Robert Townsend has led a pretty incredible life. Hailed as a black film pioneer known for his film Hollywood Shuffle, Townsend has worn many hats — an actor, writer, producer, and comedian — while having worked with other major players in the entertainment industry like Morgan Freeman, Beyoncé, and Denzel Washington. And he’s sharing it all — his success stories, his lower moments, and his life as one of the most influential changers of Hollywood — in a new one-man comedy show called Living the Shuffle at Berkeley’s The Marsh, opening Oct. 25.
“It’s really kind of an inspirational tale of a young dreamer, setting his eyes on Hollywood, and winning, and the ups and downs that come with winning,” Townsend says. “It’s a story from behind the scenes of movies that I’ve made and TV shows that I’ve created, and it’s a glimpse into the real artist: Robert Townsend.”
Townsend’s comedy show starts in Chicago, where he was born and raised.
“When I talk about my journey, it started a million miles away from Hollywood,” Townsend says. “I grew up in one of the roughest parts of Chicago.”
As a kid, Townsend was nicknamed “TV Guide” because he loved watching TV so much. “I was like a little studio executive,” he says. He had even memorized the schedules and could give educated watching recommendations to friends and family and predict which shows were going to last based on all his knowledge.
“I had watched so much television because I couldn’t go outside of the house because of the gangs,” Townsend says. “My mother was afraid I was going to get recruited.”
Townsend loved watching I Love Lucy, PBS’ Julius Caesar, and films by French director François Truffaut, and could also do impressions of about sixty characters on television. One of his favorite characters to imitate was the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. In a sense, Townsend started getting his “10,000 hours” in as a young child, and he continued building those hours throughout high school and after dropping out of college to focus on his acting.
But perhaps one of the most pivotal moments of his career was when he risked everything to make Hollywood Shuffle. Hollywood Shuffle was a semi-autobiographical satire about black stereotypes in media. It was made on a $100,000 budget that Townsend had worked to fundraise himself, with no film school experience behind him and at a time when the idea of a person of color leading a project like this “wasn’t heard of,” he said to Vanity Fair in 2017.
“I’m the director, I’m the co-writer, I’m the lead actor, I’m the producer, I’m the craft service, I drive the car with the equipment,” Townsend says about his experience making Hollywood Shuffle. “I’m the only investor, and I’m also the janitor.”
Hollywood Shuffle grossed over $5 million. The movie “helped to kick the door wide open for black talent in the late 80s” according to Vanity Fair — a monumental step forward for actors and artists of color in that era, and onwards.
In his comedy show, Townsend promises to talk about the “hi-wire act that it takes to make your first movie.
“Every artist has a unique story, and the point of view is always what makes a movie or television or theater piece really interesting,” Townsend says. “I think I have a really unique story that has never been told.”
Townsend believes he has been through a lot in his career, but finding the positive moments from the negatives is what keeps him going. He hopes his stories will do the same for other young aspiring artists.
“At the end of the day, I want to bring joy to the planet,” Townsend says. “I want all the dreamers to be born.”
Living the Shuffle, Oct. 25 through Dec. 1, at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley. $25-$100; 415-282-3055 or themarsh.org