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Remembering Richard Roundtree, 'Shaft' star and pioneer for Black actors

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This week, the film world lost actor Richard Roundtree to pancreatic cancer. He was 81 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHAFT")

RICHARD ROUNDTREE: (As John Shaft) Where are my manners? I didn't even introduce myself to you gentlemen. My name is John Shaft. Freeze.

SUMMERS: Roundtree broke onto the scene playing the titular private eye in the film "Shaft," but his canon of work extends well beyond that 1971 classic and its sequels.

We are joined now by actor and filmmaker Tim Reid, who directed Richard Roundtree in the 1995 film, "Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TIM REID: Thank you. Thank you.

SUMMERS: So first of all, I just want to say that I am so sorry for the loss of your friend. And I want to ask you, can you describe what the world of cinema has lost with Richard Roundtree's passing?

REID: Wow. That's a tough question to answer, but I can sum it up almost with one word, which is icon. He was very involved in how his characters were portrayed. And he was really on it at all times and wanted to make sure not only it was the best performance he could do, but also that it had a point - it had a purpose within the storytelling arc. And it really was a wonderful experience being with him, and I think anyone who directed him would say the same thing.

SUMMERS: I mentioned earlier that you worked with him on the 1995 film, "Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored." And in that film, Richard Roundtree played the character Cleve, and he has described that part as his proudest work. What comes to mind for you when you remember him in that role?

REID: Gosh. That was my first directorial opportunity, and I was scared every minute of my waking day. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. And I remember how he and Phylicia Rashad and Al Freeman Jr., and Leon and Taj Mahal rallied around me like a protective shield. And whenever they saw things going the opposite direction of which we all had hoped, they would step in. And we'd have discussions, even sometimes in prayer. And Richard would always be there to talk about the character. And the character that he played, the iceman, was not really that involved in the book - the award-winning book by Clifton Taulbert. We needed a throughline. So with the help of Richard and the author, we created the ice wardens and sort of made the pivotal character in that situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONCE UPON A TIME... WHEN WE WERE COLORED")

ROUNDTREE: (As Cleve) Iceman here. Iceman.

REID: I mean, whenever he's on the screen, you pay attention. You really get involved in the character with such honesty. And he was playing that because, as it was mentioned in what he said, his father had never seen any movie that he had appeared in. His father was a pastor and Pentecostal preacher and did not like at all that Richard had gone into the film business. And one day, before his father passed, Richard was home visiting and just popped in the cassette for "Once Upon A Time... When We Were Colored." And so he watched the movie, said very little. And at the end, he looked at Richard, and he said, well done, my son. And that's the only time that his father had ever praised him for anything that he had ever done in his life. And when he told me that story, it really got me a little - a little verklempt (ph), as they say.

SUMMERS: Tim, do you remember when you first heard of Richard? Was it from "Shaft," or - how did you first come to know about him?

REID: Well, certainly "Shaft" was the first time. But it just so happens that my current manager - she was the first agent to give Richard an opportunity as a model, believe it or not, before "Shaft." She saw him and knew he was going to be somebody and told me about him. And then, of course, "Shaft" comes out, and he was somebody. He was a bad - well, we won't go that far.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: What kind of doors do you think his big breakthrough opened for you - for other Black actors and filmmakers?

REID: You know, I'm so proud of what people of African descent are doing throughout the world in media right now, from Nigeria to Uganda to Virginia to - you name it. They are strutting their stuff. They are doing great work. I don't know half the actors that I - that are doing great work right now. In the late '60s, you could put all of us in a van, and you'd have every actor in Hollywood that was working, you know? There was just not that many. So whatever they did, whatever Richard moved, there was always trailblazing - a battle to get there, the things that you had to deal with. You had to hide your strength because you didn't want them to think you were an angry Negro. So for him to come out in such an aggressive role, it was one of the first times we'd ever seen a Black actor with that kind of aggression and power and wit and charm. It was a first, you know? It gave us a little edge. It made us think, well, wait a minute. I can say, no, I'm going to do this my way - up to a point. And now, of course, the floodgates are open.

SUMMERS: Tim Reid, actor and filmmaker, remembering his friend, the late actor Richard Roundtree. Tim, thank you so much.

REID: Well, thank you for the opportunity to talk about my friend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jason Fuller
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.