Although he is now a celebrated writer, director, producer and actor - he performs all four functions in his new film, "The Five Heartbeats" - Robert Townsend had only one dream when he was growing up on the streets of Chicago.
His dream was to become a professional basketball player and he spent all his free time shooting hoops on the basketball courts at Clark Park.But then the dream started to fade, growing dim the day two younger kids started hanging out at the park. Those two neighborhood kids were Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre, now members of the defending NBA champion Detroit Pistons.
"I knew I wasn't going to grow anymore, so I didn't have much of a chance anyway," Townsend said recently of those childhood aspirations. "But those guys were awesome even back then, and I knew I better find a new line of work . . . and real quick."
As a teenager, he won a coveted spot with the famed improvisational troupe Second City, but then left for New York to study acting with Stella Adler. He commuted between acting classes and college courses (at nearby Hunter College), and after graduation, worked as a stand-up comic. He also performed in commercials and did some theater work.
In 1982, he moved to the West Coast and appeared in several films ("American Flyers," "A Soldier's Story") before stunning the industry in 1987 with his innovative spoof of Hollywood's attitude toward blacks in "Hollywood Shuffle."
This would be the first of many projects in which Townsend did it all - writing, directing, producing and acting. He did it four more times in a series of HBO specials called "Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime."
"I know it sounds a little obsessive, but it's just easier to do everything myself," he said. "When you have a passion about something, you don't mind working 15 or 16 hours a day, seven days a week on it. But I can't ask other people to work that hard, unless they share my passion.
"But I still get help from the people around me; it's still a collaborative effort," he added. "I don't surround myself with `yes' men or flunkies. The crew is my audience and they tell me whether something is working.
"I learned that from (director) Norman Jewison on `A Soldier's Story.' He was always asking me if I thought a particular line of dialogue was working, or if a whole scene was working. He made me feel my opinion mattered, that his script wasn't etched in stone.
"Now I try to work that way and I'll take a suggestion from anyone; I don't care if it comes from the janitor."
As passions go, "The Five Heartbeats" - the story of a 1960s era vocal band and the enduring friendships that hold the group's five members together - was Townsend's most ambitious project. It is a drama interspersed with elaborate musical numbers, and Townsend said he personally looked at more than 3,000 actors, singers and musicians before choosing all the roles in the movie.
But there were no auditions for the four main roles of the Heartbeats (Townsend plays the group's fifth member). All four actors - Michael Wright, Leon (no last name), Harry J. Lennix and Tico Wells - were selected based on their previous acting work, after a brief discussion with Townsend.
"You know how sometimes you meet a person and know immediately that you like them, but you don't really know why," Townsend said. "Well that's what happened when I sat down to talk with these guys.
"It was wild; I met with each one of them and knew immediately they were the ones for my movie; there was an instant chemistry between us."
Although the filmmaker originally intended the movie to be a comedy (he co-wrote the script with friend Keenen Ivory Wayans of Fox TV's "In Living Color"), it took on more serious themes after Townsend met with members of the Dells, a longtime rhythm & blues group ("Oh What a Night").
"They shared with me what the music industry was like back then, and there was no way I could ignore all that and make a comedy," he said. "These guys were kids when they got started and they got ripped off.
"I said to them: `Boy, you must have made so much money' and they told me they didn't make any money. Even the Cadillacs they were given turned out to be leased."
Those early singing groups (the fictional Heartbeats are inspired by several groups, including the Dells, Temptations and Four Tops) not only suffered financially, but spiritually as well, Townsend said.
"This is an American story and the ugly side of America is racism," he said. "I wanted to show what these guys went through, but I didn't want to get too gritty. We're always seeing the beatings and violence in films, but I wanted to show the effects on the people after the beatings. The real scars are not the cuts and bruises, but the humiliation.
"And after seeing the videotapes of the Rodney King beating (at the hands of Los Angeles police), my violent scenes would have turned out to be pretty mild in comparison anyway."
"The Five Heartbeats," which the filmmaker said he hopes will revive some dormant careers and stimulate interest in this music, was shot in 10 weeks. But Townsend prepared for three years before a single frame was shot.
"I'm a fan of old Hollywood, when care went into making movies," said Townsend. "Those films had a beginning, middle and end. They gave you a set-up at the start and a pay-off at the end.
"But today, Hollywood grinds out the movies and they don't take time to work on characters and stories. Now, if a movie has one great scene, everybody raves about that one great scene. That's kind of scary. What about the other 400 scenes in the movie? Are we supposed to sit there and fast forward until we get to the good scene? That's not how movies should be made."
Townsend, 34, said he studied films of great directors - Orson Welles and Frank Capra were two he mentioned - and even attended directing classes before the start of filming of "The Five Heartbeats."
"The big lie in Hollywood is that we're all supposed to know everything," he said. "But I look at guys like Bernardo Bertolucci, who I consider a master, and I know that I've got a lot to learn. That's why I kept going to classes, even after `Hollywood Shuffle.'
"There's always something else to learn," he added. "I'm still growing as a filmmaker, and I expect to keep on growing for a long time."