A year before she made her big screen splash in The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston had a shot at being part of Robert Townsend’s 1991 musical drama The Five Heartbeats.
The near-miss is one of several revelations in Making the Five Heartbeats, a documentary about the Townsend classic screening Monday, Aug. 27 via Fathom Events. Houston, it turns out, was among several stars (or future stars) who were in the mix but ultimately not cast — but as an already established music superstar at the time, she was the biggest name on Townsend’s wish list.
“I was trying to add some sizzle because I had cast all unknown actors,” Townsend tells Billboard. “So for the character of Baby Doll I was like, ‘I’m gonna go after Whitney,’ because of the music.” Houston and her father, John Houston Jr., were interested and met with Townsend in New York to discuss the project.
“I went in and pitched my heart out,” Townsend recalls. “She was trying to cut her teeth as an actress, and I was like, ‘You get to sing AND’ act.’ I pitched that she could get nominated for an Oscar for a song, if she’d sing, plus a Grammy. She’s looking like she’s going to do the movie, her father’s looking like it’s gonna be the greatest thing since sliced bread for her. Then the next thing you know the agent says the role is too small. It was a whole little journey with her.”
Townsend does not, however, think that he lost Houston directly to The Bodyguard. “She was circling it, but it hadn’t happened yet,” he says.
Townsend adds that Making the Five Heartbeats features other familiar names on the audition calls as well. “One is a big superstar who is in the music world — very prolific, a Grammy winner,” he says. “A few are big television stars. One is a housewife on The Housewives of Atlanta. One is a star on Empire right now.” He’s not revealing who they are, however, until the documentary screens.
Townsend’s film also addresses his desire to use one of his heroes, the late David Ruffin of the Temptations, as a technical advisor for the film — which later connected the filmmaker to Aretha Franklin. Ruffin was too “strung out” to take it on, and despite Townsend’s attempts to get him into rehab and still use him, it never came together. Ruffin died on June 1, 1991 at the age of 50, two and a half months after The Five Heartbeats came out.
Enter Aretha. Townsend and cast member Michael Wright came to Detroit for Ruffin’s funeral at the New Bethel Baptist Church and wound up sitting next to Franklin. “I couldn’t hold it together,” he recalls. “She was losing it, I was losing it, ’cause (Ruffin) was part of my journey to The Five Heartbeats. We were so emotional. And afterwards she said, ‘Come to my house’ and she cooked Michael and I the best soul food meal I ever had.'”
Franklin, as it turned out, was a big fan of the movie and also had a fascination at the time with acting. Learning that Townsend and Wright had no plans after the funeral, “she made a soul food meal, from scratch — macaroni and cheese and collard greens, fried chicken” in her suburban Detroit home, amidst her Grammy Awards and other career memorabilia. It was so good, Townsend recalls, that he and Wright didn’t even make a pretense of being polite.
“When you go to somebody’s home you don’t want to seem greedy. I was raised well — saying ‘Thank you, I’ve had enough,’ even if you’re really thinking ‘Yeah! Fill my plate again!'” Townsend says with a laugh. “But (Franklin’s) food was so good, I ate like a pig. I remember she was like, ‘Baby, let me get you more. I know you want some more.’ She was so beautiful and down-home, and her house was amazing. It really lifted my spirits, ’cause we were in such a sad place.”
Busy with a number of projects — the CW’s Black Lightning, a new BET show he calls “a gospel Twilight Zone,” and a one-man stage show — Townsend says a sequel to The Five Heartbeats is unlikely despite regular fan requests. “This is the only time I’ve ever revisited anything I’ve ever done, and it’s a documentary,” he notes. “I don’t think there’s a sequel, not in my head. There’s other stories I want to tell.” But he and co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans are in the midst of turning The Five Heartbeats into a stage musical, which is “getting closer” to becoming a reality.
“We’re doing our homework and figuring out the whole Broadway thing,” Townsend says. “We know that we need to put the right Broadway team around us. We’re not going to be arrogant and say we don’t need anyone from Broadway. We need the right partner. We’ve written a lot of the book, now we just need that other partner to help us do it the right way.”