Whitney Houston Was Offered a Role In ‘The Five Heartbeats’ and Regretted Not Taking It

Almost 30 years ago, Robert Townsend’s dream of creating a classic film based on his favorite groups of the 1960s came to fruition. With Motown supergroup The Temptations as his model, Townsend spent years shopping the film before landing a deal with FOX. The movie eventually became a cult classic and iconic for its music and portrayal of Black brotherhood.

Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston 1994 | John Atashian/Getty Images

A new documentary chronicling Townsend’s journey to getting the film to the big screen is currently available for rent or purchase on various streaming platforms. Footage included shows almost every Black entertainer in showbusiness auditioning for a role. Stars like Neicy Nash, RHOA star Cynthia Bailey, and even now-disgraced singer R. Kelly’s auditions were shown. But one of the stars Townson coveted most was singer Whitney Houston. 

Robert Townsend recalls offering the role of Baby Doll to Whitney Houston for ‘The Five Heartbeats’

After the film was greenlit by FOX, Townsend got the ball rolling on casting. He went after Whitney for three reasons: he knew she wanted to get into acting, the musical component of the film, and because Houston’s name would be a big draw at the box office.

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Whitney and her manager – her father John Houston – agreed to meet with Townsend to discuss the role at John’s office in New York.

“She was the darling of the music industry at the time and she also wanted to act so I gave them my best pitch,” Townsend explained in the documentary. 

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He offered her the role of Baby Doll, the girlfriend of the lead singer of The Five Heartbeats. Houston would get to sing two numbers in the song – one would be a gospel song that Townsend was certain would earn Whitney both a Grammy and an Oscar nomination. 

John promised they’d take a look at the script and get back to Townsend with an answer. Townsend spoke more about his hopes to have Whitney in the film in a 2018 interview with Billboard Magazine, emphasizing that he pushed the music as the biggest reason why Whitney would be a good fit.

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Ultimately, Whitney’s team declined the offer because they felt it was “too small.” But, after viewing the film, Whitney circled back to Townsend and expressed her regret and how the film was one of her favorite movies.

How ‘The Five Heartbeats’ failed at the box office became a classic

The Five Heartbeats did phenomenal during the test screenings with audiences across America – even fairing better than Home Alone. FOX was so excited from audience reactions that they spared no expense when it came to the promotional and publicity tour ahead of the film’s theatrical release.

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The cast performed small concerts for promotion, participated in celebrity basketball games in large markets, and the cast was transported by private jet. Townsend was thrilled and confident that the film would be a box office smash, but marketing proved to deter audiences from viewing the film.

According to the documentary, New Jack City was released prior to The Five Heartbeats and there were several shootings that were said to be sparked by the film, which scared the studios into adjusting their marketing for future film released. The trailer for The Five Heartbeats omitted the heart of the storyline and was viewed as “soft” by viewers. Reviews of the film by respected film critics event pointed to negligent marketing on FOX’s behalf.

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When the film opened in theaters, the numbers were so bad that FOX began taking it out of theaters to save money. The cast was sent on one final promotional press tour to try and get their core demographic to flock to theaters but it was too late. 

Months later, the film was released on VHS, and through word of mouth, buzz surrounding the film generated and VHS sales shot through the roof. The film has run on television for years since its release, on television networks including VH1, BET, and TV One.  Though the cast and Townsend were disappointed by the box office numbers, they are most proud of the film’s cultural impact.