Monday, July 9, 2007
One of my favorite actors turns sixty-five today and I thought I would offer up a little tribute for him.
Since making his starring debut in Gordon Park's SHAFT in 1971, Richard Roundtree has been one of our most reliable, talented and unbelievably cool actors. With well over 100 films and tv appearances in his filmography, the New York born Roundtree has also been one of the most prolific actors of the past three decades.
Although he had a small role in 1970's WHAT DO YOU SAY TO A NAKED LADY, it was as detective John Shaft in 1971 that would mark Roundtree's introduction to film audiences all over the world. It is hard to over-emphasize the importance of SHAFT and Roundtree's performance in the film, and if it indeed has overshadowed the rest of his career then that only shows just how truly iconic it is.
SHAFT could have been just another early seventies cop picture starring any number of popular white male actors but talented photographer and director Gordon Parks had something else in mind. From the legendary sounds of Isaac Hayes score to Parks influential and kinetic directorial style, SHAFT remains a mind-blowing and door kicking down film. Much of the credit for the film's phenomenal success is due to Roundtree himself, who would not only give a a great performance but would provide a much needed positive and strong role model for kids of all colors all over the world. There had certainly been strong African American portrayals on the screen before Richard Roundtree as John Shaft but his success as a leading man, sex symbol and strong dramatic force was a triple play that few actors, black or white, had matched before or since. John Shaft is one of the most important, if often overlooked, characters in American film history.
Roundtree worked constantly throughout the seventies in films ranging from the SHAFT sequels and tv series to the big budget disaster film EARTHQUAKE to the interesting DIAMONDS and the ambitious A GAME FOR VULTURES.
James Fargo's A GAME FOR VULTURES really showed Roundtree attempting to escape the John Shaft persona and it remains one of his great performances even though the film is flawed. The film's failure could have hurt Roundtree but he didn't let it and he continued to work constantly throughout the eighties.
Highlights from Roundtree's second decade as one of our great leading men and character actors include Larry Cohen's awesome Q, the fun Fred Williamson collaborations ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO and THE BIG SCORE and William Lustig's fine MANIAC COP.
Even a cancer scare in 1993 couldn't slow Richard down and he continued to appear in many films and television roles throughout the decade, including a great spot in David Fincher's SEVEN and the underrated Larry Cohen picture ORIGINAL GANGSTAS.
Richard gives a really fantastic performance in ORIGINAL GANGSTAS and the sight of him, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Jim Brown and Ron Oneal in the same film still brings a smile to my face. This effective little film is deserving of much more attention than has been granted to it.
This decade began with the news that SHAFT was going to be remade. What could have been disastrous was actually handled very well by director John Singleton. Instead of a straight remake the film was a continuation, with Samuel L. Jackson playing the nephew of the original John Shaft. Richard had been a hero to both Jackson and Singleton and the new SHAFT was a splendid tribute to not only the original film but also to how much the character had meant to kids in the seventies. Roundtree would appear in the film, as would original director Gordon Parks, and essentially steal every scene he was in. His scenes with Jackson in Singleton's very solid film remain some of the best and most effective of his career.
Since the new SHAFT, the Golden Globe nominated Richard Roundtree has continued to work constantly and he remains at sixty five one of the most beautiful and best Actors in American cinema. I wish him a very happy birthday and many more years of success on and off the screen.