All propers to Samuel L. Jackson, but Richard Roundtree is Shaft. He is Shaft on film, Shaft on television, and he’s even Shaft on the Internet, www.theoriginalshaft.com. When John Singleton planned on making an updated version of Shaft, he knew that Roundtree would once again be Shaft, albeit as Uncle John Shaft, namesake to Sam Jackson’s Shaft. Roundtree was the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks in 1971, ditto in 2000.
Outside of the Shaft universe, Roundtree has made a respectable career as an actor, starring in Roots, Se7en, Once Upon A Time…When We Were Colored, and countless television series. However, it is for Shaft that Roundtree is renowned, world-over.
Making the rounds with the film, Roundtree and I had a conversation about what it’s like being a cultural icon.
What made you want to be an actor?
Very simply, I just missed the roar of the crowd. I was an athlete in college, my very brief stint in college.
Yes, SIU. I missed that. It was a big void. There was no way I was going to be a football player. It dawned on me, as a result of doing the Ebony Fashion Fair, that this was an avenue to attain this. By coming out on that runway and hearing that clapping and cheering again. I thought, “Ah!” I wanted to experience that more, so I thought of becoming an actor.
What were some of your roles before Shaft?
Prior to that, I had done a workshop play at NEC in New York. The company’s production of… I can’t remember the name of play. I was in the chorus. At the beginners’ class, you couldn’t have a major role in any of the plays. You could be in the chorus. I was watching Moses Gunn and Denise Nichols, Rosalind Cash, Adolph Caesar. These are the people that I was able to watch work. I did a couple of off-Broadway plays. The last one was The Great White Hope in Philadelphia. I did a small vignette in the Candid Camera movie and a couple of other small bit parts as extras in other films. The first major role in a feature film was Shaft, and I was the star of it.
Flashback to 1971, Shaft comes out in the theatre. Explain what you were feeling the first time you saw it with an audience.
It was probably one of the most memorable nights of my career, which was the opening night on Broadway in New York. All the bright lights, the limos and seeing it in front of the audience for the first time and the electricity in the audience when Isaac’s music first hit -- it just took off from there. It was almost like a revival meeting. They were screaming back at the screen. You knew we had something really exciting, but we had no idea how big this thing was going to be.
I can think of a handful of movies from that time that influenced hip-hop culture -- The Godfather, Enter the Dragon and, of course, Shaft, all of which are kind of funky. What do you think it is about that era that continues to speak to the hip-hop generation?
I think musically, Isaac hit a chord with the soundtrack to a degree. It was so innovative, and you can hear it in films and television scores. There is greatness about it, and as you said, funk. His influence is immeasurable. It didn’t have a color on it. It was good funky, danceable music that you had to move to when you heard it. It ushered in a new mentality of musical scores. You can look directly at Saturday Night Fever, for example. Its opening sequence was almost a direct steal from the Shaft movie. I’m not speaking directly to the Shaft movie or Isaac’s music; everyone has covered some form of it.
It certainly continued with The Payback. Even the Dirty Harry score is very much influenced by that. Schifrin’s score is a little more jazzy, but it still has that funk under it. What is it about Shaft, Superfly and The Payback that still resonates with hip-hop culture?
I maintain that any good music will last. I was with a dear friend, Lou Rawls, at an awards ceremony and we were sitting next to each other and something was being introduced and Lou said, “They had the audacity to call that music.” (laughs). I won’t say what was being introduced. Good music will have legs just like films. That’s why I am so proud of Shaft. After thirty years of running, it is still a viable product. Good music will be covered by so many artist. I can go back to Friends of Distinction. “Grazing In The Grass.” Good music will always last. Isaac has made something that will stand the test of time.
What about Shaft himself? Shaft is referenced in rap songs; you’re referenced in rap songs.
So I’ve heard. I’m not a big fan of rap music.
