Currently co-starring in BET’s first hour-dramatic series Being Mary Jane, RICHARD ROUNDTREE has been in the limelight ever since he was hand-picked in 1971 to play the lead role in the Oscar-winning film Shaft (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe). His massive body of work over the past four decades includes stand-out performances in other blockbuster films like Earthquake (with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner), Seven (with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman), George of the Jungle (with Brendan Fraser) and in 1977’s TV miniseries milestone Roots. Prior to Mary Jane, Roundtree has appeared in television shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Desperate Housewives, Lincoln Heights and The Closer as well as the daytime soap Generations; he received an Outstanding Supporting Actor-Daytime nomination from Soap Opera Digest for the latter. He has also performed Off Broadway in numerous stage productions and has even lent his voice to the lead character for the PlayStation game Akuji the Heartless.
In his early years, the New Rochelle, New York, 6’1” native played football, first as an offensive end then switching to defense in college. After that he strolled down the catwalk modeling in fashion shows before director Gordon Parks discovered him and gave him the plum role of a lifetime. You can watch Roundtree in action every Tuesday evening at 10 p.m. PST on BET’s new hit show Being Mary Jane (which is so popular it already has more than 790,000 Likes on Facebook!). While on a break from filming on location in Atlanta, he took the time to sit down for this interview with The Tolucan Times in his gorgeous Toluca Lake home.
You had two other career paths in front of you prior to becoming an actor; what happened?
When you hear cheering it’s very addicting and I first heard it while playing football. During my sophomore year in college I knew I would not be able to realize my dream of becoming a pro football player because I didn’t have the tools that are necessary: physicality, size, speed, so that door was shut. I got married, had kids and became a clothing salesman at the original Barney’s in Manhattan. I was waiting on models and actors and ultimately one of them said, “You ought to model.” I started getting catalog work and I did the Ebony Fashion Fair [traveling fashion show]— 79 cities in 90 days. When I went out on the runway the place went crazy! What do you do to extend that? By the time we got to Los Angeles in 1967 I knew I wanted to become an actor and I was fortunate enough to meet Bill Cosby at a house party. I had a brief conversation with him: he said, “Do yourself a favor … don’t think you’re going to take this town by storm. Go back to New York and learn your craft.” I figured he knew what he was talking about so I went back to New York, joined the Negro Ensemble Company and stayed there for almost two years. Watching the brilliant actors who were in the repertory company: Denise Nicholas, Adolph Caesar (Oscar-nominated for A Soldier’s Story), Rosalind Cash… I got to see what their work ethic was about and started doing Off Broadway. My last performance was The Great White Hope in Philadelphia.
How did you land the iconic title role in Shaft?
During the day I would go to Manhattan to try to get modeling jobs and commercials. My then-agent suggested I drop off my picture and resume for a film MGM was doing called Shaft and I did, just like every other actor in Manhattan at that time! I kept getting callbacks, finally one to meet [Gordon] Parks and did one screen test. Long story short I got the role and that was a huge turning point in my life.
What made you move to L.A.?
I came out here to do looping for Shaft at MGM in Culver City in December… I remember they were selling Christmas trees in short-sleeved shirts. Being born and raised in New York as the oldest kid I was responsible for shoveling the snow and I thought this (L.A.) is where I belong so I called Bekins and American Airlines and never looked back!
When you were filming Roots did you know it was going to be such a landmark movie?
No. Like Shaft, I had no idea it was going to be what it turned out to be. The most special part of being a part of Roots was that the story we all knew was true, yet none of us had experienced it and the comradery was incredible. When you’re doing something like Roots with its historical significance it’s magical. It was never ever work with the exception of the scene I had with George Hamilton… I will never forget when [my character ‘Sam Bennett’]had to grovel. I said, “We are going to do this in one take and one take only.” I have difficulty watching 12 Years A Slave…
Who was your favorite actor to work with?
The charisma, professionalism and historic being of Mr. Peter O’Toole; he would say, “You American actors with all your punctuations … throw all that stuff out!” When you listen to his speech pattern it’s off the chain, but he’s so succinct in everything he says! There’s a scene in [1975’s] Man Friday where I’m chained to this pole, he’s doing ‘Vintage O’Toole’ and I wanted to capture it on tape so I hid a recorder behind the pole. During the course of his monologue the tape turned onto the other side and started blaring R&B music I had on there. (In his best upper class English accent as O’Toole) “Bloody Hell, what is that?” (Laughs) I had destroyed the take! Two years ago at an awards show party I started to approach him; he looks up and says, “Bloody Hell, where’s that coming from?!” Such a loss when he passed…
Which do you favor most: the silver screen, TV movies, episodics, soaps, stage or voice over work?
Stage … because you get the payoff at the end of each performance, the clapping. You go from A to Z every night and if you didn’t like something you get the opportunity the next night to change it. I haven’t been on stage since 2000. Wow! I’d love to do another play.
Your proudest moment so far?
Hearing that Shaft is in the Library of Congress; for me that was elevating because a lot of films in that period had this ‘label’ on them. When I think of the film’s director, Gordon Parks, I cannot put that label on him. He was singularly the most sophisticated, elegant man that I have ever met; the epitome of a Renaissance man. And Shaft wasn’t even his best work; for me it was Leadbelly. He was a class act and never got the credit he deserved. He was the first black fashion photographer for Life Magazine. I am privileged to be in one of his films.
What is it like playing Gabrielle Union’s father on BET’s new hit drama series ‘Being Mary Jane’?
I am just blown away by her performance, but as the actor playing her dad, I don’t want to see all that! (Laughs) Gabrielle is beautiful inside and out … and oh man, she is hilarious!
‘Mary Jane’ has already been picked up for a second season. Why do you think it is succeeding so early?
Everyone can relate to the characters on the show: professional women, whether they are married or single, can relate to Gabrielle’s journey. The extended family, children coming back to live with their parents, juggling professional and personal life, all the pitfalls and traps; it’s so relatable – trying to have it all. And it’s raw…
What are your other interests?
I love golf, but my real passion is photography. I’ve always shot on [movie]locations around the world just for fun. Three years ago I started shooting actors, they would ask me to do their headshots and it just ballooned into something I really enjoy! My most favorite photograph was while I was shooting Diamonds [with Robert Shaw and Barbara Hersey]in Jerusalem: I was setting up a shot in an alley way and saw these four nuns coming down in their white habits … when I finally got the camera out they had passed me so I got them from behind. I took a couple shots, developed them and because of the lighting in the alley way and the shadows coming across their habits, I never saw this baby over the shoulder of one of the nuns, staring at me. It was singularly thee most fantastic picture I’ve ever taken! Wanna see it? (He shows me; it is stunning…)
Richard Roundtree’s Official Websites: