Robert Townsend has long been on the cutting edge of all things entertainment, and last month the beloved comedian, actor, writer, director and filmmaker celebrated his 53rd birthday by rolling out his latest venture, Season 2 of a new web-based film series, Diary of a Single Mom.
The dramatic series on pic.tv (Public Internet Channel) features a star-laced cast that includes Monica Calhoun, Richard Roundtree, Billy Dee Williams and Leon. Gutsy, gritty and heartwarming, the series includes interactive elements that promises to take Townsend’s vision, talent and creativity to another realm.
Diary chronicles the lives and challenges of three single mothers and their families trying to get ahead despite obstacles that many single mothers face, such as childcare, health care, education and finances. Townsend produces and directs the series that is written by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Cheryl L. West. Townsend calls her “brilliant.”
The same can be said of Townsend, who made his stage debut at Chicago’s Experimental Black Actors Guild 37 years ago at age 16. Fans outside of Townsend’s hometown in Chicago probably recall the slender, soft-spoken comedian/actor’s late 1970s and early-to mid-1980s career when he appeared on television comedy specials with Rodney Dangerfield, or more dramatic roles in A Soldier’s Story, alongside Denzel Washington and Streets of Fire with Diane Lane.
Anxious to do more than comedy and acting, Townsend turned Hollywood on its head when he wrote and directed Hollywood Shuffle, a satiric look at black actors in Hollywood. The 1987 movie, co-written with Keenen Ivory Wayans, was a critical hit and assured a green light for subsequent Townsend projects. His footprint includes The Meteor Man, The Five Heartbeats, Partners in Crime, The Parenthood, Eddie Murphy Raw and numerous industry and image awards.
theGrio recently caught up with Townsend to discuss his newest project and to determine whether Hollywood is still doing the shuffle.
theGrio: Tell us about your latest project and how it came about.
Townsend: Rey Ramsey, (former) CEO of One Economy Corp., came to me with the vision of a web series about a single mom. In addition to the issues tackled on the series, it has an interactive element where viewers can get information about getting their GED, child support, health care.
theGrio: What are your thoughts about the series thus far?
Townsend: I love creating and I believe that content should have some sort of substance. I called on some Hollywood favors and was able to get Monica Calhoun, Richard Roundtree and Billy Dee Williams. I’m in heaven; those are my heroes…sitting across from Billy Dee Williams. I just feel blessed to be working with them.
theGrio: You’ve been working in entertainment and media for a long time. Did you ever imagine you would be working in this new online medium?
Townsend: I always think that things happen for a reason. With this new medium, I can see the numbers go up immediately after a show. With the web, we get to see immediate feedback and comments. It wasn’t like that in TV and movies. It just feels good. We can measure success in the fact that we’re getting all kinds of numbers. It’s good to know you’re creating something that’s really good for people and that we’re cultivating an audience. It gives you a million eyeballs if you use it the right way. I don’t see any negatives. There’s no foul language, nudity or anything like that.
theGrio: Ten years ago, would you have imagined that the web would have such a presence in everything we do?
Townsend: No. But it’s like life and those who are smart know that they must harness (technology) or become like a dinosaur and die. My children—I have four—they keep me forever young and I used them as a focus for what I do.
theGrio: So, what is the process in pulling together the series? How do you do it?
Townsend: The series writer, Cheryl L. West, is a brilliant writer. I worked with her on Holiday Heart with Alfre Woodard and Ving Rhames. So the three of us, Ramsey, Cheryl and I, get on the phone and Ramsey will say he wants to talk about diabetes or financial issue or job hunting. Cheryl goes off and writes the script. We talk and agree where we’re headed and then we shoot in L.A. in Crenshaw.
theGrio: Would you like for the series on air on traditional television?
Townsend: We would love for it to go to television is someone is interested and sees the vision.
theGrio: Speaking of television, do you see a significant representation of African-Americans on the small screen?
Townsend: No, not at all. It’s funny, there are series on TV, but not the traditional family shows. It’s a different time and we’ve lost a lot of ground.
theGrio: For several years, you were CEO of The Family Channel. What happened?
Townsend: It’s all numbers and money. If a show does well, you’ve got to get the advertising dollars. It’s about whoever has the most eyeballs. It was BET, TVONE and then BFC. We couldn’t survive, the model didn’t fit. African-Americans are considered valuable real estate (as TV consumers), to a certain level.
theGrio: What is your reaction to African-American focused reality shows?
Townsend: They’re all ignorant—except (in a sarcastic tone) Bad Boys and Flavor of Love. Programming is so cheap and people like to see train wrecks. They’re Jerry Springer to the ninth power.
theGrio: The movie Precious continues to receive a lot of buzz. How do you view its success?
Townsend: I think the problem is balance. A movie comes out and it has to be everything to everybody. With white audiences, there are 50 or 60 choices of a movie to see. With Precious there is Precious, Precious and Precious.
I don’t believe in dogging anyone out there, and there just aren’t that many opportunities for (black actors). People get mad at Tyler Perry because he’s successful. But we need more opportunities, whether it’s dramatic, historical, political, funny or silly.
theGrio: Can you elaborate on the Tyler Perry mention?
Townsend: Tyler Perry, he’s doing him. When people are true to themselves, you applaud them. He knows how to speak to an audience and he’s successful.
theGrio: Of all your projects, which one makes you most proud?
Townsend: I’m proud of everything I do. Hollywood Shuffle, Meteor Man and Diary of a Single Woman – they all represent something different. Walking down the street or in the airport I get different reactions from people (many of whom are likely to shout a line from one of his movies).
theGrio: Where did you get your sense of humor?
Townsend: From my mother. My mother, in the nicest way to say it, is a fool. She’s just silly, silly.
theGrio: What does the future hold for blacks actors, producers, writers and directors in Hollywood?
Townsend: We still need help with distribution and to get past the financial barriers. The work is not done. Hollywood will parade out certain people and say everything is fine. But technology has made it easier.