Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “The Five Heartbeats”

November 19, 2012  |  
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In 1991, after the success of his self-funded project, Hollywood Shuffle Keenan Ivory Wayans and Robert Townsend decided to take on a studio film, a first for Townsend. The collaboration didn’t do so well in theaters but over 20 years later, it’s a favorite in the black community. You know the lines and the songs. Check out these behind the scenes secrets.

Where did the story come from?

Though the story was based on several R&B groups and solo artists, including The Temptations, The Dells, Frankie Lymon and Sam Cooke, Robert Townsend told Black Voices that the breakup of The Temptations when he was a child, inspired the story. “I grew up with a lot of the singing groups from the ’60s, such as The Temptations, The Dells and The O’Jays. I always loved music. When The Temptations broke up, I took it personally. [The Five Heartbeats] came out of that.”

Eddie Kane?

Maybe you were smarter than the rest of us; but for years several people thought Eddie’s last name was Kane. In all actuality, his name was King…like Martin Luther. He said that in an attempt to utilize the country, southern accent he put a little twang on it.

Keenan was supposed to be JT

It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role of Ladie’s Man, “JT,” made famous by the man who is consistently cast as a philanderer, Leon. Though he played the role to a tee, it wasn’t meant for him initially. Keenan Ivory Wayans, who wrote the script for the movie, along with Townsend, was supposed to play JT. Leon told Black Voices how he ended up getting the role. “I didn’t know Robert before then. He saw me at the MTV awards with Madonna, and told me he saw me in her video ‘Like a Virgin.’ I think Keenan Ivory Wayans was supposed to play the role in the film but he got ‘In Living Color,’ and he couldn’t do it. Before that happened, Robert wanted me to do the film.”

Duck’s sister almost didn’t make the cut

The scene where Duck sings with his little sister, as she’s cleaning the room, is one of the most memorable in the film, but it was a last minute addition that almost didn’t make the cut. The studio wasn’t too keen on Townsend singing lyrics off of pieces of balled up paper lying around the room. When you reflect on it, it is kind of corny; but Tressa Thomas’ voice is so unbelievable, it was worth keeping.

The dance sequence

Watching the film, you would never notice this but really, the only reason the dance scene with Sarge was composed of black and white photos instead of moving footage is because Townsend and the crew ran out of money for the production. Townsend told Global Grind, the lack of money actually turned out not to be so bad.

“It forces creativity sometimes when you have limitations, so it kind of forced my creative radar to go up higher.”

That’s how you get people to see a movie

To promote the film, the cast decided to perform concerts, debuting the songs that would later be featured in the film. But of course none of the cast members, with the exception of Leon, can sing in real life, so the Dells were actually the ones backstage singing, while the actors performed on stage. Though the cast did plenty of promotion for the film, when it was released into theaters, it didn’t perform like people expected it to.

How did Choirboy get the role?

Tico Wells, who plays Choirboy, had a different audition process than everybody else. Townsend told Black Voices,“he came to a big cattle call in New York City and I did improv with him for about 15 minutes, then said, ‘He’s gonna be Choirboy!”‘

What did Jackie Wilson have to do with it?

You know what they say, some times real life can be stranger than fiction. The whole scene where Bird is being dangled from a window is based on an incident that supposedly happened to real life singer, Jackie Wilson. Apparently, draping folks over balconies, like rugs is what’s hot in the music industry. It’s been done at least a couple of times that we know about.

They were like a real group

Several of the cast members have said that during the rehearsal process, they really became like a group. They described, fighting with each other, enduring each others’ ego trips and naturally, learning to work together. On a reunion show with Mo’Nique, the Five Heartbeats, minus Harry Lennix, who played “Dresser,” explained that Robert was the Heartbeat that couldn’t dance and Harry was the peace keeper in the group.

The beef between “Eddie” and “Flash”

The actors really did take the group thing very seriously. So seriously, that “Eddie” and “Flash” had a bit of tension between them as they were acting out the scenes where Flash was supposed to be taking Eddie’s spot as the lead singer. On the Mo’Nique reunion show, Robert Townsend shared a conversation between the two.

“The scene where he slams the door and says If you ain’t got it, you ain’t gon get it, cuz you ain’t got it, [Flash said to me] Man, I’m a black belt. He can’t be in my face saying all of this stuff to me. I’ma fight him.”

Thankfully they didn’t have to take it that far.


When Eddie’s dad is telling him he will not amount to anything, literally “You ain’t gon’ be ish cuz I ain’t ish,” you can see that his mustache is falling off of his face. Maybe the editing team didn’t notice that. Or maybe they didn’t have enough takes to get rid of the scene.

That Slap

Hawthorne James, the man who played record exec, “Big Red,” had a strong background in Shakespearean theater. In Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, Richard comes in and, as he says, “woos Lady Ann over the casket.” He was the one who suggested that Big Red come to Jimmy’s funeral and try to get with Eleanor, played by Diahann Carroll.

That scene was made awesome, mostly because of the slap Diahann Carroll delivered. In recounting that scene, Hawthorne said that Diahann Carroll slapped him 30 times while they were trying to get that take. Hawthorne said the whole time he was hoping that Carroll wouldn’t hit him in the ear. On the very last take, that’s exactly what she did. Hawthorne said his ear rang for three days afterward.


Cult Classic

Though the movie failed to produce the numbers the studio would have wanted at the time, The Five Heartbeats went on to become a classic film in the black and even mainstream community. (You know networks love to show the edited version of that movie on tv, sometimes weekend after weekend.) Over 20 years after the film was released, fans still run up on Leon “JT” and ask him ‘how he could do his brother like that.’ Others still recognize Tressa Thomas, a grown woman, though she was only 11 when the movie was filmed. Another man even came up to Townsend and said that he was strung out on heroin when he saw the film; but the last scene with “Eddie” singing “I Feel Like Going On” inspired him to do better.

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