Richard Roundtree: Guys and Docs
By Idelle Davidson
He achieved screen immortality in the 1970s as the legendary supercop John Shaft. As Issac Hayes crooned in the Shaft theme song, he was "the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about."
At 59, Richard Roundtree is still handsome, but nothing like cool-man Shaft. No trademark leather jacket for him. On this warm, sunny day, he wears shorts, a red T-shirt, and a baseball cap. Roundtree is gentle-mannered, soft-spoken, and reflective. And to his credit, he’s not too macho to talk about male breast cancer. At least not now that he’s been free of the disease for 8 years.
These days, Roundtree’s mantra is early prevention. When he’s not filming, he travels the country, speaking to audiences about the need for men to see their doctors regularly. "This body of ours is an incredibly fine-tuned instrument but people tend to take better care of their cars than they do their bodies," says Roundtree. "I know a lot of men who won’t miss that 3,000-mile oil change, but just try getting them into a doctor’s office once a year."
As he sips wine and nibbles bruschetta at a café near his home in Agoura, California, Roundtree recalls the scare that had him burning rubber to his physician’s office. It was September 1993. Roundtree was in Costa Rica working on an Italian film. While showering, he discovered a tiny lump just under his left nipple. When he arrived home he showed the spot to his wife Karen. She encouraged him to have it checked out. "With that, and the fact that I’m a hypochondriac, I wasted no time," says Roundtree.
But many men, says the actor, seem to think they’re invulnerable to poor health. "It’s this macho mentality that thinks, ‘Hey, it’s never going to hit me,’" he says. "People practice safe driving, safe sex, and safe boating. Why not safe health?"
Roundtree’s physician, Chalmers Armstrong, at the Motion Picture & Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, performed a needle biopsy. When he called 3 days later and asked him to come in, Roundtree knew something was up. "As nice as Dr. Armstrong is, he doesn’t have time to sit around and chitchat," he says. The diagnosis? Breast cancer. Roundtree couldn’t believe it. "I was numb—numb!" he says. "A man with breast cancer? That’s impossible! I wondered whether my doctor was questioning my manhood."
Roundtree was feeling so shocked after hearing the word, "cancer," that to this day he doesn’t remember how he broke the news to Karen who was waiting at home with their young daughters. Dr. Armstrong said they had found the cancer early. He was reassuring. But Roundtree, who says that no one else in his family has had breast cancer, thought he was going to die.
As far as Karen, now 44, was concerned, that prognosis wasn’t an option. "I mean it’s scary. You don’t want to hear that word come into your home," she says. "But I’m a positive thinker. I knew he was going to get through it and get better."
Roundtree felt more hopeful after he called his dad, John Roundtree, in New York. His father is a former preacher, a devout man who has practiced "laying on of hands." "I’ve seen some things that defy explanation, so I’m from the school of whatever works," says Richard. Upon hearing his son’s diagnosis, John Roundtree predicted Richard would survive the cancer. The senior Roundtree sent up some prayers. "That took a lot of weight off me," says Richard. "We both know he has a special friend who takes care of us."
The actor underwent surgery less than a week after being diagnosed. His surgeon performed a modified radical mastectomy, removing the left breast from the nipple to the underarm. Roundtree says he hasn’t considered reconstructive surgery. After all, he has full mobility of his "golf arm." "At this point I’m comfortable with my body the way it is," he says. "I just don’t go to public swimming pools."
He didn’t need radiation, but his oncologist prescribed 6 months of chemotherapy. Luckily he didn’t lose his hair. But he’ll always remember the accompanying effects of nausea.
"He really was very sick from the chemo," says Karen. "It was very difficult to watch him act like everything was normal, knowing it wasn’t. He’d still invite friends over for dinner but he couldn’t make it to the table. Or he’d go out and work in his garden but after a while he’d just have to give up and go lie down." To this day, every time he drives past the hospital, Roundtree claims the nausea returns.
His doctor suggested Roundtree take tamoxifen to prevent a recurrence. "I didn’t want to put anything else in my body," says Roundtree. So he called his dad again. "After I talked to him I knew I was going to be okay, period," he says. He declined the medication.
Although Roundtree now speaks openly about his bout with cancer, for years he kept it a secret. He had a family to support and was fearful that Hollywood would shut him out. Generally, actors need to pass a cursory physical before they begin a role for TV or film. That posed a potential problem for him. "I would tap dance a lot during those physicals," says Roundtree.
"For example, there’s a sheet you fill out before your examination. I never would put down that I had cancer." He also always managed to keep his shirt on while they took his blood pressure and checked him with a stethoscope.
He came close to getting caught, though, when the producers of the Western Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman hired him to play a bare-knuckled fighter. The wardrobe staff showed him a photo of his costume: tights down to the knee and a bare chest. "I told them, ‘It’s kind of cold out there,’" says Roundtree, now laughing. Wanting to accommodate him as the guest actor, they gave him period long johns to wear.
Roundtree waited until he had been cancer-free for 7 years and had been given an "all clear" by his oncologist before going public with his disease. It’s in the past, he says. He’s most gratified when cancer survivors come up to him and thank him for what he characterizes as, "coming out of the closet." "They say, ‘Thank God you’re coming out about this. Breast cancer is not gender-specific.’ They’re right. Cancer is cancer is cancer."
It’s a great feeling to know you’ve helped people, he says. An Alaska Airlines pilot who read about the actor’s illness sent Roundtree an e-mail. He too had been diagnosed with breast cancer. "I called him and we talked a couple of times while he was going through treatment," says Roundtree. And last year when he was checking into a Dallas hotel, Roundtree saw a guest staring at him. Finally the man got up the courage to approach him and said, "I’m a breast cancer survivor and I’m so happy you’re speaking out about this because I never told anyone. I was afraid to."
Yet, the majority of people who approach Roundtree are women on behalf of their spouses or boyfriends who are struggling with cancer. "I’ve heard horror stories from women about their significant others going through denial," he says.
Roundtree has spoken and volunteered at several Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation events. Susan Braun, the foundation’s president and CEO, says that Komen is grateful for his support. "In addition to being a star of such caliber, he is clearly a man of depth and emotion who is willing to share those things he has learned, in order to make the journey less painful for others," she says.
Having survived cancer is just one aspect of Richard Roundtree. Although perhaps best known for his Shaft films, including Shaft’s Big Score, Shaft in Africa, and the TV series, Shaft, Roundtree has appeared in over 50 feature films. Among them are the thriller, Seven, with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman; Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored, with Phylicia Rashad and Isaac Hayes; the Disney film, George of the Jungle; Steel with Shaquille O’Neal; and Corky Romano with Chris Kattan and Peter Falk.
He currently appears on the Showtime series, Soul Food. Roundtree is especially proud of his active family. Since his diagnosis, the brood has grown to include now-3-year-old son John—or as Roundtree refers to him, "J-man."
When they are not tending to their chickens, dogs, cats, and seven horses on their acre-anda- half homestead, daughters Tayler, 14, and Morgan, 11, ride horses competitively. He takes out his wallet and proudly displays photos of his pretty wife, kids, and two adult daughters from a previous marriage.
Then Roundtree gets serious for a moment, not wanting to leave the subject of men and their health until he has said his piece. He encourages men to go for annual physicals, including screening for prostate and other cancers. And for men who are diagnosed with breast cancer, he recommends a book that inspired him during his treatment: A Warrior’s Way: Insights for Cancer Patients, Cancer Survivors, and Those Who Love Them by John Cope (Hearts That Care Publishing, 2000).
"Cancer can and does strike anybody from a CEO to a stay-at-home mom to a child on a playground to a senior citizen," says Roundtree. "Nobody is immune to it. If you’re African-American, some risks are substantially higher. But early detection really is the key. Don’t let cancer scare the hell out of you. The fear factor can make you feel depressed and bring you down so much. But if your family is there to support you and you have a lot of love around you, you can definitely make it through this."
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