Robert Townsend, a writer, producer, director, and actor, was born in Chicago, Illinois on February 6, 1957, the second of four children to Shirley and Robert Townsend. He was raised by his mother on the west side of Chicago. As a child, he entertained his family and classmates with impersonations of his favorite actors, including Jimmy Stewart and Bill Cosby. Eventually, his talent caught the attention of Chicago’s Experimental Black Actors Guild X-Bag Theatre. He also began performing at The Improvisation (the Improv), a premiere comedy club in New York City.
Townsend’s comedy career began to take off at the Improv, and he soon headed to Hollywood, where he performed on comedy specials such as Rodney Dangerfield: It’s Not Easy Being Me. He landed minor roles in films such as A Soldier’s Story (1984) with Denzel Washington, Streets of Fire (1984) with Diane Lane, and American Flyers (1985) starring Kevin Costner.
In the late 1980s, Townsend became a filmmaker and director. His first film, Eddie Murphy: Raw, appeared in 1987. Next he co-wrote, directed, starred, and self-financed his second film, Hollywood Shuffle (1987) which received critical acclaim. In 1991, he directed and starred in The Five Heartbeats, a powerful biographical drama based loosely on the lives of the rhythm and blues group, the Dells. He then directed and starred in The Meteor Man (1993) with James Earl Jones and Bill Cosby.
Between films Townsend also produced the award-winning Robert Townsend and his Partners in Crime, a television variety special. His other productions include Townsend Television and The Parenthood. At the NAACP Image Awards in 2001, he made history by directing three performers nominated in the category of best actor or actress in three different films in 2000: Leon Robinson for his role in Little Richard; Alfre Woodard for her role in the Showtime film, Holiday Heart; and Natalie Cole as herself in Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story.
In 2003, Townsend became CEO of Productions for the Black Family Channel, but the network ceased operations in 2007. Townsend has been a speaker of the United Negro College Fund; he speaks primarily to inner city youth about the possibilities of following their dreams. Townsend continues to direct, and his foundation, The Robert Townsend Foundation, seeks to pave the way for new and underrepresented artists and film makers. He and his former wife, Cherri Jones, have three children.