NEW YORK >> It has been nearly 50 years since Richard Roundtree first donned the street-sweeping leather coat and camel turtleneck of John Shaft, the black private detective whose extraordinary self-possession and unbowed swagger — transferable from the office, to the street, to the bedroom — landed in theaters like a bomb in 1971, changing the relationship between black America and Hollywood forever.
Before “Shaft,” black movie characters were most often to be pitied, jeered or sainted. After “Shaft,” they could be in control. The movie, which grossed $13 million (about $82 million today) on a budget of $500,000 and helped save MGM from bankruptcy, inspired a herd of copycats and — along with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” released two months earlier — inaugurated the Blaxploitation era that would reign throughout the 1970s.
Roundtree was 28 and hungry when he appeared in the film, his first. Born in New Rochelle, New York, he had been a model, stage actor and cabdriver when acclaimed black photographer-turned-director Gordon Parks plucked him from a cattle call.
“Shaft” both turbocharged his career and set it on a loop. He returned to the role for two sequels, an ill-fated CBS television series and a reboot in 2000 starring Samuel L. Jackson as his nephew. He dusted off the jacket once more, playing a snowy-haired and sailor-mouthed grandfather — to Jessie T. Usher’s decidedly unmacho John Shaft Jr. — in a surprisingly lighthearted and joke-filled new chapter released Friday.
In a recent interview in New York, Roundtree, 76 and regal in an electric purple sweater and jewelry to shame Scrooge McDuck, discussed the paradox of a millennial Shaft, the racism he encountered in department stores even at the height of his celebrity, and the mixed legacy of Blaxploitation. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: People must approach you about Shaft projects all the time. Why do this now?
A: I was at a birthday party over a year ago for a mutual friend of ours, Glynn Turman, and Sam said, “We’re going back to work.” Well, now that is Hollywood, so, I took that with a grain of salt. But he’s always true to his word.
Sam’s instincts about this business are always right on, and I trusted his vision of what this should be.
Q: When you step back into the role, do you interpret it differently in any way?
A: No. No. He’s mellowed, if you will, a tad. And he’s a little bit slower now.
Q: But not too much slower.
A: No. No. Don’t get it twisted. He’s also looking at his grandson [raises one eyebrow], who’s got some odd trappings. But it’s three generations — it’s a whole new world.
Q: He’s a far cry from a sex machine.
A: Hello. Big time. I mean, he doesn’t like guns? What is that about?
Q: Is it sacrilege for there to be a dorky, timid Shaft?
A: It’s inevitable.
Q: How so?
A: The millennials, you know, you’ve got to deal with that. I don’t understand half of it.
Q: The first three Shaft movies all hit within the span of two years. You must have been on top of the world. Were you able to indulge?
A: Well, the crashing point was the TV series [1973-74]. You can’t erase events, but that’s one I wish I could. I had just come back from “Shaft in Africa” when they tried to convert the character to television. It wasn’t going to happen. That was an ugly point in my long, illustrious career.
Q: Where do you think it went wrong?
A: Well, in that point in time, that character couldn’t translate to people’s living rooms and bedrooms in America. It was a black Barnaby Jones — it didn’t work.
Q: Back to the films. That was your introduction to Hollywood. What was it like to be so famous so fast?
A: That was a heady time. I remember driving a cab in this town for two years and dropping people off at places like the Jockey Club and Sardi’s. I would think to myself, “One day, I’m going to …” And it happened. The night they introduced me to the media saying that I was going to be playing Shaft was at Sardi’s. I’m dropped off in a limo and the paparazzi and the press is all there. The whole world turned around.
Q: Were you able to handle it? Did you feel comfortable?
A: [Long pause] Honestly, I lost it. When all that stuff hits you, you’re not prepared for it. You think you are, but there’s some heady stuff. When people are calling you in front of the line, “Right this way, right this way.” Oh, it takes awhile to get your feet back on the ground, because I thought my stuff was so good. But it doesn’t take long to get smacked in the face. Yeah, I went through that period that I didn’t use toilet paper.
Q: What made the character so transgressive was that he was a black man, but he was free. He had some measure of self-determination …
A: … Played by his own rules.
Q: Right. He didn’t take anything from anyone. That was obviously aspirational for a lot of black people at the time, but I wonder if it was aspirational for you, as well. Did you feel as if you had a window into a life, or an experience, that might not have been available to you otherwise as a black man?
A: Yeah. I would have to acknowledge that fact. An example: I was acutely aware of when I would go into department stores and feel the shadow of being followed. And then I’d be recognized, and all of a sudden it would turn. I thought, “Oh man, there it is.” I was acutely aware of that turn. If I were not the actor who played John Shaft, I would be trailed to the dressing room, monitored or stripped. That’s the truth of the matter.
Q: After the movie came out, black audiences were hungry to see more of those kinds of characters on screen. But at the same time, there was a lot of anxiety within the community about how black people were being portrayed in films and whether the films promoted positive images or fed into stereotypes. I’m curious what you think, looking back now. Was that reaction warranted?
A: Some of it. But I had the privilege of working with the classiest gentleman possibly that I’ve ever known in the industry, Gordon Parks. So, that word, exploitation, I take offense to with any attachment to Gordon Parks. That was not who he is, was or had been. And yes, I have done a couple of films that could be categorized in that category, but my experience of what I was able to do with Gordon transcends that label. I’ve always viewed that as a negative. Exploitation. Who’s being exploited? [Pause] But it gave a lot of people work. It gave a lot of people entree into the business, including a lot of our present-day producers and directors. So, in the big picture, I view it as a positive.
Q: Do you think attitudes are different now?
A: Well, generally speaking, Spike Lee and Denzel … we have a huge proliferation of talent representing all areas of our lives, black life. And the women, the Gabrielle Unions, the Ava DuVernays. The playing field has spread out, and we’re hearing a lot more voices and different points of views.
Q: Before you, there were so few black movie stars — really only Sidney Poitier. Did you feel that pressure? As if you were a kind of ambassador?
A: No, it wasn’t pressure because we knew that was the game. Back then, we were here [holds his hands close together], but now we’re here [spreads them out wide]. So, come on, bring it.
Q: The Shaft character is clearly immortal. Would you play him again?
A: Come on. If they say, let’s do it again, and Sam is involved, I’m on board. Without a doubt.
Q: You’ve often referred to the role as a gift and a curse in the past. Does it still feel that way?
A: Not a day goes by that I’m not somewhere when someone recites the lines from the theme song, or lines from the film, as if I’ve never heard them before. [Tilts his head disapprovingly.] I’m like, “Yeah, man. Cool. OK.” But that’s what it is. And at the same time, what else would I be doing? I’m still here. A lot of my friends and associates are no longer here, or no longer in the business, and I’m still gainfully employed. So keep it moving, Roundtree.