In one of his earliest forays into acting, Townsend played a small but stirring role in the military drama A Soldier's Story (1984). Still, he remained largely dissatisfied with the types of roles traditionally offered to black actors.
To fill what he saw as a void of opportunity, Townsend began financing his own projects. He went on to write, direct, produce and star in several films, including Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and The Five Heartbeats (1991) and co-created the sitcom "The Parent 'Hood," in which he starred for five seasons. Other notable directing credits include Eddie Murphy: Raw (1987).
Rhythm-and-blues artists such as the Temptations and Sam Cooke served as the inspiration for filmmaker Robert Townsend's ambitious movie about five urban friends who climb the stairway to stardom. On their journey to the zenith of the 1960s music scene, the group overcomes rigged talent contests, double-dealing record company bigwigs, racial barriers, substance abuse, isolation and internecine squabbles -- only to find emptiness at the top.