Like most people, when I think of Richard Roundtree, the first image that comes to mind is as kick-ass detective John Shaft from the 1970s “Shaft” films. And I’m not the only one. Roundtree–who played film’s first black private eye–is often met by adoring fans who want to encapsulate him in the Blaxploitation persona. But there’s so much more to him.
The veteran actor has starred in more than 150 film and TV projects such as “Roots,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives.” The project’s that’s currently giving him joy is BET’s new hit, “Being Mary Jane.” “Being Mary Jane” stars Gabrielle Union in the title role and follows the ups-and-downs of a cable TV news personality’s private and professional life. The series, created by Mara Brock Akil and her husband Salim Akil, garnered more than 4 million viewers when it debuted as a 90-minute pilot last July and 5 million people tuned in for last week’s series premiere.
Roundtree portrays Mary Jane’s father, Paul Patterson Sr., and Margaret Avery plays her mother, Helen. The couple has three children—Mary Jane and her brothers Patrick and Paul Jr., portrayed by Richard Brooks and B.J. Britt, respectively—plus a few grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Out of the three Patterson offspring, Mary Jane is the most successful and often finds herself supporting her kinfolk emotionally and financially. While that full house will surely make for interesting story lines, Roundtree hints that things could change.
I met up with Roundtree in Chicago last month while he and Union were on a promotional tour for the series. We talked about why he got involved with “Being Mary Jane,” black buying power and other projects he’s working on. [Click here to read the Union interview] “Being Mary Jane” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST on BET.
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Why did you decide to get involved with this project?
I got involved because of the writing. I’ll tell you a story. I was going to introduce Pam Grier at the Essence Awards in L.A. and I had never been to the Essence Awards and it was such an incredible event. And I saw Mara speaking to Shonda Rhimes and the two ladies were standing and I just had enough to drink to walk over and I said, ‘Shonda, I’ve worked for you but I really want to work for this lady, Mara.’ And she smiled. About a week or two later I got a call to come in and talk to her about this show. And then I read it. It was a no-brainer.
“Being Mary Jane” shows siblings who grew up in the same household yet only one–in this case, Mary Jane–appears to be the successful one. That presentation might ruffle some people the wrong way though it’s the reality for a lot of households.
So far. Stay tuned. The story is evolving; we don’t know where it’s going and I would assume given the people who are writing this and the producers and directors, I have total trust in their vision and that they would not leave that open-ended like that. So I firmly believe that my sons, Patrick, and Paul Jr., are going to up their game, so to speak.
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There’s been a lot of talk about this being another golden age for blacks in film and you see more blacks in nonstereotypical roles on TV. Where do you see black people in Hollywood in terms of images on-screen and even just getting work?
Simply put, we have to take charge and take responsibility and support what’s in the marketplace. Because, quiet as it’s kept, the powers that be are cognizant of what our spending dollar means. And it is kept a little quiet and we have to become aware of what we mean in the marketplace and take advantage of it.
How do you spread that awareness?
Just what I said just now and beating the drum, and say, ‘Hey, c’mon.’ I’ve heard this for so many years about what our economic dollar means in the marketplace. But it’s taking too long to take advantage of it. And it seems like there’s a crack in the door and there’s a light there and now we’re starting to take advantage of it and to see the younger guys putting their name on the door of their production companies—it’s more now than I remember back in the day. Our names weren’t on the door.
What other projects are you working on aside from “Being Mary Jane?”
I’m doing a small project, an independent film. I just got the script, I read it on the plane coming out here. A guy I had done some plays with, Je’Caryous Johnson, is now doing films and this is his first venture into filmdom. The movie is called “40 to Life.” It’s quite an interesting script and the reason I’m doing it. I can’t share anything yet. It’s still not signed. But if it happens and looks like it’s going to happen, that, and another independent film, a psychological horror film called “The Rift” with some younger people whose names you probably wouldn’t know. And I found out they’re changing the title. So there are things happening.