For Richard Roundtree, Shaft Was a “Blessing and a Curse”

On July 2, 1971, viewers caught their first glimpse of John Shaft, the “Black private dick.” A sex machine to all the chicks, Shaft quickly became a hero, inspiring young men, Black and white, to get up and be who they were. With his unapologetic and no-nonsense attitude, he took America by storm.

Richard Roundtree / Richard Roundtree / Richard Roundtree, Samuel L. Jackson / Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree.
Source: Getty Images

The Shaft franchise has gone through quite the evolution. In 2000, Samuel L. Jackson became Shaft II, and in 2019, a millennial Shaft, played by Jessie T. Usher, showed there was another, more pacifistic way to fight crime (the movie was met with a ton of criticism).

Here’s a look at the franchise over the years.

A News Reporter Created Shaft

The fictional character of John Shaft was created by Ernest Tidyman, the author of the novel Shaft. Before he started to work on the Shaft series, Ernest served as a reporter for the Cleveland News, as well as The New York Post and The New York Times.

A portrait of Ernest Tidyman.
Ernest Tidyman. Source: Pinterest

He got a lot of inspiration for his detective stories from the cases he covered in the news. With the help of John D.F. Black, Ernest managed to adapt his first Shaft book into a screenplay for the silver screen. His work on the series earned him an NAACP Image Award.

They Want to Shoot Shaft in LA

Shaft was shot solely in New York City, which is pretty evident due to the many scenes in Times Square and Greenwich Village. But it didn’t have to be that way. In fact, Shaft was nearly filmed in Los Angeles due to “budgetary issues.”

A promotional photo for the film.
Photo by John Kisch Archive/Getty Images

In his memoir, Voices in the Mirror, Gordon Parks wrote about that mere hours before he was supposed to start shooting, MGM instructed him to return to LA and film the movie there. But Gordon wasn’t having it, and he basically threatened he would quit if they wouldn’t let him shoot in Manhattan.

The Stache Was Non-Negotiable

With the LA fiasco behind him, director Gordon Parks was now ready to begin shooting the movie. But when he started rolling the cameras, he was faced with another troubling issue when he saw the star of his movie, Richard Roundtree, head to the bathroom with a razor in hand.

A still of Richard Roundtree on set as John Shaft.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Apparently, one of the producers, Joel Freeman, asked the actor to get rid of his mustache (little did he know, it would soon become THE mustache). Gordon Parks came to the rescue right on time and told Richard: “Shave it off and you’re out of a job.”

Gordon’s Magazine Is in the Film

Director Gordon Parks knew exactly what to do to promote a specific publication which he helped create. In Shaft’s opening sequence, Shaft starts chatting with a blind newsstand vendor standing on the side of the street.

A photo of Gordon Parks on set.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

His stand shows several magazines, but one stands out from the rest – the magazine Essence. For the first three years it was printed, Gordon Parks served as the publication’s editorial director. A multi-talented man!

Bumpy Jonas Was Real

In the film, Shaft invests most of his energy in tracking down a kidnapped girl, the daughter of a Harlem mobster named Bumpy Jonas. Lo and behold! Bumpy Jonas wasn’t some Hollywood invention. He was based on a real-life crime kingpin.

A mugshot of Bumpy Jonas / A still of Denzel Washington in American Gangster.
Source: Wikipedia / YouTube

Ellsworth Johnson, also known as “Bumpy,” ruled the Harlem crime scene from the ’30s all the way to the ’60s. He was linked to the notorious murder of Dutch Schultz and also served as the mentor of Frank Lucas, the infamous drug dealer Denzel Washington played in the movie American Gangster.

Gordon Parks Starred in the Film

Many don’t know this, but Gordon Parks makes a brief cameo in the film. It’s a pretty common deal in Hollywood, that directors feel the need to pop up in one of the scenes because, well, why not?

A still Richard Roundtree and Gordon Parks on set.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Gordon Parks shows his face briefly in the scene where Shaft is searching for Ben Buford. Parks plays the landlord smoking the pipe, who says that he’s also looking for Ben Buford, because the guy owes him six months of rent.

Muhammad Ali’s Trainer Guest Starred

Drew Bundini Brown, the man who worked as Muhammad Ali’s assistant trainer, landed a minor role in the film. During his run as Ali’s trainer, he became famous for the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” part he performed with the boxer for the cameras.

