Richard Roundtree was famous for ‘Shaft.’ But that wasn’t his most important role. — Andscape
You’re never too old to learn something new — and Richard Roundtree was still learning valuable lessons eight years ago.
In 2015, the actor, then in his 70s, was portraying the dad of Mary Jane Paul, a beautifully imperfect woman struggling to get her real life as together as the one she projected on camera for her cable news talk show. The show, of course, was Being Mary Jane, BET’s juggernaut dramatic series, which aired largely between 2013 and 2019. It was the creation and, at times, almost too real vision of a once aspiring journalist, producer Mara Brock Akil. My friend Gabrielle Union brought the title character to life.
Roundtree, whom I’d spoken with a few times over the years, once told me that outside of his portrayal of slave Sam Bennett in the 1977 series Roots, this was his best experience he’d ever had on television.
I asked him why, considering he’d spent decades creating some of the most iconic characters we’ve seen in TV and in film.
Roundtree, who died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles of pancreatic cancer, said it was the education he was getting via his character. Referring to one of the show’s storylines, he noted, “My oldest daughter is an ESL teacher here in Los Angeles, and charter schools is a big subject with her. I’m learning different points of view on it, and it’s really enlightening.”
But it was more than that. It was the response he was getting from people who ate up the relatable themes of the show, from egg freezing to rising suicide rates among Black men to the politics of charter schools.
His character, Paul Patterson Sr., and the chats he’d had in character as the family’s patriarch, made him wish he’d been armed with things to say to one of his own children, he told me.
“I wish I could be that forthright. I wish I could have been that forthright with them and it shows — the unnerving part is it shows my shortcomings with my own kids,” he said.
“I am so proud of what he stands for. I was in a diner in Atlanta on Piedmont having lunch and peripherally I see this woman coming towards me and I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, I know she’s going to go into the whole Shaft thing and whatnot.’ ”
Then he paused. Because many people believe that his most lasting impact was bringing to life private detective John Shaft in Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks, in 1971. He ultimately revisited the role another four times, most recently in 2019 with Samuel L. Jackson portraying the title character and Roundtree playing a remixed version of the role he came back to in 2000, as Shaft Sr.
That first Shaft film was hugely influential. Not only did Roundtree give cinemagoers a Black leading man, that film helped create the blaxploitation genre, which dominated theaters for a decade in the 1970s with stories of Black empowerment and, of course, besting The Man. There were some 200 blaxploitation films in total and whether you loved them or hated them, these films gave Black actors work. And they moved Black actors beyond roles of train porters, mammies, and the grotesque stereotype of shiftless field workers.
So much of the success of blaxploitation movies start with Roundtree. In today’s dollars, those films would account for hundreds of millions in box office receipts. Surely he walked through life understanding how very real and how very important that was.
But in that moment in that Atlanta diner, Roundtree learned something new. He learned he was still making an impact. Even at his age.
“…. she said to me, Mr. Roundtree, I don’t mean to interrupt your lunch, but I’ve got to tell you, I wish with all my heart that my dad had spoken to me the way you spoke to Mary Jane. I would not have made these stupid decisions that I made along the way.”
As he reflected on that story, he pondered what his full imprint on the world would be. Yes, he was introduced to much of the world in Shaft. But the work of representation lasted decades past that film. His work had meaning. And the work – regardless of the medium – never stopped. He was constantly finding new audiences and new audiences were constantly discovering a new reason to love him. And importantly, see themselves in him.
I could hear in his voice that day that he needed that validation. He needed to know that even as an actor in his 70s, as he continued to create new roles, that the work was truly never done.
And he most certainly wasn’t too old to learn that.