From Metropolis on the Chesapeake, a new kind of hero


Here stands Robert Townsend in a hotel room above the city of dreams. Looking out the window, he can see buildings and avenues throbbing with people and cars, a veritable Oz, a Metropolis, teeming with life and possibility. And to this urban Mecca did he come last year to make a movie.

And the city he looks out upon is . . . Baltimore?

Yes, it is. It isn't New York. It sure isn't that dreary burg down the parkway where the buildings are white and the men all wear the same gray suit and the same black pointy little shoes. It isn't L.A. It isn't Chi-town. It's good old B-Mo, Em Dee.

That's where he brought the whole, multimillion-dollar shebang, to a street on Reservoir Hill where he filmed "Meteor Man," a PG-rated "urban fairy tale" that opens at theaters nationwide Friday.

It's about a mild-mannered teacher named Jefferson Reed, who, blasted by a green meteor from outer space, becomes a muscle-bound super-hero capable of flying faster than a low-velocity bullet, able to leap small buildings at a single bound, more powerful than a Lionel locomotive but, more impressive than all those, capable of helping an inner-city neighborhood reclaim its soul.

"The movie is set in D.C.," says Townsend, recalling the steps that brought him and his $20 million production to Charm City, "and we originally meant to shoot it there. But there were so many problems dealing with the federal government. And somebody said, 'Why don't you check out Baltimore?'

"So I came up and saw the street and the witch's caps on the houses and I said, 'This is it.'

"I wanted a wall of windows, and that's what I got. I wanted the sense of a modern-day neighborhood but a fairy tale at the same time. Sometimes it looks like a set -- all that architecture that doesn't exist anywhere else. We really didn't do a whole lot to it. People say, 'What stage did you shoot that on?' No stage. Baltimore, Maryland."

The movie is probably the most ambitious ever directed by a African American in a film industry that has traditionally paid only lip service to notions of equality of opportunity behind the camera. It's everything: a fable, a huge special-effects picture, a moral lesson, a musical, a comedy, a cavalcade of who's who in black entertainment, a confrontation with some of the hardest problems the country faces.

And . . . not for him the bleak and hopeless meditations on inner-city pathology that end up with the boyz n the hood as the boyz n the body bags. He's a believer in happy endings.

"I'm different," he says. "Those others have edge. But I think kids need all kinds of images and heroes. I'm the balance. 'Menace II Society' is a great movie, but there's so much more to African-American life than that. So I want to be the balance."

In each of his films, Townsend has made a giant leap forward.

"In 'Hollywood Shuffle,' " he recalls, "just getting it made was the victory." And quite a victory. Financed primarily on credit card advances, "Hollywood Shuffle" was a corrosively hilarious satire of how Hollywood treats African Americans. It put Townsend on the map.

"In 'Five Heartbeats,' I worked with really emotional materials, and I had to walk the line between comedy and tragedy." That film covered the ups and downs of a Temptations-like singing quintet over 20 years.

And now, "Meteor Man."

An original vision

"It's the hardest," says Townsend, "because I tried to tackle everything -- visual effects, children, animals, an all-star cast."

He explains why he made the movie. "I wanted to create an original super hero that everybody could identify with. And the message was positive: It doesn't take a meteor to make you get involved. Everybody has to work together. The police need help. Somehow, too many kids have gotten the idea that the police are the bad guys."

He had an original fascination with the super heroes of his childhood, like Superman and Batman.

"I watched everything as a kid, and I played all the different characters in my mind. I never even noticed there weren't any blacks in them except as butlers.

"I never thought, 'Gee, he decided to be a butler' or anything like that. I didn't think in terms of casting roles by color. I just thought, 'When I get to Hollywood, I'm going to be a super hero.' "

And that's what he's become, in life as well as on screen. What he's accomplished is phenomenal, not for an African American but for any man: He is one of less than a handful of American filmmakers who can conceive, write, direct and star in a movie.


The hard part, of course, is surviving.

"Man," he says with a ready smile, as if he's not sure how he survived it, "I had to do the stunts as well as keep my own vision thing going."

Now he's in an ebullient mood, on a press tour that routinely carries him through the city where he shot "Meteor Man." The response to advance screenings has been great, the studio (MGM) is behind it, and the word is out. He even got the special-effects thing right.

L "Those guys are fantastic," he says. "They can do anything."

He was working with the legendary technical experts at Industrial Light & Magic.

"Visually, I 'saw' every effect. Then you talk to them and tell them what you want and they walk you through it. When I fly, for example, I want a certain kind of look. And I'm adding all these sound effects as I'm going along.

"And they're with me all the way, asking me questions like, 'How does a meteor sound in outer space?' Any clue you give them helps. They get into it at the real technical level."

For example, when the meteor hits Jefferson, does it smash him, crush him or sort of melt into him?

"Well, that forced me to try and come up with more detail. So I finally figured out that I wanted melting."

Then there was the dog.

"Don't ask me why, but when I was a kid, I was always interested in communicating with animals. So when I was trying to come up with unusual super powers for Meteor Man, I came up with the idea of having him be able to talk to dogs."

He throws back his head and barks so fluently and forcefully you feel he's actually speaking Advanced Canine.

Stars came out

Then there are the stars: Bill Cosby, Robert Guillaume, Marla Gibbs, James Earl Jones, Big Daddy Kane, Luther Vandross, Tiny Lister, Nancy Wilson, Beverly Johnson and Stephanie Williams.

"It was weird," he recalls, "working with people I idolized. I have this dream and they're all in this dream. And it kind of came true. Everybody worked with the schedule and came in to do a few days if they could. It made me feel great.

"It was like feeling love for the first time."

Now he's discovering how much his natural audience, the kids, get it.

"Kids just get into it," he says. "I made it for kids, and when I hear them laughing or yelling at the screen, that's a good feeling, too. And the best thing of all was the first kid who recognized me. I'll remember that forever."

He remembers the child seeing him, eyes widening and then saying, "I love you, Meteor Man."

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