A photo of Muhammad Ali and Drew Bundini Brown on the boxing ring / A movie still of Drew Bundini Brown.
Source: Pinterest / Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: MGM

But Brown wasn’t just Ali’s sidekick, and when he wasn’t standing in the boxer’s corner, he was busy working on his movie credits. He had dreams of making it big on the screen. His first project was Shaft, where he starred as part of Bumpy Jonas’s entourage.

Skloot Insurance Was a Reference to a Crew Member

If you watched the movie, you may recall that Shaft’s office is located between Acme Imports Exports Inc. and Skloot Insurance. Where did the name Skloot come from? Apparently, a crew member inspired the fun moniker.

A still from a scene in Shaft’s office.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: MGM

Skloot Insurance is a reference to the film’s unit production manager, Steven P. Skloot. Other movie credits of his include Live and Let Die (1973), The Landlord (1970), Sunburst (1975), End of the Road (1970), and Tomorrow (1972).

Gordon Parks Had Some Explaning to Do

When Gordon Parks visited London as part of his publicity tour for the movie, he ended up giving the locals a vocabulary lesson. At one press screening, a puzzled reporter asked him what “shaft” actually meant. The director’s reply was pretty straightforward.

A picture of Parks and Roundtree laughing on set.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He smiled and stuck his middle finger up in the air, explaining that his gesture was “The most honest answer” he could give. But the British reporter wasn’t satisfied and asked why the characters in the film keep calling each other “mother.” Right then, a woman in the crowd came to Park’s rescue and said: “You’ve heard of Smucker’s jam, young man… Just snip out the first two letters and add an ‘f’ and you’ll get the message.”

Isaac Hayes Made History

The movie’s composer, Isaac Hayes, made history as the first Black composer to earn an Oscar. His incredible “Theme From Shaft” won him a 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song. Not only was he the first Black composer to win an Oscar, but he was the third African American in history to snatch an Oscar.

A photo of Isaac Hayes performing on stage.
Photo by John Atashian/Getty Images

Before 1973, two other people were granted the award. One Academy award winner was Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind. Next, was Sidney Poitier, who won Best Actor for 1963’s Lilies of the Field.

The Third Installment Is Ridiculous

The Shaft franchise is a politically and racially charged collection of movies based in New York. Yet the third film took America by storm with its silliness, so much so that the new installment came across as a stand-alone that had little to do with the previous movies.

A movie still of Roundtree as Shaft in Shaft in Africa.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: MGM

Shaft in Africa centers around a modern-day slave ring in Africa. The storyline shows Shaft flirting his way into a specific tribe in order to save the day. This film was a far cry from the seriousness and grit of the previous installments.

The Series Became a TV Show

Following the movie’s success on the silver screen, Shaft was licensed into a television show in 1973. Richard Roundtree starred in the show, with his character now working alongside law enforcement instead of against them.

A studio portrait of Richard Roundtree.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A lot of Shaft lovers saw this change as detrimental to the character’s entire being. The show aired just seven meager episodes before it was canceled. Many assumed that this was because Hawkins, another crime drama show, overshadowed Shaft.

Shaft Almost Went to Jamaica

When the Shaft series was rebooted in the new millennium, Paramount had exciting plans for the detective. Director John Singleton thought of sending Shaft to Jamaica, where he was would fight against drug lords in a sequel like Shaft in Africa.

A photo of Samuel L. Jackson on stage.
Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Due to the third installment’s underwhelming box office outcome, and Samuel L. Jackson’s disappointment in the film, John Singleton’s dream was scrapped. The Jamaica saga would be shelved. Oh well…

Isaac Hayes Wanted to Be Shaft

Before playing Shaft, Richard Roundtree worked as a model. He was an unconventional pick for a private detective, but to the movie’s producers, he was fit for the part. In any case, they felt he was a better choice than Isaac Hayes.

An image of Richard Roundtree during a televised interview.
Photo by Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

Hayes later revealed that the only reason he agreed to compose the Shaft score was that producer Joel Freeman promised him an audition for the lead role. While the audition never took place, Hayes still kept his end of the deal.

The Django Unchained Connection

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained focuses on one man’s quest to save his wife Broomhilda von Shaft. Broomhilda’s last name might sound like a sweet tribute to Shaft, but Quentin Tarantino actually viewed Broomhilda as the original Shaft.

A still from the film Django Unchained.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: The Weinstein Company

In several interviews, Tarantino revealed that he viewed Broomhilda to be the first Shaft and that John Shaft came from her bloodline. Shaft movies don’t really discuss Shaft’s pre-Civil War heritage. Could it be that Django Unchained is its unofficial prequel?

