Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hello Again, Mr. Shaft

2016 will mark 45 years since the premiere of Shaft, the 1971 motion-picture adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel of that same name, which had introduced a cool, black, kick-ass New York City private eye named John Shaft. The book was succeeded by half a dozen sequels and has had an enduring, popular influence on crime and thriller fiction. The film, starring college football player-turned-fashion model Richard Roundtree, helped give rise to the lower-budget blaxploitation genre, which spawned movies such as Super Fly and Trouble Man. It also spun off a 1973-1974 CBS-TV series that, despite its disappointingly tame action sequences and producers’ ardent efforts to shave all the rough and randy spots off Roundtree’s street-smart shamus, still managed to stand out in an entertainment medium that had by then seen few African-American leading men.

In anticipation of the nostalgic press likely to surround Shaft’s 45th anniversary, publisher McFarland & Company has released The World of Shaft: A Complete Guide to the Novels, Comic Strip, Films, and Television Series. Written by Steve Aldous, a 54-year-old employee of Britain’s banking industry (and an occasional Rap Sheet contributor), this handsome paperback is a Shaft fan’s dream. As I explain in my latest Kirkus Reviews column:
The World of Shaft delves into the plots and development of those seven novels, and their lasting impact on thriller fiction. (It’s not at all hard, for instance, to find Shaft’s DNA coursing through the veins of characters such as Jack Reacher.) It offers similarly meticulous examinations of the original Shaft films, as well as Samuel L. Jackson’s cringe-worthy 2000 “sequel,” Shaft. Beyond that, Aldous looks back at what New York City was like in the early 1970s (“a very different city from today with a high crime rate, corruption within the police force and a growing level of social disorder”), provides the most thorough biography possible of John Shaft (and lesser portraits of his supporting players), recounts the unraveling of plans to launch a Shaft newspaper comic strip and, of course, revisits the short-lived TV drama that first brought Shaft to his attention.
I jumped at the chance recently to ask Aldous, via e-mail, a number of questions about subjects ranging from his boyhood introduction to John Shaft and the extensive research he did for this book, to author Ernest Tidyman’s disappointment in how Shaft was portrayed on-screen and his employment of ghostwriters, to the much-anticipated new novella, Shaft’s Revenge, by David F. Walker, that’s been slated for publication next February. I was only able to fit a few small chunks of our exchange into my new Kirkus piece, so I’m going to roll the whole thing out for you below. Sit back, crank up the volume on Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning Shaft theme (or perhaps this delightful ukelele version of that theme), and enjoy our lengthy conversation. You might even learn a thing or two.

J. Kingston Pierce: I understand that in your “real life,” you “work with the banking industry in the UK”? What exactly is your job?

Steve Aldous: I’ve been in banking all my working life. I currently manage an insight and analysis team reviewing business performance across the branch network. Through my career I have undertaken many different roles. I started straight from school as a cashier in branch and worked my way up to manager. I later went into project work before moving on to forecast modeling and analytics. I have also had lots of interest outside of work, including the cinema and crime fiction. I also played sport throughout my 20s--football and cricket; I played in a rock band throughout my 30s and 40s, and then finally started writing about four or five years ago.

(Left) Author Steve Aldous, photographed by David Aldous

JKP: When and how did you first become interested in Shaft?

SA: It was through hearing Isaac Hayes’ theme music, which was a hit on the UK singles charts in 1971, that I became aware of Shaft initially, but I became hooked via the TV series. I was only 13 at the time it was broadcast in the UK and it seemed to me that even the TV version of Shaft was different from the other detective heroes of the time--not just because of his color, but also his attitude and his swagger. Even in this watered-down version something shone through in Richard Roundtree’s portrayal that hooked me in. Then on a visit to a local bookstore, W.H. Smith’s in Bolton, I saw a copy of Shaft Has a Ball on the paperback shelves and bought it. I found the book to be much more adult than the TV series and the character to be more abrasive. In those days, if you were too young to get in to see the film you bought the book or the novelization as there were no age restrictions on literature. I loved the book and this led to me buying up the previous releases (Shaft, Shaft Among the Jews, and Shaft’s Big Score!)--which were even better. I also loved Tidyman’s writing style, which I found witty and sometimes off-the-wall, as well as the New York setting. I was still too young to see the film, and as it wasn’t aired on [British] TV until around the late 1970s this meant I became more familiar with the John Shaft portrayed in the novels. When later I caught up with the film I noted that Roundtree’s performance was much closer to the Shaft of the books than had been seen on TV and this completed the circle for me.

