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Interview with Richard Roundtree

Richard Roundtree turned up at the crack of dawn the other morning to be on a Chicago TV show, and right away he knew he was in trouble. First, they wouldn't let him smoke. Second, they had his name on the screen and it read: Richard (Shaft) Roundtree. That was when he knew he needed a cigarette.

It's a funny thing with success. When you don't have it, and you want it, you knock yourself out trying to get it. Then, if you're lucky enough to get some, you have to figure out a way to live with it. Roundtree was a model, touring the country with the Ebony Fashion Fair, when he decided he wanted to be an actor. "That was in 1967; " he remembers. "In 1971, I made a major film. Four years. That's not too much suffering."

The movie was "Shaft" (1971) and Roundtree played the first black private eye. He did all the things private eyes do - shot and got shot at, joked with the cops, fought with the mob, took a shower with the girl. The movie was one of the year's top grossers, and so were its sequels, "Shaft's Big Score" and "Shaft Goes to Africa."

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."

Yet the Shaft image follows him, threatens to envelop him: Witness the name card on TV. And his career without Shaft hasn't been nearly as successful. In 1973, he made "Charley One-Eye," described by one critic as the first black Italian Western. In 1974, he made "Diamonds" with Robert Shaw. It was about a big jewel heist in Israel, and it wasn't released until a year after it was made. "I wish I could forget that one," Roundtree says. "I made it for the money, and that's exactly what I got out of it."

But now he's made a non-Shaft movie he's proud of, and that was the occasion for his visit to Chicago. The movie is "Man Friday," filmed on location in Mexico. Roundtree plays a native who's washed up on a tropical island, and his costar is Peter O'Toole, who plays, as you might have guessed from the title, Robinson Crusoe.

The movie is only very loosely inspired by the Daniel Defoe novel, however. Its immediate source as a London play by Adrian Mitchell, who also did the screenplay, and the Crusoe-Friday relationship is revisited through modern eyes. After Friday learns to speak English (remarkably quickly and surprisingly well), the two men engage in a relationship based on each one's belief that the other is a little mad and not quite civilized. Crusoe assigns Friday to do the chores around the island, but Friday refuses to be enslaved, so Crusoe pays him a gold coin every day. After enough days have passed, Friday has all the coins on the island, and then....

"One of the most interesting things in the movie," Roundtree said, "is the way it handles the concept of 'mine,' Crusoe tells Friday, 'This hat is mine!' - as if the hat knew it. Friday comes from a tribe where everything is shared, and he just can't get his mind around that idea. The movie is about these two men with their completely different ideas about almost everything, and how they survive and sort of adapt to one another. Neither one surrenders his own idea of what's right but they bend a little."

The movie was shot in Puerto Vallarta, the Mexican beach resort made famous in John Huston's "The Night of the Iguana," and Roundtree said Huston's love for the place must have been inspired by a particularly prudent cook. "We were sick all of the time we were there," he said. "We got Montezuma's Revenge - and that was the GOOD news. O'Toole woke up one morning covered with ants. There were frogs, lizards, spiders, everything but iguanas."

When he was first offered the script, he said, it was owned by O'Toole's company, but O'Toole didn't want to play Crusoe: "He'd just finished two or three movies in which he was bearded and wild-eyed, and he was thinking of altering the pattern. But then he liked the role so much he said, what the hell, I'll do it. He's a great guy. He doesn't pull the star trip on you." I asked Roundtree if he'd be playing Shaft again, and he said he didn't think so.

"That's one lovely thing about this role," he said, "There's nobody more opposite from John Shaft than a kid who worships a banana as his god. Nobody who worships a banana can be all bad...and, you know, I was thinking, I went to see 'Let's Do It Again' the other day, and it was a great comedy. I loved it. And Cosby and Poitier were like Martin and Lewis.

"It made me think maybe the pendulum is swinging away from violence and back toward something people can enjoy. Something with some laughs in it, like 'Man Friday' has some laughs, along with everything else. It's a role I'm completely happy with, and that's something I haven't always been able to say."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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