Shaft II – Nephew or Son?

When the movie was revived in 2000 (as a continuation, not a reboot), Samuel L. Jackson played Shaft’s nephew. However, in the 2019 sequel, his character claims that he’s the son of the iconic detective played by Richard Roundtree.

A promotional shot of Samuel L. Jackson starring in Shaft II.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

This sudden change is more of a correction than a random plot twist. Apparently, Jackson was meant to be Shaft’s son in the 2000 film, but producers at the time insisted that Shaft be Jackson’s uncle. The 2019 film ignores this puzzling family tree.

Shaft Sr. Passed Away in 1975

Even if the character had just three films to his name, John Shaft rapidly turned into an iconic cinematic hero, despite the fact that he actually died in the novels that inspired his silver screen debut.

A still of Roundtree in a scene from Shaft.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After seven Shaft novels, the author of the series, Ernest Tidyman, decided to kill the detective in The Last Shaft, during a scene where he fights the Mafia one final time. This book was well-received and was viewed as an appropriate farewell for the character.

An Urban Legend

One of the wackiest urban legends floating around the Shaft series is the idea that John Shaft was meant to be a white man. Apparently, MGM wanted to hire a white actor to play Shaft but decided against it after seeing the success of the movie “Sweet Setback’s Baadasssss Song,” considered to be the very first Blaxploitation movie.

A still of Roundtree on the set of Shaft.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

This rumor was eventually debunked, with critics saying that the urban legend was completely ungrounded. This claim got so out of hand that some believed that the original book centered around a white detective.

The 2019 Version Flopped

The 2019 film seemed promising, yet when it came out, it proved disastrous. Viewers were left dissatisfied and quite frankly, mad. The 2019 film is full of cheesy stereotypes and painfully politically correct characters. Jackson’s son in the movie, played by Jessie T. Usher, is more or less a joke.

A promotional shot for the 2019 film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: New Line Cinema

In the movie, there’s a clash between the elder Shaft (Jackson) and the younger Shaft (Jessie T. Usher). It seems like Jackson’s character is focused on nothing but showing his decaf-coffee drinking son that shooting guns is the way to go.

Shaft Prompted a Massive Change

Before Shaft came out in the ’70s, Black characters in films were normally either pitied or sainted. But after Shaft made it to the cinemas, the potential for such characters broadened and they grew to be a lot more creative and in control of their own fate.

A still of Roundtree in a scene from the film.
Photo by LMPC/Getty Images

The film, which earned about $13 million ($82 million today) on a budget of $500,000, inspired a string of copycats and helped kickstart the Blaxploitation era that of the ’70s. Oh, and the film also helped save MGM from bankruptcy!

Shaft Made Richard a Star

After nearly five decades since the first Shaft’s release, Richard Roundtree opened up to The New York Times about the impact the franchise had on his life. Richard was 28 years old when he starred in the movie, and the newcomer was hungry for money and work.

A dated portrait of Richard Roundtree.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Born in New Rochelle, he juggled several jobs; he was a model, a stage actor and a cab driver before Gordon Parks chose him as his star. The film turbocharged this new actor’s career and changed his anonymous life forever.

An Ugly Point in His Career

In two years, the first three Shaft films all hit the silver screen. At the time, Roundtree was on top of the world. Sadly, the crashing point was right around the corner. If Roundtree could take back time, he said, he would have refused to do the TV series that failed miserably.

Richard Roundtree attends an event.
Photo by J. Countess/Getty Images

He told The New York Times: “You can’t erase events, but that’s one I wish I could. I had just come back from Shaft in Africa when they tried to convert the character to television. It wasn’t going to happen. That was an ugly point in my long, illustrious career.”

The Whole World Turned Around

Richard Roundtree remembers very well the feeling of becoming famous overnight. He described it as a surreal sensation, a moment in which “the whole world turned around.” But was he able to handle it? According to Roundtree:

A photo of Richard Roundtree and Samuel L. Jackson during an interview.
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

“Honestly, I lost it. When all that stuff hits you, you’re not prepared for it. You think you are, but there’s some heady stuff. When people are calling you in front of the line, ‘Right this way, right this way.’ Oh, it takes a while to get your feet back on the ground.”