JKP: At what point did your interest in Shaft and Ernest Tidyman turn into the obsession necessary to write The World of Shaft? And to what lengths did you go to glean the information presented here?

SA: I’ve retained a love for the Shaft books ever since I read my first one back in 1974. I’ve re-read them all many times over the years. The Internet was the key to opening up the possibilities of finding out more. However, 15 years or so ago I found very little information out there on the Shaft books, but did come across a site run by a guy called Karl Reinsch. I got in touch with him and provided cover scans of my UK paperbacks and provided details of the TV series, which I had obtained from an edition of the magazine Epi-Log. I later started to come across more sites on crime fiction such as your own, The Rap Sheet, and Kevin Burton Smith’s Thrilling Detective Web Site. Through these sites I saw rumors that some of the Shaft books had been ghostwritten. This spurred me on to find out more. I could find no books or studies of the Shaft novels or films in print, so I thought I may as well have a go myself. Through research I discovered that Ernest Tidyman’s papers are held at the University of Wyoming and obtained an inventory of more than 140 boxes of material. The problem was then one of geography as I am UK based. I managed to hire a researcher to help me sort through the content and I was excited and fascinated to see there was so much material there--letters, documents, contracts, screenplays, manuscripts, character outlines, comic-strip test panels, newspaper clippings, promotional material, photographs, etc. Through this I could immediately answer the question regarding ghostwriters, but more importantly I could build up a history of Shaft through the eyes of his creator and combine that with a guide to the books and films. The result being The World of Shaft. Now that I’ve done this I’m tempted to go back at some point in the future and research the records further with the aim of writing a biography of Tidyman, whom I found to be a talented, witty, uncompromising, and engaging individual and his life story would be a fascinating one to research and tell.

JKP: Ernest Tidyman’s John Shaft wasn’t the first black private investigator to appear in American fiction. John E. Bruce’s Sadipe Okukenu (The Black Sleuth), Octavus Roy Cohen’s more comical Florian Slappey (Florian Slappey Goes Abroad), and Ed Lacy’s Toussaint Moore (Room to Swing) had all preceded him. Yet Shaft was the first to really make it big. Was that because of the era in which he appeared as much as who he was as a character?

SA: I think so, yes. When Ernest Tidyman was encouraged by Macmillan’s mystery editor, Alan Rinzler, to create a black detective hero he really tapped into the social unrest and changing attitudes in society at that time. Both Tidyman and Rinzler were experienced and keen observers. Tidyman had worked as a journalist in New York through the 1960s and written articles covering the plight of black Americans as a freelance journalist. In John Shaft, Tidyman created a character whose uncompromising attitude became the embodiment of the dreams of many young black Americans. Shaft had come through a tough foster-home environment and Harlem street-gang culture. Via a tour of Vietnam, he forged his own career path on his own terms. This is what I think made Shaft stand out from the rest.

(Right) The original, 1970 Macmillan (U.S.) edition of Shaft, with cover art by Mozelle Thompson.

JKP: You note in the book that, while headlines were made during the late 1960s and early ’70s by struggles to enhance the respect and opportunities available to African Americans, racial tensions and “black power” politics went mostly unaddressed in the Shaft novels. Is that because Tidyman, being white, didn’t know how best to address them? Or because he didn’t wish to alienate potential readers?

SA: I don’t think Tidyman was incapable of presenting them. As I say, he was a seasoned journalist who had seen the issues first-hand. There were references in the novels. Ben Buford’s militant gang in Shaft and Shaft Has a Ball was a symbol for the Black Power movement. Senator Stovall was a prophetic blueprint for [Barack] Obama in Shaft Has a Ball and Goodbye, Mr. Shaft--the latter book also saw a racially motivated kidnapping plot. But Tidyman always insisted that his books were, first and foremost, detective fiction and were not intended to be political statements. The racial and political themes merely provided a backdrop from which to create traditional crime-fiction scenarios concerning warring rival gangs, kidnapping and assassination plots, heists and financial greed. The film adaptation of Shaft pushed the political agenda forward more than the book, mainly due to [director] Gordon Parks’ input, and of course this led to the blaxploitation explosion that followed.

JKP: Reading The World of Shaft, I get the impression that Tidyman didn’t care much for his character beyond Shaft’s ability to make him money. That he had no heartfelt devotion to his P.I. Is that true?

SA: I think Tidyman cared a lot for the John Shaft he created, but quickly became disillusioned at how his creation was being portrayed and used by others. He bowed out of the film series before Shaft in Africa and had no involvement in the development of the TV series. He had committed to seven books with movie adaptation options in an agreement with MGM. Adaptations of his work would be more lucrative financially, but the studio wanted to commission original screenplays. Tidyman also didn’t think he could do any more with Shaft as a character creatively beyond the planned seven books.

JKP: You portray Ernest Tidyman as being rapidly overwhelmed by the success of Shaft, both onscreen and off, and by the renown he subsequently gained composing the screenplay for The French Connection. You write that he had trouble turning down big-money movie projects that were offered him, but in his struggle to do everything he had to hire other writers, who produced inferior products and spoiled his own reputation in Hollywood. Was Tidyman really that money-hungry? Is his story a cautionary tale against being too greedy, or is it much more complicated than that?

SA: I think it is more complicated. We have to remember Tidyman was 40 years old and near broke in 1968 when he was commissioned to write Shaft. I believe he was determined to build on the level of success he achieved in 1971/1972 and the resultant reputation for his name it created. Tidyman became a very canny businessman and wanted to expand his interests into film production and his writing into more personal areas. But he also pitched a lot of ideas around the studios, and in Hollywood the vast majority of ideas fall by the wayside, so he began to look further afield--to Europe. Sources suggest he had other writers assist with the workload and that the quality of the output suffered as a result of the quantity. There was an element, therefore, of looking to capitalize on the Ernest Tidyman brand name but the approach struggled to gain significant interest. He would go on to have more critical successes--notably on more personal projects like Dummy and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones--but none would match that of the year or so that produced Shaft and The French Connection. He hit his golden period right at the start.

A TV preview of Dummy, the Emmy Award-nominated 1979 film written by Ernest Tidyman, starring Paul Sorvino and LeVar Burton. A clip from that film can be watched here.

JKP: What also suffered from Tidyman spreading himself too thin were the Shaft novels. If I remember correctly, Tidyman was solely responsible for penning only the first three installments in that series. Later, he hired ghostwriters to do most of the work. How much attention did Tidyman really give to the last four books?

SA: The need to hire writers to assist with the Shaft books was born out of Tidyman’s increasing interests outside of the series, which were making significant demands on his time. Tidyman wrote the outlines for each of the last four books and the hired writers developed them into structured drafts under close guidance from him. Tidyman then heavily edited and often re-wrote passages, as well as shaped the manuscripts to his writing style. As a result Tidyman’s hand can be seen through each of these last four books, and he did seriously apply himself to the task. Despite this, there were elements of these last four books that were less satisfactory than the first three. For instance, Shaft became more of a killing machine, mirroring many men’s adventure novel heroes of the time, and the stories were more outlandish and not helped by some lazy plotting, continuity inconsistencies, and a decreasing page count. That said, I still really enjoy reading these books despite their faults.

JKP: Had Tidyman always planned to develop seven Shaft novels, or had he originally been open to continuing the series further? What was it that ultimately convinced him to kill off his gumshoe, in The Last Shaft? And did he ever regret that decision?

SA: Tidyman had initially signed a contract for the first two novels (Shaft and Shaft Among the Jews) and a third that was to become Goodbye, Mr. Shaft. He then added the novelization of Shaft’s Big Score! to the pot. With the success of the film and MGM on board to consider adaptations, he negotiated an extension to the contact to bring in the last three books. He was clear in his mind in 1972 that the series would be seven books in total. There were no plans to extend the book series at any stage beyond this and he planned to kill Shaft off to add a literary full stop. He hadn’t liked the treatment of the Shaft character on screen in Shaft in Africa or on TV. He basically wanted to move on from Shaft but have a legacy there for future filming concerns should interest be shown. Indeed, he did try to gain interest in relaunching the film series in the late 1970s when MGM’s options on his books expired. But as far as the literary John Shaft was concerned, he was dead.

JKP: I have to ask: Which is your favorite Shaft novel, and why is it your favorite?

