimed director, writer and actor Townsend will take you on a hilarious rollercoaster ride through his failures, roadblocks and triumphs. In this riotous one-man show, Townsend recounts growing up on Chicago’s rough West Side. You’ll hear about how he escaped gangbangers, thugs and pimps by running home to watch TV and hone impressions of popular actors. He blossomed into a young theater actor and then a New York City comedian—and learned life lessons that changed him forever.

In this performance, Townsend shares his Hollywood journey. This unforgettable evening will inspire the dreamer in all of us.

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