The 1970s had its share of streetwise action heroes. On television, there were police detectives Starsky and Hutch and undercover cop Tony Baretta. At the movies, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson took on controversial roles as police inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971) and architect turned vigilante Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974).
And then there was Shaft.
On a cultural level, John Shaft was a breakthrough character during the 1970s because he presented a new and more positive image of what an African-American person could do and be. Eric Snider in “What’s the Big Deal?: Shaft (1971)” explains what was special about John Shaft as a black private detective:
It’s hard for those of us born after 1971 to fathom how groundbreaking this kind of thing was in its day. Prior to this, you hardly saw black characters in movies who weren’t servants, slaves, yes-men, criminals, or buffoons. Black main characters were exceedingly rare in Hollywood films; black main characters who had active sex lives were rarer still. Basically, black moviegoers almost never saw anything on the big screen that reflected their lives.
Shaft changed this. The movie is often considered the forerunner of blaxploitation films. In these movies, black main characters frequently outwitted white antagonists who were, as Snider puts it, “often racist, corrupt, incompetent, or dumb.” Snider estimates that “Somewhere between 150 and 200 blaxploitation films were made between 1971 and 1979, and they all trace their roots back to Shaft.”
Life Before and During Shaft
For Richard Roundtree, the role of John Shaft catapulted him from obscurity to international fame within a short period of time. Prior to starring in Shaft, Roundtree was a football player. He attended Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship. He also had some experience acting on stage and had done a few commercials and a documentary called What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970), but it was actually his work as a model that got the attention of Shaft’s director, Gordon Parks.
In an interview with University of Virginia historian John Mason at the 2014 Virginia Film Festival, Roundtree recalls his meeting with Parks:
He says, “We’re looking for someone like that. Someone like this.” And he pointed to a photograph of an ad that I’d done as a model.” . . . And I go, “That’s me!”
Parks eventually gave Roundtree the role, and the rest is moviemaking history. The first Shaft movie was a box office hit for MGM, and the studio quickly followed it up with the production of two sequels: Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). MGM Television also produced a Shaft TV series that aired on CBS for only one season from 1973 to 1974.
Despite the enormous success he achieved by playing John Shaft, Roundtree eventually grew tired of the role. In a 1975 interview with Roundtree, Roger Ebert gave the actor an opportunity to explain why he did not want to do additional Shaft films for MGM:
The studio, MGM, had Roundtree signed to a 12-picture contract, which was supposed to include at least four more Shaft films. But he decided he wanted out: “As much as possible, I’d like every role to be totally different from the one before,” he says. “If you do the same thing too often, it gets to be the only thing you can do.”
After walking away from his role as Shaft, Roundtree made a diligent effort to distance himself from the role that made him famous. He tried to choose roles that were markedly different from John Shaft and worked with some well-known actors, such as Peter O’Toole and Sir Laurence Olivier. Some examples of his post-Shaft work include playing a native on a tropical island in Man Friday (1975) and portraying Sergeant Augustus Henderson in the war drama Inchon (1981).
Besides acting in films and plays, Roundtree did a lot of work for television. He acted in various TV movies such as The Fifth Missile (1986) and played guest starring and recurring roles in various TV shows including Alias, The Mentalist, and Being Mary Jane. In 1998, Roundtree received a nomination for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his portrayal of Philip Thomas, the founder of a youth crisis center on the FOX series 413 Hope Street.
Back to Shaft
None of these roles, however, could make the public forget that he played Shaft. How could any of them compete against a character who is, as the movie trailer of Shaft touted, “hotter than Bond and cooler than Bullitt” and even has his own award-winning theme song?
As the years passed, Roundtree eventually accepted the fact that he would be inextricably linked to the character that he played decades ago. In a 2011 interview, he reveals this acceptance in his response to a question about what the role of Shaft did for his career:
Well, it got me to this point. 24/7 there’s some mention of the character Shaft although I’ve done some 80 odd movies. Everyone still remembers Shaft, so that’s a good-bad thing. [laughs] But I keep working, so it’s all good.
Coming full circle, Roundtree even starred in a Shaft movie made in 2000. In this updated sequel, Roundtree played Uncle John Shaft, and Samuel L. Jackson played his nephew, who also had the same name. The movie received mixed reviews.
And Roundtree is not through with the Shaft movie franchise just yet. According to Comingsoon.net, a new Shaft reboot is in the works for 2019, and Roundtree and Samuel L. Jackson are involved with the project. Jessie T. Usher will play the lead role as John Shaft Jr., the son of John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson).
Ghezal Amiri provides a brief summary of the storyline for the latest Shaft movie:
He may be a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, but to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death, JJ—aka John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher)—will need an education only his dad can provide. Absent throughout JJ’s youth, the legendary locked-and-loaded John Shaft (Jackson) agrees to help his progeny navigate Harlem’s heroin-infested underbelly. And while JJ’s own FBI analyst’s badge may clash with his dad’s trademark leather duster, there’s no denying family. Besides, Shaft’s got an agenda of his own, and a score to settle that’s professional and personal.
The times may have changed, but people’s interest in Shaft still remains. When he started working on the first Shaft movie in New York on a cold January day in 1971, Richard Roundtree probably could not have imagined that at the age of 75 he would still be “Shafted.”