SA: My personal favorite is Shaft Among the Jews. There is more depth to Shaft’s character in this novel, particularly in his feelings for the vulnerable Cara Herzel. It also contains the best Shaft/[Lieutenant Vic] Anderozzi exchanges, an engaging plot, colorful characters, one particularly explosive action sequence, and a satisfying conclusion. I also love the original Shaft and think Goodbye, Mr. Shaft is comfortably the best of the last four.

JKP: I was interested to read that Tidyman didn’t want Richard Roundtree to play Shaft, that he thought Roundtree was too handsome. Furthermore, he didn’t like Roundtree’s mustache; he thought Shaft should be more round-faced and clean-shaven. How is it that Roundtree wound up turning Shaft into a film icon, anyway?

SA: Tidyman was tied to his vision of Shaft, whilst Gordon Parks was tied to his own. Roundtree was an ex-male-model and Tidyman’s description was more of a rough diamond but clean-shaven. Parks very much molded Roundtree in his own image and Roundtree generously acknowledges the amount of direction Parks gave him on the first movie. Roundtree produces a superb performance in his first lead film role. He carried all the swagger and self-confidence of Tidyman’s Shaft and moved athletically. The opening sequence is one of the most memorable character introductions in screen history. The marriage of Roundtree’s movement and attitude with Hayes’ funky theme and Parks’ framing is perfect. It captured the imagination of the public--both black and white. Roundtree managed to convey the essence of Tidyman’s creation, if not a physical resemblance. Of course, the film version of Shaft reached many, many, more people than the book version, and with the success of the movie and Roundtree’s portrayal John Shaft and Richard Roundtree became synonymous.

JKP: How much influence, if any, did the Shaft movies exercise over the direction of the book series?

SA: I don’t think the films had much influence on the books at all--barring Shaft’s Big Score! being an adaptation of Tidyman’s own screenplay. Even here Tidyman played true to his vision of the character and the story. The two formats continued to tread their own paths. The movies became more expansive--particularly with Shaft in Africa. That film also moved Shaft out of his Greenwich Village home to Midtown Manhattan, a lead followed by the TV series. But whilst Goodbye, Mr. Shaft and Shaft’s Carnival of Killers also saw Shaft operate outside of his urban New York base, Tidyman had planned to make this move beforehand. Tidyman would also have preferred for the studio to adapt his novels rather than commission new screenplays, so he stuck pretty much to his own template in the novels.

JKP: The Shaft films were what really brought Tidyman’s character to prominence. Three pictures were made, and Roundtree mentioned in a 1973 newspaper interview that discussions were underway for production of a fourth film, to be titled Shaft in China. Yet the series came to a screeching halt after Shaft in Africa. What went wrong?

SA: Basically, Shaft in Africa saw disappointing box-office returns. It seemed to get lost in the proliferation of blaxploitation releases. The change of setting--taking Shaft away from his urban roots--was also deemed by many to be a mistake in retrospect. MGM’s decision to move the series to TV was taken before Shaft in Africa was filmed, so it is unlikely a fourth film was ever anything more than a passing thought and would only really be seriously considered had Shaft in Africa been a hit. Roundtree had referenced the possibility of a Shaft in China in August 1973, which was just before the TV series aired and only a couple of months after Shaft in Africa was released. The failure of both sealed the fate for both big and small screen versions of Shaft.

JKP: While the Shaft films enjoyed their run of popularity in theaters, Tidyman tried to launch a syndicated comic strip featuring the character. But nobody seemed interested in picking it up. Why not?

SA: The response Tidyman got from the big syndicates in both New York and L.A. was that newspaper comic strips had moved on from the serial-style strip to standalone dailies. Having seen the 28 test panels produced with Don Rico that were ultimately circulated, I don’t think the quality was that good either. An earlier artist considered was David Russell (now a storyboard artist on major Hollywood movies) and his artwork was more interesting. David kindly restored some of his test panels for inclusion in my book and there are samples of Rico’s work, too.

JKP: You make clear that by 1973, when Roundtree starred as John Shaft in a series of TV movies, Tidyman had all but lost interest in him, and the character’s influence was waning. Yet you suggest that the CBS series offered Shaft comeback potential. What might the producers have done to make Shaft a small-screen success?

