Conversations . . . | Richard Roundtree

 by Tim Gordon and Cameron Turner

This article originally appeared on on March 10, 2002

Back in 1971, a fashion model auditioned for a film, got the role and created cinematic history. The model was Richard Roundtree, the character was John Shaft and the rest was history. Overnight, Roundtree became internationally known as the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks. After three successful Shaft films, Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa, Roundtree explains the character’s appeal.

“This guy was one of the first, if not the first, to take charge of his destiny across the board,” says Roundtree. “The fact that he dealt with right or wrong, there was no gray areas in his life, either you were right or you wrong, that was a first.”

As Smokey Robinson once sang, “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” Roundtree felt trapped in a role that he couldn’t escape. According to Roundtree, it has been a long time. “Only for about 30 years,” says Roundtree. “It has been a struggle to do anything I can to get away to distance myself from the character to the degree to which I played Charles Dutton’s gay uncle in a series Roc.

“The best of the Shaft films for me was the third one, Shaft in Africa because at that point I was comfortable in front of the camera as an actor,” said the veteran star. While our favorite Roundtree memories may be as Shaft, Roundtree has his own preferences. “When you talk about Once Upon A Time When We Colored, which was a favorite of mine or 413 Hope Street, which was the best experience I had on television. These are things that when the game is over, I hope people will remember.”

While comparisons between the two films are inevitable, we asked the authority, Roundtree, his opinion. There is more of an edge [with the new film]. I think there was a lighter side to the first one. You have more license today than we had back then. I couldn’t say MF in the first one because I knew my folks were going to see this film. Today, it’s like saying it! Also, the budget was through the roof, they had carte blanche. It would have been amazing to see what Gordon would have done with half this budget.

Roundtree is absent for a great deal of the new film and it was bone of contention for the proud actor. “In retrospect, it kind of bothered me. I should have been more of a presence in this film.”

On the big screen, Shaft was a hit, but when the series moved to television in 1974, it was met with mixed results. “In all honesty, to put that character on the small screen in ’74 was a major undertaking considering the sharp edges of the product,” says Roundtree. “You had to water it down to such a degree that it was unrecognizable. I was fond of saying that they made John Shaft a black Barnaby Jones, with no disrespect to that show, but that was not Shaft. When you put John Shaft in a downtown LA country club, you have castrated the character!”

In addition to this film, Roundtree remains busy. In his new project, he’s wading in unchartered waters. “I’m doing the first five episodes of Soul Food [Showtime Network]. I’m playing a friend of the family who was their father’s best friend and they had a supermarket together and they maintain that I stole it. It’s been a bone of contention through the five shows, all the way up to a court trial. I’ve never played a bad guy, never!

Roundtree takes a philosophical approach to what the character meant to his career. “I guess I would have to say it put me on the map in a very big way. It has been incredibly exciting and good, and at the same time sometimes it is a high cost, career wise. When I look back at my career in retrospect, I didn’t have the choices that my peers had today.” Maybe so, but you’ll never be forgotten.