Christian Bale’s character makes a derisive malt liquor comment that struck me as exaggerated. Racism still exists, of course, but it’s more masked, now. However, when I watch the original Shaft, the overt racism rings true. I guess, in the ‘70s, it was like, “Here it is.”
It was played a lot subtler in the film back then than what it is today. That’s the beauty of this film, because it didn’t duck its head with dealing with the reality of today -- because that goes on. Maybe not quite that blatant, but it does go on. If you’re going to do that, you might as well have some flavor of music that is going to affect that era.
You have said you are offended by the term blaxplotation for several reasons, especially as it relates to Gordon Parks films, Shaft in particular, and because it was a phrase coined and used by the black press. Can you elaborate more on why it is so offensive to you?
Totally! There’s an old saying -- when things are successful, there are always people who will want to jump out and tear it down. I found a lot of that in the ‘70s: writers wanting to be so incredibly intellectual in their looking at the Shaft movie and reviewing all the social ramifications that it had. Come on! Sit there and enjoy it or not enjoy it. Come out and do like most people did: hum the theme song and tell your friends to go and see this great movie. Or not do that. But to over-intellectualize it and to put all these labels on it, it so totally offended me. I mean, I read one article by some guy who went into the whole socio-economic diarrhea of the mouth -- or the pen in this case -- about the ramifications of Shaft upon society. Please! It’s just a film.
It is just a film, but it definitely struck a cord. You were the first black hero, in terms of cinema hero. Perhaps Sidney Portier before, but in sort of a different way…
He was the first. He was the person everyone would aspire to be, this professional, absolute correct, intellectual black man. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. He happens to be a friend of mine. There is not another human being on the face of the earth as elegant as he is. That’s what he brought to cinema to this day. And Shaft is a totally different character. He’s grittier. Not as polished as any character Sidney has played. He’s much more to the bone. Which is his charm as well.
What’s your favorite scene from any film of all time?
Sidney Poitier’s scene In The Heat Of The Night when one of the townsfolk he’s questioned smacks Sidney because of his pertinence and Sidney turns and smacks him back. That was a turning point in American cinema. That is a delicious moment. That’s my favorite. It was a great movie.
Poitier, you, and a small handful of other actors laid the foundation and now we have Denzel, Wesley, Will Smith --Taye Diggs coming up -- and I think that they all need to show propers to the path that was set before them, because it was a long, bumpy road.
I am aware of the fact that Sidney made that wedge at the top -- if it weren’t for the Sidneys and Harry Belafontes and Brock Peters and people from that era opening up the door for us [we wouldn’t be where we are]. We should be eternally grateful for those people because they had it tough. Even through the McCarthy stuff and whatever. We think we had it tough. And these kids today think they have it tough. It’s always a struggle. It always will be, and you have to be on top of the fact that things have progressed, and they are much better than they were. That’s just a fact of life.
But now the women have that struggle, too. I mean, why hasn’t Nia Long just exploded all over the place? She’s an outstanding, beautiful actress…
I think we can safely say that. Someone asked me at one point today, “were any of my daughters interested in the industry?” I have one. My twelve-year-old, about to be thirteen. But I’m hoping, wishing and praying that she doesn’t because the window of opportunity for women is so narrow. You are incredibly blessed if you have a career after 28. There are definitely exceptions to that rule, but generally speaking, it’s a closed shop after that.
Even for men over 35, it can be a closed shop. You’re 57 -- by the way, you look 40.
Bless your heart.
It’s true. I know you’ve had health problems, and on your website, www.theoriginalshaft.com, you’re a big advocate for men’s health. What do you do to stay healthy and looking 40 at 57?
I play a lot of golf, which is really not a lot of exercise. I don’t get to the gym as much as I want to. I’m blessed with good longevity genes. My grandmother lived to be 103. Both my grandparents on my father’s side live to be in their 90s. My dad is 85, and my mom is 84, so there is a lot of longevity in my family. But just being blessed. Past that, I don’t do anything. I’ve been very lucky.