SA: My feelings on the Shaft TV series, which incidentally I do have a soft spot for as it was really my introduction to the character, is that they hired the wrong producers--William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter were largely schooled in fantasy series. TV was also not able to show the levels of sex and violence seen on the big screen, and the story lines and characters had to be managed within the confines of what TV executives deemed was respectable. But rather than challenge this and push at the boundaries (like series such as Kojak had done to create some authenticity), the producers took the decision to make Shaft family friendly. The result was Roundtree trying to get elements of his big-screen portrayal out, but being serviced by scripts that gave him little opportunity to do so. CBS could have looked to engage Tidyman as a consultant, hired a producer who was more sympathetic to the character and writers who could more accurately portray Shaft’s world. Yes, you would still have to tone down elements, but the key would be being true to what made the character popular in the first place.

JKP: Samuel L. Jackson tried unsuccessfully to reinvigorate the Shaft franchise in his 2000 film Shaft, and now there’s talk of studio New Line making another Shaft film--only this time with “comedic elements.” David F. Walker, who’s recently been writing Shaft graphic novels, says the studio is “more interested in shitting the bed than making a good Shaft movie” and warns that “It won’t make money. And in doing so, it will ruin the chances of there ever being a decent Shaft movie in the remainder of my lifetime.” What’s your take on all of this?

SA: I hate the thought of anyone messing with the essence of what Shaft is. It is not a comedy and should never be treated that way. If you change the essence of your character then the character becomes someone else. An impostor. David is right. The public will not buy into that. The reason Daniel Craig and Casino Royale were such a success was because the producers returned to what was the essence of James Bond as Fleming had written it but updating it for the modern audience. For me, the new Shaft film should go one of two ways. Either a nostalgic period piece set in the early 1970s with a gritty action-based plot or a re-working of Tidyman’s original novel in a modern-day setting with a backdrop of the social issues of today.

JKP: Do you think Shaft can still be relevant in the 21st century?

SA: Yes, I do. First and foremost, Shaft is a detective hero and the crime genre is as popular today as it has ever been. Black heroes on screen are more prevalent now than when Shaft was first released, but there is still an attitude and self-assurance in the nature of Shaft’s character that would resonate today. Unfortunately, there are also some similarities in the issues encountered by young black people today with those seen back in the early 1970s.

JKP: How well do you think Walker has done in resurrecting Shaft for his Dynamite Entertainment series? Has he expanded our understanding of that P.I.?

SA: I think his comic-book series was excellent and added some further depth to the character. David basically created an “origins” story by filling in the time between Shaft’s discharge from the army and his becoming a P.I. The story provided an emotional drive for Shaft and helped to establish the character traits we see in Tidyman’s books. David was insistent on staying true to Tidyman’s vision--even down to the visual depiction of Shaft--and he totally succeeds in conveying Shaft as Tidyman would have intended.

JKP: And I can’t tell by reading your new book’s epilogue: Have you actually read Walker’s novella, Shaft’s Revenge, which is due out early next year? If you have, what’s your opinion of it?

SA: I haven’t read the full book yet. I read a sample of it that was posted on the Internet when it was included as a QR download. I don’t have a smartphone so couldn’t follow-up on it. The book is set to be released in paperback in February 2016 and I have it pre-ordered and am looking forward immensely to reading the first Shaft novel in 40 years. I know David is pleased with what he has written and I hope he goes on to do more. He is very busy on numerous projects, but he kindly found the time to write the Foreword to my book. I hope he continues to find time to add further to the Shaft world, too. New Line should be calling him now to get involved in their production.

(Editor’s postscript: If you think that the cover of Aldous’ The World of Shaft looks familiar, that’s because the artwork comes from posters promoting the 1972 film Shaft’s Big Score!)


Lee Goldberg said...

Terrific interview, Jeff. This book sounds GREAT. I just ordered it.


J. Kingston Pierce said...

Thank you, Lee. I'm sure you will enjoy it.


Unknown said...

Great interview, JKP.

Lee, I have a copy of the book and I can confirm it's as good as it sounds. The effort and attention to detail Steve has put in makes it a gripping read (and I never personally caught the Shaft bug).
In terms of full disclosure, I have known Steve personally for 28 years but this has in no way influenced my view of his book. I hope you enjoy it as much as me, when it arrives.

Lee Goldberg said...

The book arrived today and it's terrific. I've spent way too much time reading it when I should have been working...


RJR said...

I just watched the first episode of the Shaft series. What a shame! They should redo it now on cable, set in the 70's.


Anonymous said...

I've heard that this cat Shaft is a bad mother. Is that true?