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‘Shaft’ casts a long shadow on a groundbreaking action star

It’s all there in the first two minutes.

Manhattan, 1971. Noise. Dirt. Bad Streets, two years before Martin Scorsese’s “Bad Streets.”

Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” — still the best ever Oscar winning song, just ahead of “Thanks for the Memory” – at the 30-second mark as “Shaft” slides in from under the opening credits sequence, the camera pans past a grindhouse tent advertising “The Wild Females”. He hasn’t even checked in yet and they’re already lining up for him? Absolutely right.

Then, as he steps up from the subway, he walks over a sea of ​​sedans heading downtown in leather and a turtleneck. “Get up yours!” says the private investigator whose resume will forever be accompanied by the lyric “sex machine for all the girls.” Two years ago, Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy” shouted “I’m walking here!” in a similar situation. Faced with what you can only assume is the same aggressive driver, John Shaft needs just two words (“Get up!”) and a finger to manipulate the man.

Two minutes into the opening credits, Richard Roundtree was a star.

Roundtree died on October 24From pancreatic cancer at the age of 81. “Shaft” has never quite shaken the memory and long, confining shadow of sequels, the short-lived, sanitized 1973 television series and reboots.

“Twenty-four-seven, that character is always mentioned,” Roundtree said on the red carpet of the 2011 Turner Classic Movies film festival. “Shaft” was shown at the festival that year.

But Roundtree said it was “a wonderful thing” to see it again in this historical context.

Someone else may have preceded him in the history of black action stars. Maybe it was Woody Strode from “Spartacus” and “Sergeant Rutledge.” Perhaps the first true Black box office powerhouse was Sidney Poitier, who did not truly become an action star until later. Some may vote for Jim Brown, whose “The Dirty Dozen,” “100 Rifles” and others appeared before Roundtree’s movie career.

It was Roundtree’s extremely undercompensated lead role in “Shaft” that made that history. (He was paid $12,500 or $13,500; reports vary.) Shot on a low budget and featuring real black talent both behind and in front of the camera, director Gordon Parks’ film helped save MGM’s finances that year.

A year ago, the success of “Cotton Comes to Harlem” suggested that Black and some white audiences would gravitate toward a crime story centered around a Black authority figure navigating a world unfriendly to their autonomy and advancement. “Shaft” puts an exclamation point on everything, letting Shaft deal with the mob, the naysayers, and the obstacles, while also lining up a string of women for his entertainment, and after a while, he gets laid off. The movie is full of contradictions, misogyny, intrigue and more. The world needed this at the time.

Born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1942, Roundtree came to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1961 on a football scholarship. Carbondale wasn’t easy. A decade later, Roundtree told a New York Times writer: “On my first day in Southern Illinois, I had a $5 bill and went to a store to change it. I said, ‘Could I…’ and they said, ‘No!’ they said. They didn’t even know what I wanted. “We had to cut our own hair and were called (racist epithets) by white guys on other teams.” He left in the middle of his sophomore year.

She had other reasons to keep going: She had been discovered by the founder of the Ebony Fashion Fair. Eunice W. Johnson, and participated as a model in the traveling Ebony Fashion Fair, where the job was to make clothes look their best. He was very, very good at his job.

And then he became an actor. He joined the off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company and eventually played boxer Jack Johnson in “The Great White Hope.” (James Earl Jones played Johnson on Broadway.) Roundtree began to unravel the performance distinctions between modeling and acting.

He later said that he knew little about filmmaking and on-camera acting, and that when director Parks cast him as Shaft, he didn’t really feel comfortable until the role and production were nearly finished. Viewers did not notice this.

A year after “Shaft,” Roundtree and James Brown, among others, were guests of honor at the Bud Billiken Parade in Chicago. “This year, kids will be in for a special treat when Richard Roundtree, the now-famous superstar of the movie ‘Shaft,’ appears at the Washington Park picnic,” the Tribune wrote. Yes, adults too!

In New York, on the set of the 1972 sequel “Shaft’s Big Score!”, Roundtree answered a visiting Tribune reporter’s question about what was going to happen to all those so-called “exploitation” movies that were in vogue.

Yes, he argued: “This is exploitation of the market. “I think the strongest will survive.”

Here in 1973, Richard Roundtree returned to his famous role in the CBS television crime drama series.

And he did that for a long time, but the job didn’t make it easy. He found a handful of non-Shaft roles to test his talents in the ’70s, but collaborated on material only sporadically. My first encounter with him on the big screen was in 1974’s “Earthquake”; here he played the good-guy Black version of motorcycle enthusiast Evel Knievel. Not much; a paycheck. But during the earthquake and human disaster in Sensurround, people supported Roundtree’s survival, which meant he was doing something right.

“Charley One-Eye,” a strange chamber Western of about the same time, cast Roundtree as a Civil War fugitive listed in the credits only as the Black Man (!), opposite the Indian (!). Roy Thinnes. “The black man and the red man cross the desert of fear… but can they overcome the white man’s hatred?” That’s how the trailer sold it. Gene Siskel didn’t like it but praised Roundtree’s development as a player under the circumstances.

Roundtree, who survived breast cancer in recent years, has managed to keep the Shaft legend behind her long enough to play different kinds of men. In 2015, he appeared in four episodes of “Chicago Fire”. In 2019, he played Taraji P. Henson’s wise and gentle father in “What Men Want”. He worked until the end; The pancreatic cancer diagnosis came just two months ago.

Very few film actors find themselves at one of the pop-cultural turning points of a particular decade. Roundtree directed two: first in “Shaft,” then in a supporting role in the 1977 ABC-TV miniseries “Roots.” If MGM had their way, Shaft, created by novelist Ernest Tidyman, who wrote the 1971 screenplay, would have gone to a white actor. And history would not be written. Director Parks said in the documentary “Half of Autumn” that he wanted to create “a hero they’ve never had before” for black audiences. I love your expressions about what you said next. He said Shaft should “appeal to an urban black audience as well as neighborhood white youth.”

Hayes’ theme dealt with funk and soul. Roundtree always handled it with composure, right down to his own end credits.

“I am what I am,” he told a New York Times reporter after “Shaft” came along and changed his career – but Roundtree insisted he wasn’t changing the man his career was. “And I’ll be like that until the day they put the number on my carrier.”

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

excitement @phillipstribune



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