John Shaft Was a Window Into a Different Life

Before being cast as John Shaft, Richard Roundtree suffered from racist behavior, like being followed in department stores and having his every move carefully watched and monitored (for fear he might be a thief).

A still of Roundtree in the character of John Shaft.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Once he became famous, life turned on its head. Those stereotypical rules didn’t apply anymore, and Richard quickly understood that he had been granted a rare glimpse into a life he might have had if he had just been born a different color.

Gordon Parks – “The Classiest Gentleman Ever”

On working with Gordon Parks, Richard Roundtree said: “I had the privilege of working with the classiest gentleman possibly that I’ve ever known in the industry.” While some Black people believed that the movie was doing more harm than good, Richard said the work he did with Parks transcended any talk of exploitation.

A portrait of Gordon Parks in his home.
Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

“[Shaft] gave a lot of people work. It gave a lot of people entrée into the business, including a lot of our present-day producers and directors. So, in the big picture, I view it as a positive,” he told The New York Times.

The Role Was a Gift and a Curse

According to Roundtree, whenever someone encounters him on the street, they immediately begin to recite lines from the movie’s theme song, or else lines from the film, and funny, famous quotes his character was famous for.

A portrait of Roundtree as Shaft.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Most of the time, he’s like “Yeah, man. Cool. O.K.” But Roundtree knows that the franchise boosted his career and put him on a whole other level. He doesn’t regret doing it and is forever grateful for the opportunity and exposure.

What Made Him Decide to Do the 2019 Film?

Roundtree played his character in two sequels – a terrible CBS television series and a continuation in 2000 starring Samuel L. Jackson as his nephew. Then, in 2019, he agreed to star again, this time, as a grandfather to Jackson’s “unmacho” son.

Richard Roundtree and Jessie T. Usher pose for the press.
Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Why did he take on the role? According to him, he loves the character, and when Samuel Jackson approached him at a birthday party in 2018, saying “We’re going back to work,” he didn’t think twice. “[Sam is] always true to his word,” he told The New York Times. “[His] instincts about this business are always right on, and I trusted his vision of what this should be.”

Samuel Jackson Is Quite Intimidating

Regina Hall, who stars as Shaft’s wife in the movie, had to cope with the initial fear when working with Samuel Jackson. “Sam is intimidating at first,” Hall laughed. “He was great. He’s very gracious as an artist. He does have a photographic memory though and knew everyone’s lines. He could be a producer, actor, and director all in one.”

A picture of Richard Roundtree and Samuel L. Jackson during an event.
Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Another actress, Alexandra Shipp, who plays the J.J.’s love interest in the movie, was awed at Jackson’s swagger. “You definitely see the way he carries himself. He is that powerful, strong presence. He is that 24/7. He’s very funny and larger than life. You better be on it,” Shipp stated.

Shaft for Millennials

Jessie T. Usher, the youngest Shaft, said that he felt like the movie sorted some things out for millennials. “To be honest, there’s a lot of conversation about millennials amongst ourselves, among other generations,” he explained, “and there’s a lot of outside influences and opinions that are constantly changing millennials.”

Jessie T. Usher attends an event.
Photo by Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Usher wanted a millennial to be shown in the movie as much as possible. He was happy with the result, happy that he played a character that was “was liberal and sensitive but also hardheaded.”

Working With Cultural Giants

Being on set with huge names like Richard Roundtree and Samuel L. Jackson was an experience like no other. According to Jessie T. Usher, it felt like “a group project where you got a chance to do it with the teachers, which was amazing…”

Jessie T. Usher speaks on stage.
Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images

“It’s just a nonstop creative effort. The neurons were firing constantly. It was ever-changing, it was revolutionary,” he added. They had a blast shooting the film, and everyone, regardless of their age or experience, felt like they had a say in the process.

They Just Want Their Voices to Be Heard

Jessie T. Usher’s presence on set was crucial to the storyline. He educated the rest of the crew, including the screenwriter, about the mindset of millennials, dispersing any misconceptions some people may have of them.

Jessie T. Usher attends an event.
Photo by Araya Doheny/WireImage/Getty Images

“It was my place to step up and say, ‘We would never do this, we would never do that, we would never say this, we would never say that.’ Somethings we just don’t mind. I know a lot of people think millennials are ultra-sensitive but on a lot of things we’re not. We just want our voice to be heard. That’s all!” he explained.

Jackson Took Part in Writing the Script

The original movie was released in 1971. Needless to say, the ’70s were a decade totally different than the one we are living in today. Therefore, Shaft’s character was free to be tough, slightly homophobic, and a bit misogynistic.

