Intro to the October 30, 1973, episode of Shaft, “The Killing.”
Last month, when I was putting together a succession of Rap Sheet posts focusing on short-lived American TV crime dramas, I deliberately left out several shows that I wanted to write more extensively about later on. Among those was Shaft, a 1973-1974 small-screen spin-off from Richard Roundtree’s popular trio of films featuring John Shaft, a militant, sexy, and often violent black private eye--created by Ernest Tidyman--who worked the streets (and gang hideouts and rank alleyways and whorehouses) of New York City. CBS-TV had great hopes for Shaft when it debuted on this date, October 9, back in 1973. Network execs gambled that the racially diverse audience that had paid good dough to watch Shaft tangle with crooks, cops, and assorted creeps at the cinema would tune in to see how Roundtree might further develop his protagonist, if awarded a regular TV gig. It was a bad bet.
This television series was introduced within the format of The New CBS Tuesday Night Movies. Ninety-minute episodes (beginning at 9:30 p.m.) were scheduled to alternate not only with Hawkins, a series starring Jimmy Stewart as a deceptively brilliant West Virginia criminal attorney, but also with one-shot movies of the week.
“Veteran Shaft viewers knew there was going to be trouble as soon as the show started,” wrote Richard Meyers in his terrific book, TV Detectives (1981). “Someone had taken the funk out of the orchestration and erased the suggestive lyrics of the [original] theme. Richard Roundtree, the actor who had portrayed him in the films, was hired, but that was all. The skin was there but the soul was gone. Rather than being his own man who did what he liked to whom, Shaft was put at the beck and call of Lieutenant Al Rossi of the New York City Police Department, played by Ed Barth. And more often than not, Rossi would sic him onto murders that had nothing to do with the black community or even anything relevant, for that matter.”
“Shaft on TV makes Barnaby Jones look like Eldridge Cleaver,” opined critic Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times. He added: “In the movies, Roundtree created a flamboyant black James Bond, whisking through exotic dangers draped by shimmering females like the stocking counter at a bargain sale. He was all fringed leather and gleaming ornaments. The TV Shaft by comparison is the private eye in the gray flannel suit.” Or the un-funky plaid suit, as was too frequently the case.
“Shaft is just one more nitty-gritty bang-bang,” Cleveland Amory groused in the December 29, 1973, edition of TV Guide. While Amory applauded the “pleasant change” of having an African-American gumshoe on television (at a time when white P.I.s were ubiquitous), he was also unhappy with what had become of Shaft between the big screen and the boob tube. The character, Amory wrote, “got shortchanged in the transition ... Mr. Shaft has plenty to do, but somehow the people he does things to seem more interesting than he is. The only other regular on the show, Shaft’s friend, police lieutenant Al Rossi ... is also on the stereotypical side. The result is that each episode must depend almost entirely on the guest stars and the plot. And so far the plots have been, at best, only fair to muddling.”
Roundtree tried to calm viewers who were disappointed at what had become of their studdly black hero. “The fans of the Shaft movies have got to realize that you can’t put that John Shaft on TV,” he told TV Guide. “If you edited any of those three movies for television, you’d wind up with maybe 15 minutes of usable stuff.”
Shaft producers prayed hard that their series would grow on viewers in the long run. Meyers quotes one, William Read Woodfield, as saying: “We (he and co-producer Alan Balter) were very conscious of the movie image and deliberately worked against it. We knew we would get bad reviews, but we thought the American public would accept this man as a friend.” No such luck. The new “toned down” Shaft was panned from Harlem to Huntington Beach. Only seven episodes made it to the air before the series was canceled. They have not yet made it to DVD release, and in all likelihood never will. Anyone who recalls this show will have to be satisfied with those memories.
Below, I have embedded a piece from the April 20, 1974, edition of TV Guide that recounts complaints about the televised version of Shaft before turning into a profile of its star, Richard Roundtree. (Interestingly, this article was written by Dick Adler, who is now a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet.) You will also find here the write-ups about Shaft and Hawkins that appeared in the September 8-14, 1973, Fall Preview edition of TV Guide. Click on the images to enlarge them in new windows.
CHANGING TIMES: Shaft was only one of four TV series, starring black performers, that debuted in the fall of 1973--a remarkable event, for the time. Sammy Davis Jr. was featured in a comedy-variety series called NBC Follies, Hilly Hicks and Stu Gilliam were the leads in a World War II-era sitcom called Roll Out, and James McEachin played a private eye in Tenafly, part of The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie.