"The Learning Tree," "Choice of Weapons," "The Human Experience," and as a photographer for the government, industry and eventually Life magazine, Parks has fulfilled that ambition. As a photo-journalist, Parks has made a number of documentary films, but
"The Learning Tree" which he wrote, was his first venture into major motion pictures as both producer and director. The result was worldwide recognition as a major new talent in films.
Supporting Richard Roundtree in his film debut as Shaft are Moses Gunn, Gwenn Mitchell, Christopher St. John, Charles Cioffi, Lawrence Pressman and Drew "Bundini" Brown. Shaft was filmed entirely on location in New York City.
John Shaft is a private detective whom director Gordon Parks describes as "dealing with real things, in real life," as opposed to the enchanted, magic gimmick garden life, that James Bond inhabits.
Richard Roundtree : "There is one thing Shaft's got that I hope rubs off on me. That is his ability to say 'no.' The man makes a decision, and lives with it right or wrong. I like his cool, too. No, I don't think the man will ever come to bug me the way James Bond came to bug Connery; but, who knows, if I played him long enough he might. Right now, I feel I can't get enough of him. My contract with MGM calls for four films as Shaft, should this first one really take off."
He laughs, and tells of Gordon Parks having to constantly caution him about falling too completely into the character of the private eye, especially his habit of walking across streets in front of oncoming traffic, confident it will stop. "You're gonna get killed that way, baby," Parks told him.
"I almost got killed doing the scene when we filmed it," Roundtree said. "It was at Broadway and 42nd Street, right in the heart of Times-Squareyule. I didn't have sense enough to be afraid. I just ploughed across the street, while the cameras positioned on a nearby rooftop filmed me. I guess I thought, since this was a movie and cameras turning I'd be protected. Nothing so gross as instant death. Man, I was pretty scared after that scene was shot, I'll tell you; when I stopped to look at that traffic, to see how fast and hell-bent-for-leather it was really going!"
At this point, director Parks called for the rehearsal, then the filming of a scene where a gang messenger comes to the cafe to meet Shaft, to take him to see for himself that the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem rackets boss, whom Shaft has been commissioned to rescue, is still alive. Actor Vic Arnold as the Gang type enters, and goes to Shaft's table. "I'm looking for a nigger named John Shaft." Roundtree replies, "You found him Wop. Sit down, have some coffee, if you ask them real nice maybe they'll put some garlic in it for you." "Why not?" says Arnold, "That'Il give you time to eat your watermelon and greens."
After three takes, Roundtree was again excused. He was laughing over the scene. "The picture's full of funky stuff like that. I love it. I love playing the guy. I played the Jack Johnson role in 'The Great White Hope' in Philadelphia just before landing this part, and what a role that was! That was my turning point. But, it was downbeat, the man was a loser. For a nice change of pace, Shaft is a winner."
At that point, assistant director Ted Zachary called for Richard to come prepare for the rehearsal of another scene. Roundtree obligingly rose to go to the assigned position. "What did I tell you," he winked. "I can't say no" o
Shaft features Moses Gunn as the rackets boss, Gwenn Mitchell as Shaft's girl friend and Charles Cioffi as the police officer who is the thorn in the man's side. Others in the cast include Christopher St. John, Sherri Brewer, Margaret Warncke and Drew (Bundini) Brown.
Produced by Joel Freeman for MGM release, the Stirling Silliphant-Roger Lewis production was adapted to the screen by John D. F. Black from a novel by Ernest Tidyman.