A still from the original version of the film Shaft.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: MGM

But in the 2019 installment, that wasn’t going to fly. So, in order to make the new Shaft agreeable without losing his essence, Jackson took some passes at the script. Director Tom Story was amazed at his ideas, “I’m amazed that Sam had so many notes on the millennial angle,” he told CNN. “Sam just talks to so many people constantly that he just has all this information.”

He Embraces the Term Mother ******

The curse word has become Samuel L. Jackson’s onscreen trademark. The actor is so closely associated with it that even those who don’t necessarily know him that well, or don’t remember in which movies they’ve seen him, will surely remember him saying, “motherf****r!”

A still of Samuel L. Jackson in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: New Line Cinema

“I embrace it,” Jackson once admitted, “It is what it is, and I don’t mind if I’m linked with that word… I don’t run away from it. I step into it. When I read a script and it’s on the page, I don’t think about it. For me, it’s really just another word.”

How Many Times Does He Say It?

The film’s screenwriter and executive producer Kenya Barris once said he loves hearing Jackson curse probably as much as Jackson’s fans do. So much so, that he made sure to include foul language in the movie’s dialogue to please the viewers, and to honor the character’s unapologetic personality.

Samuel L. Jackson attends an event.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

“We couldn’t do a Shaft movie without some ‘motherf***ers!’ I hope I put enough in there,” said the screenwriter. “But there has to be some balance. We only added [the word] in when it felt right and organic to the character.”

Fun fact: According to the film’s director, Tim Story, Jackson yells “mother***er” about 40 times.

Jackson’s Debilitating Stutter

Jackson’s cursing actually serves a greater purpose (other than pure entertainment). Growing up, the actor had a debilitating stutter. In fact, he was bullied so severely in school that he stopped talking altogether for nearly a year before finding out that the word “mother****r” could be quite the speech aid.

A promotional still of Samuel L. Jackson for the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: New Line Cinema

“I stuttered for a long time, and it actually did help me stop. The word gave me something to focus on and released the pressure, and it really helped me get the rest of the sentence out,” Jackson revealed. “I’m not really sure why, but it’s easy for me to pronounce.”

Shaft Was Jackson’s Hero

“There was no such thing as that kind of role like Shaft,” Jackson once shared, “nothing close when I was a kid.” As a kid, Jackson hoped to be like Robin Hood or Zorro. By the time the movie Shaft came along, he was already in his 20s.

A still of Richard Roundtree on the set of Shaft.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“To have a guy who was unapologetically Black, brave, and irreverent, was a revelation. He’s a hero that you can aspire to be, and for me, seeing a hero that looked like me really changed everything. He showed me anything was possible,” he added.

Shaft’s Evolution Over the Years

Much has changed since the franchise first debuted. The original film, the 2000 film, and the 2019 installment are all radically different from one another. When it comes to outerwear, in the original movie, Shaft’s clothes are fairly basic: black and brown coats.

A still of the three Shaft generations matching their black outfits.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: New Line Cinema

The same goes for the 2000 movie, in which Jackson’s character keeps his outfits simple with dark, ordinary fabrics. In the new film, however, the three Shaft generations sport matching red trench coats! A completely different look.

A New Suit Collection

In the new film, Shaft flaunts a bright color palette! John Shaft II shows up in blue and maroon clothing over beige turtlenecks. The newest Shaft, played by Jessie T. Usher, dresses in colorful plaid shirts and ties.

A still of Jessie T. Usher in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: New Line Cinema

The original Shaft, though, also knew how to style himself in more formal occasions. In Shaft in Africa (1973), he wears a white suit and underneath it, a low-cut, disco-style shirt. These Shaft men surely know how to make a statement.

The Hats

A recurring clothing item in the series is Shaft’s fedora. Appearing in 1972’s Shaft’s Big Score! the wide-brimmed fedora completes many of the character’s sharp looks. John Shaft II wore a similar hat, small-brimmed but fashionable, nonetheless. The 2019 version shows the younger Shaft men in black beanies.

A portrait of Richard Roundtree in the character of Shaft.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Lastly, when it comes to leather, it stars in all the movies. The look comes up again and again in all the movies; however, the style of the leather jackets, their fit and length changes. The original Shaft sports open-front jackets, as well as button-front jackets. The middle Shaft is seen wearing a leather jacket that’s adorned with fur around its collar.

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