Burgers, Yes, but No Box-Office Billions

Have burger ads become actor-director Robert Townsend’s own version of the “Hollywood Shuffle”?

Granted, Townsend’s movies--like “Hollywood Shuffle,” “The Five Heartbeats” and “Meteor Man"--have generally not had much of an impact on the box office. But Townsend’s latest effort-- playing a director in a current McDonald’s Big Mac TV spot--only seems like a slightly cruel reminder of what Townsend’s potential once was.

In it, he plays a director of a McDonald’s commercial so overcome by his desire for a Big Mac that he cuts the action so he can go get one.

Townsend, 36, is good-natured about the ad. He says that he and director Bill Duke (“Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”), who actually directs the commercial, have wanted to work together a long time. Admittedly, however, they had anticipated a bigger joint production than a Big Mac ad.


“I did it because I thought it was silly,” Townsend says. “We shot it for 10 hours on one Saturday about three weeks ago. But no,” he smirks, pushing burgers isn’t his new calling. “I did this as a favor to Bill Duke.”

And to McDonald’s.

“Robert has that great pliable comedic face,” says Sharon Kimbrough, vice president and director of broadcast production services for Burrell Communications Group, the Chicago-based firm that does much of McDonald’s advertising targeted to African American audiences. She says Burrell’s senior vice president and creative director, Anna Morris, came up with the idea.

“We wanted a celebrity director for this idea of directing a commercial in a commercial. The choices were Bill, Robert, Spike Lee and John Singleton,” she says. “We thought Robert had the draw and the face for the 95-cent Big Mac campaign. He has a great crossover appeal.”


Unfortunately for Townsend, his films, both as a director and an actor, have had a hard time achieving a big commercial impact. Townsend’s films, and their eventual domestic grosses: 1987’s “Hollywood Shuffle” ($5.21 million); 1989’s “The Mighty Quinn” ($3.99 million); 1990’s “That’s Adequate” (straight to video); 1991’s “The Five Heartbeats” ($7.3 million) and 1993’s “The Meteor Man” ($7.98 million). While he starred in all of those films, he also directed “Hollywood Shuffle"--his biggest critical hit--and “The Five Heartbeats” and the kid movie “Meteor Man,” as well as the successful 1987 concert movie “Eddie Murphy: Raw.” He also produced and directed the 1993 Fox TV variety show “Townsend Television” (one of the lowest-ranked shows of last season).

His newest venture, a family sitcom from the new Warner Bros. network called “The Parent ‘Hood"--for which he stars and co-produces, and which he describes as “a cross between ‘Cosby’ and ‘Roseanne’ "--will air on KTLA Channel 5 beginning Wednesday.

Yet box-office tallies can be deceiving, says John Krier, head of Exhibitor Relations. “The thing about Robert Townsend’s movies is that the numbers are strong for (strictly) black films. If you have a film where you have a little romance going with white and black characters, like ‘The Bodyguard,’ you’ll probably see stronger results (because of crossover appeal).”

Townsend is philosophical about his career struggles. “I think part of the problem is that I fall in the middle ground,” he says. “I’m not the bad-ass soul brother who plays the kick-ass roles, like a Wesley Snipes. Neither am I like Denzel (Washington), who plays those serious, sensitive soul searching kind of characters.


“When I look around, I aspire to be more of a Tom Hanks or a Jimmy Stewart, sort of an Everyman. And I think people as a whole don’t see African American actors in that light. With my career, people are always saying, ‘Who is Robert Townsend?’ ”

He also has been frustrated by pigeonholing in the marketing of some of his films. “When I look at ‘Meteor Man,’ for example, (MGM) did a good job, but I think they should have marketed it as a new superhero, not a new black superhero. Sure, everybody wants to get that $100-million hit, but I can’t say I’m disappointed. I’m happy with my choices, but I definitely need to stretch as an artist.

“I remember Tom Hanks called me about three years ago,” Townsend continues. “He had just done ‘The ‘Burbs,’ ‘The Money Pit’ and ‘Joe vs. the Volcano.’ They were all bombs. He told me, ‘I hate “Tom Hanks the quirky face,” and I’m going to change it.’ He did, and look where he is now.”

In addition to the commercial and the TV show, Townsend has been working on two film projects. The first is a drama he wrote and plans to direct called “Justice County,” in which he will play a lawyer whose best friend, another lawyer, commits murder. The issue is how his character grapples with his ethics “and there are plenty of Hitchcockian twists and turns.” The other is set in London and centers on a black vaudeville act at the turn of the century; he also plans to direct and star in it. But that doesn’t mean he has any second thoughts about doing the commercial.


“The thing is, I do go to McD’s a lot--for the fries,” he says. “And I’ll give you a clue. After we filmed that spot . . . I really did have to have a Big Mac.”