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The 'S' Word

An interview with actor Richard Roundtree.



Richard Roundtree has made an uneasy peace with the iconic role he portrayed in three films and a short-lived television series. He's done a lot of work since then (recently, a recurring role on “Desperate Housewives” and as Lou Bailey in the popular Web series, “Diary of Single Mom.”), but the “Shaft” character continues to tail him, like the unstoppable private dick that he is.

Even this week, when the 69-year-old actor appears at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to speak about his role in the 1995 film “Once Upon A Time We Were Colored,” he knows what some people will want to talk about afterwards.

If you guessed Picasso, you're damn wrong.

Recently, Roundtree spoke about the importance of the Tim Reid-directed “Once Upon a Time When We were Colored,” life after breast cancer and remembering his father's advice.


Style: What attracted you to “Once Upon …”?

Richard Roundtree: Well, working with Tim Reid and Daphne [Reid], initially. Then I read the script and it said to me “That is a story that needs to be put on film, so people can see what it was like back in the day.” But I didn't realize the impact it would have on my dad. It was … uh … quite a moving moment when he watched that film.

Tell me about how it affected your dad.

My dad had not seen any of my work up until that point. Being the religious man that he was, he didn't watch movies or television. Worldy stuff he was not into.


I sat him down and said, “Dad, I really would like you to look at this.” He sat there mesmerized. When the film over, he took a few moments and the only thing he said was, “Well done.” (laughs) That was huge for me.

Do you think audiences were ready for that kind of film back then?

Yes. I don't know about access to it at that point. It was as important to me as “Roots” was.

What does this film have to say to people right now?

It's important to know from whence you come. So you know where you're goin'. (laughs)

Speaking from where you've come, both you and Tim Reid are cancer survivors. What did you learn from your struggle with the disease?

How important every day is. … How important every day is. The fact that we, as black Americans, are not taking care of our health issues. We're not staying on top of what's going on in our bodies. We have this cavalier attitude about our health issues. We have to be more proactive. Had I not immediately gone to see what was that little bump on my breast was, I probably wouldn't be speaking to you today. Anything that looks suspicious, have it checked out. Early detection can save your life.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the lack of African-American nominees and award winners at the Oscars. There weren't any this year.

No. Absolutely not. It was glaringly apparent … something was amiss. (laughs)

What would be an appropriate response to what's happening?

I don't know what the answer is, I really don't. You look at someone like Tim Reid, who's capable, and has put out incredible product … and I don't know. The availability to see something like “Once Upon a Time We Were Colored,” was sorely missing. You put out a product like that, that's Academy worthy, and not enough people see it, something is amiss.

[Roundtree's press agent] told me I'm not supposed to say the “S” word.

(Laughs and laughs) Oh, my my my my my my. Well, it's difficult, because, 24-7 someone will bring that name up.

You can't escape it, huh?

No. No. No. I've given up trying to escape it. As I tell people, I had a conversation with my dad many years ago, commiserating the fact that I was tired of the association. And he said “Son, a lot of people leave this world not being known for anything. Shut up.”(Laughs)

So when that happens, I try to reflect on that statement he made and shut my mouth.

Richard Roundtree and Tim Reid will discuss “Once Upon A Time We Were Colored,” following a "Friday Films" screening at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts at 6:30 p.m. on March 4. Cost: $7 (museum members $5) For  information, call 340-1400 or go to


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