Ebertfest: Townsend says ISU naysayer was 'catalyst for my destiny'

Ebertfest: Townsend says ISU naysayer was 'catalyst for my destiny'

Hear from Chaz Ebert Wednesday at 9 on WDWS.

CHAMPAIGN — If Robert Townsend would have listened to one of his Illinois State University theater professors, he might not be where he is today.

The successful film director, actor, writer and comedian, who will be a special guest Thursday at Roger Ebert's Film Festival, spent one year at ISU after graduating from high school in Chicago.

"There was a teacher (at ISU) who really discouraged me, but I always look at the positive side of everything," Townsend said. "I'd asked her about New York City and the actors in New York — I was fascinated with New York — and she crushed my dreams. She told me, 'You don't have what it takes to make it in this industry.'"

Townsend, in turn, told his mother, who had raised him and her other children alone and on welfare on Chicago's West Side.

"You need to get out of there," she told him.

So Townsend transferred to William Paterson University in New Jersey and soon began working in New York City, becoming a regular at the Improvisation, a renowned comedy club.

"My whole life took a big turn, and I wouldn't be where I am now," he told The News-Gazette in a telephone interview. "I look at that teacher as a catalyst for my destiny. It all started at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal."

From New York, Townsend moved to Hollywood, Calif., where he soon began acting as an extra in movies.

Soon, he began making his own. He also produced and at one time was a cable-TV network programming CEO.

He's now considered a "godfather" of independent film. His first was "Hollywood Shuffle," which he financed using his own credit cards.

He wrote, directed, produced and starred in the satire about the obstacles and stereotypes black actors face in Hollywood.

"Now, I'm one of the elder statesmen," he said. "I started out as a mere baby. This is the 30-year anniversary of 'Hollywood Shuffle.' I started a real journey in Hollywood. I feel blessed to be able to create."

Burnett: 'Beyond' genius

Townsend will come to the 19th annual Ebertfest, which opens Wednesday evening at the Virginia Theatre, not with one of his movies but instead with Charles Burnett's "To Sleep with Anger" (1990), in which Danny Glover portrays a vagabond who shows up unexpectedly at an old friend's home.

Burnett and Townsend have known each other for three or so decades, having entered the film industry around the same time. Both will be on stage after the screening.

Townsend said Burnett is "beyond" being a genius.

"His brain is calibrated at a certain frequency that not many people live on. When I look at his movies and his work, there are compositions and shots and his storytelling that make me think, 'Where does that come from?'"

While watching Burnett's 1978 movie "Killer of Sheep," Townsend asked him how he'd filmed a scene of kids — not stuntmen — jumping from rooftop to rooftop across three-story buildings. Burnett told him the kids were doing that anyway. He just filmed them.

About "To Sleep with Anger," to be shown at 4 p.m. Thursday at Ebertfest, Townsend said there is something about the story that "makes my brain unravel."

"This is a story about family, about life, and the way (Burnett) sees it is uniquely his own," Townsend said.

The blaxploitation era

Asked which movie of his own he'd like Ebertfest to show, Townsend said they're all like his kids. He's made more than 30.

"They're all my favorites so I couldn't pick and choose," he said. "I couldn't say that one or that one. They all represent different parts of me and my experience."

Before Townsend began making movies, Burnett and other black directors such as Michael Schultz and Ivan Dixon had broken onto the scene.

Then came the blaxploitation era.

The in the late '80s, Townsend began making "Hollywood Shuffle" in Los Angeles and Spike Lee made "She's Gotta Have It" in New York.

"We ushered in a new wave of African-Americans picking up a camera and saying, 'We can make our own movies,'" Townsend said.

Now, there's a new wave of black directors who are "just the future," Townsend said, citing Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station"), Jordan Peele ("Get Out") and Barry Jenkins, who won the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture for "Moonlight."

"Each has a unique voice and they paint on different canvases that we haven't seen before," Townsend said.

Townsend is now working on a one-man live show about his life, called "Living the Shuffle," trying it out in various cities.

He also will do a remake of the movie "Brewster's Millions" that's contingent on getting the right cast member.

"Hollywood wants one guy. That's Kevin Hart, and he's not available. We're figuring out casting now."

He also is directing a TV pilot that's dear to his heart, about images of African-Americans in Hollywood.

Beyonce's big break

Besides being known for writing and directing films, Townsend has given many A-list celebrities their first shot at acting. One was Beyonce, whom he cast as the lead in "Carmen: A Hip Hopera," a 2001 musical film he wrote and directed for MTV.

"She was in Destiny's Child at the time," he said. "She didn't know if she could act. I would have to fight for her."

He remembers her audition.

"I had her rolling around on the floor. She came in and was willing to push it hard because she wanted the role. When I had her roll around on the floor, she said, 'I don't mind, Mr. Townsend. I don't mind.' It's just amazing."

Townsend also gave Damon Wayans his first shot in film, casting him in "Hollywood Shuffle." At the time, Wayans was working at a deli in New York.

And "Chris Tucker's first time was with me, in 'Meteor Man,'" Townsend said. "It makes you feel good because when you believe in somebody and you think they have something special ..."

Roger Ebert, who died in 2013, thought Townsend had something special. The two often encountered each other at film festivals and other gatherings. Ebert would laugh when he saw the director because in "Hollywood Shuffle," two young black men sneak into a movie theater and do a takeoff of Ebert and Gene Siskel reviews.

"One (of the actors) called himself 'the fat one in glasses.' Roger would say to me, 'Yeah, I'm the fat one in glasses.'

"He was the biggest Robert Townsend fan. He always rooted for me. He felt I was doing something different so he was always in my corner."