This Entertainment Tonight interview aired April 10, 2000.
Mark Steines: Let's talk about 'Shaft.' Playing that role, what was your life like back then?
Richard Roundtree: It was a magical time. I was doing "Great White Hope" in Philadelphia, going back to Manhattan, trying to get acting roles and modeling jobs, or what have you. I auditioned for this thing MGM was doing called 'Shaft,' with GORDON PARKS [directing].
Richard: Being the real novice that I was, I thought that because I went to high school with Gordon Park's son, that was going to be the perfect in. Gordon just said, "Oh. Good." That was it. But I went through the audition process and got the role. Because of the timing they didn't want me to say anything about it. It was that period after Christmas but before New Year's, so with all the press we decided to wait 'til after New Year's to announce it with a big splash.
Richard: Walking around Manhattan with my peers, I would say, "You know, I think I might have gotten that role in 'Shaft.'" After a while you keep hearing this and you say, "Maybe that meeting with Gordon didn't happen!" [Both laugh] Sure enough after New Year's, they announced with a big splash that I had the role. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable.
Mark: You were the coolest guy with the outfits and stunts and splashiness of that whole era. Did you find yourself living that outside of the screen?
Richard: You know, I was doing a talk show and I was sitting there at the desk with the host -- it might have been MIKE DOUGLAS. I said, "You know, I'm really not Shaft. I don't understand why..." And I'm sitting there with a black leather suit on! What's up with that! [Both laugh] Wait a minute! Something's wrong with this picture!
Mark: Now we bring this into the next century. SAMUEL L. JACKSON is playing Shaft. How does he hold up to the role?
Richard: We were down at the BRYANT GUMBEL Golf Tournament last year, and Sam was there. It was just after the announcement that he was going to do it. I went up to him and said, "Hey, John Shaft!"
Richard: So later, I'm on the set, and he really looked the part. I've always been a fan of Sam. To see the transformation of all the different characters he's done into Shaft -- to pull it off -- he's done a great job.
Mark: So then, how is Sam taking this? Do we have to update him? Is he wearing the same clothes?
Richard: Mark, look, you've got SCOTT RUDIN producing and JOHN SINGLETON directing. You know good and well that they've done their homework and research. They're putting something up on the screen that's really good.
Mark: Yeah, but I want your approval. I know what they did, but you've worked with them, so what do you think?
Richard: Yeah, I worked with them. He's got that attitude. He's got that leather thing going. He's got the attitude and the look, and it works. It works really well. I gotta tell you, after 28 years I'm more than ready to pass on that baton. I couldn't have passed it on to a better person. It's all good for me.
Mark: What was the best part of playing Shaft?
Richard: Number one, it put me on the map. The best part, in retrospect, was the fact that I had the guidance and hand-holding of Gordon Parks. I marvel at what that man was able to put up on the screen back then with a small budget. To this day that film still works. Also, the integrity of the man. I was blessed.
Mark: Is it fair to say that you were the African-American James Bond back then?
Richard: I think that you can safely say that. That's how the character was perceived.
Mark: He always had his line, "Bond, James Bond." Did you have a favorite line from 'Shaft?'
Richard: My favorite line was in the bar scene when I'm talking to the wise guys. At one point I say, "Oh, I forgot to tell you, I'm Shaft. John Shaft." They realize that it's me and the one guy spits in my face. I take my bottle and hit him over the head. That's my favorite scene.
Mark: Tell me about the role that you're playing in this film.
Richard: I'm Uncle John. I'm John Shaft, but I'm Sam's uncle. He's more of a mentor. There's this scene where he is more or less frustrated by the inner-workings of the judicial system. I'm like, "That's the way it works." He doesn't get it. He wants to do it the right way and work within the system. I say to him at one point, "You'll learn."
Mark: Let's talk about your health situation. First, how are you feeling?
Richard: I feel great.
Mark: You've been feeling great for years. When I first heard this story, I sat down, scratched my head and said, "This can happen to guys? I thought this could only happen to women."
Richard: You can imagine how I felt! What happened was that I was in Costa Rica working, and one morning I'm in the shower, getting ready to go to work, and I feel this lump under the nipple. In truth, I remember back when I was twelve I had an enlarged nipple, but that was puberty. So I related the two and said, "Ah, it's nothing."
Richard: So later when I was home, I was showering again and I said, "It's still there." It hadn't disappeared in a matter of weeks. So I asked my wife to look at it. She said, "It's probably nothing, but you should get it checked out."
Mark: Were you reluctant?
Richard: You have to understand that I'm a hypochondriac. I'll run to a doctor at the slightest provocation. My wife knows that. So I went to the doctor -- Dr. Armstrong at the motion picture hospital -- and he said basically the same thing that she said, "It's probably nothing, but let me stick a needle in there just to be sure. But don't worry about it."
Richard: He did that, and maybe five days later he gives me a call and says, "Richard, why don't you come into my office. There's something I want to talk to you about." Mark, I knew that with that phone call, things were not cool.
Mark: At this point, what were you thinking? The worst?
Richard: Oh, yeah. Granted, I'm a hypochondriac. [Laughs] I can't watch medical shows. All kinds of stuff goes through your mind. I went into see Dr. Armstrong and he said, "I've gotta be straight with you. We went in, it tested positive, and you have cancer -- breast cancer." Breast cancer? "Yeah, it's very rare, but it is indeed breast cancer. You have a few options, one of which is to operate, clean it out."
Richard: He gave me the name of an oncologist, who would do it. I don't know if it's denial, but I thought this couldn't be true. I go to the oncologist, and he says the same thing. Given the biopsy, we've gotta go in there.
Richard: So I had this operation. They cleaned everything out and they assured me that everything was going to be okay, but that I had to have chemo. More wild and crazy visions pop in your head. Chemotherapy! For six months!
Richard: I do the chemo. Mark, I gotta tell you something, to this day, seven years later, if I pass that hospital, I get nauseous. To this day. It is such a vile, total disruption of your being, that chemotherapy.
Mark: Is it painful?
Richard: Not painful! No, it's not painful. But, when I think about it, I get emotional to this day. I can't describe it. There's something that happens to your body while you're doing this. You're sitting in this chair, and they drip it intravenously into you. You're sitting there, trying to maintain control of your bodily functions.
Mark: How long did you have to battle with the thought that, "I have breast cancer! I'm a man!"
Richard: I have a sense, at this point in my life, what a woman must go through. I have no pectoral muscles on the left side of my body. I did an episode of "Dr. Quinn" as a bare-knuckle fighter where it called for not being dressed and I said, "Wait! Can't we do something different?"
Mark: You didn't disclose that. You didn't want them to know.
Richard: Somehow I would skate by and not divulge that I had cancer. You don't want to go into an episodic television show for seven years and then divulge that you had cancer and possibly won't be around. All these things enter the picture.
Mark: When you were trying to explain to people what you were going through, did you say, "I have breast cancer?"
Richard: For a long time I never even mentioned it. The only people that knew were my immediate family, my manager, and my agent.
Mark: How does it feel to talk about this for the first time?
Richard: It feels good that I can be honest, take a physical exam and say, "Yeah, this is what I had." I'm a survivor. I'm blessed.
-- April 10, 2000