Celebrating a birthday today is the ultra-cool Richard Roundtree, a suave actor who made his mark as private eye John Shaft in Gordon Parks’ Shaft (1971). Roundtree’s depiction of John Shaft is legendary and the popularity of Parks’ movie yielded two big screen sequels – Parks’ Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and John Guillermin’s Shaft in Africa (1973) as well as a television series, Shaft, which aired from 1973 to 1974 also starring Roundtree.
[referring to Shaft (1971)] “Number one, it put me on the map . . . To this day that film still works . . . I was blessed.” – Richard Roundtree
Indeed – Shaft does work and is as iconic a part of 1970s cinema as any other movie of the decade. Richard Roundtree has worked steadily on the big screen and on television since breaking the mold with Shaft, which was his feature film debut. A New York native, Roundtree’s resume consisted mostly of commercial work before he landed the role of Shaft at MGM. He’d been working as a taxi driver in New York to pay for acting lessons when he got the news of being cast in the groundbreaking movie. The actor recalled being in a daze from the first day of shooting to the last recognizing the significance of a black actor starring in a major MGM production.
Although he’s never quite captured the same type of lightning in a bottle Richard Roundtree’s appearances always make an impact regardless of the size of the role. Handsome and self-assured the actor is a welcomed sight. I remember how excited I was to see Mr. Roundtree in David Fincher‘s memorable Se7en (1995). He was also well received for his part in the 2000 remake of Shaft directed by John Singleton. Samuel L. Jackson plays the famed private eye in the remake with Roundtree playing his uncle, John Shaft. Jackson is also high up on the coolness meter, but as is the case with most remakes the 2000 film doesn’t capture the magic of the original.
The same year that Singleton’s remake of Shaft was released the original movie was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film is widely considered as a prime example of the blaxpoitation genre. While it is no doubt significant, however, it is also terrifically entertaining from its fantastic opening sequence on forward. It’s actually one of my favorites – a shot of the bustling NYC streets from high above. You hear nothing but street sounds – cars and horns and the hustle of people as they move about city life. Suddenly the camera approaches street level and pans across several theater marquees until – just before we see a subway station from where Roundtree emerges – we get the bright red “SHAFT” coming at us as the first note of the iconic theme begins. Great stuff!
About that Shaft theme and soundtrack – it was recorded by Isaac Hayes and was a huge success. The album won a Grammy Award for Best Original Score, the “Theme from Shaft“ won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and has appeared on multiple Top 100 lists, including AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs. Can you dig it?
Shaft title sequence from Art of the Title:
TAGLINE: The mob wanted Harlem back. They got shaft…up to here.
Shaft is an action film with elements of film noir, which follows some of the genre conventions we love in many great detective stories that preceded it. Of course, it is also true to its specific era and the style of 1970s filmmaking, which I enjoy immensely. The movie tells the story of a black private detective who travels through Harlem and to Italian mob neighborhoods in order to find the missing daughter of a black mobster. Richard Roundtree’s suave depiction is legendary in part due to his performance and in part due to the fact that Shaft allows for “the first convincing portrayal of a black private eye,” as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the movie, “Shaft as portrayed by Richard Roundtree belongs in the honored tradition of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, and company.”
Aside from Roundtree the cast of Shaft includes the great Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John, Gwenn Mitchell and Lawrence Pressman. Nearly every member of the film’s cast was/is a prolific staple of classic TV – another great reason to watch and rewatch this iconic movie.
Happy birthday, Richard Roundtree!