Richard Roundtree ('Shaft') profiled on TV One's 'Unsung' Wednesday, March 25

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Richard Roundtree is being featured on TV One's series "Unsung Hollywood" this Wednesday but the "Shaft" star is hardly unsung.

At age 72, he's a respected Hollywood actor, known as the first black lead action hero more than four decades ago. His vast resume includes "Roots," "Seven," "Heroes" and currently "Being Mary Jane," the Atlanta-based BET drama, where he plays the father of Gabrielle Union's lead character Mary Jane.

The hour-long program hits the highlights of his career, as well as some of the lowlights, including his feelings of being typecast after "Shaft" and a battle with male breast cancer two decades ago.

"It was a very fair portrayal," he said in a recent interview. "I don't think they left anything big out. It was the good, the bad and the ugly."

"I can’t wait to have a copy in the house," he added. Then he chuckled. "It's the narcissist in me. I want to see it again!"

His attitude toward "Shaft" has see-sawed over the years. At first, he loved his groundbreaking role. "It was a beautiful time for me," he said. "It put me on the map. Then I thought I was being pigeonholed in these action roles. I tried to break from that. It was a rough journey."

His toughest time was in the late 1980s when there was a lengthy actor's strike. "It took a long time for things to come around again" even after it ended, he said. "I almost went into bankruptcy."

Regardless, to this day, every day, multiple people bring up John Shaft to him, online and in person. You'd almost expect Isaac Hayes' iconic theme song to follow him where-ever he goes. "I have to temper my response when people call me 'Shaft.' I want to say, 'No! My name is Richard!' But it's coming from a loving place. Relax!"

When he heard the "Shaft" song in a clip during the recent Academy Awards, he viscerally "got excited." (He told me that before he died, Hayes told Roundtree that he thought he would be John Shaft after being asked to do the music, too. Obviously, that didn't come to pass.)

As shown in the TV One special, Roundtree was annoyed when the 2000 remake "Shaft" starred Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft - not him. He was relegated to play an uncle - and they are only six years apart in age! But he realized that hey, at least he got to be in it. And he moved on.

Today, he has graduated to patriarch roles, including Paul Patterson Sr. on "Being Mary Jane." He told "Being Mary Jane" creator Mara Brock Akil directly that he wanted to work with her. "It's one of the few times I was proactive and took the bull by the horns," he said. And soon after, he got the job.

"I'm doing work that I'm proud of," he said.

Earlier this month, a woman came across a restaurant to see him. "I thought she was going to get into a 'Shaft' thing, but she said, 'I wish my dad talked to me the way you talk to Mary Jane.' "

He himself appreciates Paul's parenting skills. "I wish I was that forthright with my own children,"  he said. The role inspired him to talk to his own son about his education recently in a deeper way and his son actually said, "I hear you." "It's one of the first real father-son conversations that I can remember."

Roundtree admires Union's acting. In the third episode of season three, which BET viewers won't see until 2016, she does a "devastating" soliloquy, he said, "that has 15 colors to it. She just fires on everyone!"

He is currently shooting the third season of "Being Mary Jane" in Atlanta and stays in a downtown Atlanta hotel when he's here, hanging at the Juke Joint when he has some free time.

"It's like going into my own," he said. "They greet you with open arms."

Roundtree said the changes in TV the past decade with so many networks offering series and movies means more jobs. At the same time, he noted, the pay isn't quite as good. "I'll take the trade off," he said. At the same time, "to see the quality writing we’re privy to now, it's beautiful."

TV preview

"Unsung Hollywood," 8 p.m. Wednesday, TV One

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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