In 1976, ROOTS quickly became the talk among people
in the industry from Hollywood to New York. ROOTS was the
big boy, a hugely significant television series. Every actor and
his mama, sister, and brother wanted to make an appearance in
this soon to be classic called ROOTS.
The day I was called into audition was one of the biggest
days of my life. Seated in the room when I walked in was the
executive producer, David L. Wolper, Stan Margoles, the producer,
Alex Haley, the writer and David Green, the director.
David Green was a famous English director who looked and
talked the part. He came across with an aristocratic air, very
confident, very cool. After the introductions, David spoke to me.
“I say, ol chap,” he began, “that’s a very unusual name you
have. Where are you from?”
“South America,” I replied.
“What part?” he inquired.
“Helena, Alabama,” I immediately responded, not losing a beat.
The entire room erupted in laughter.
I guess you could say David spoke the Queen’s English. That’s
what it sounded like to me.
After some more small talk, Alex Haley came across like
“Ji-Tu,” he said, “we reviewed your work in Mandingo and were
all impressed with the way you brought the character Ciscero to
life. You were outstanding.”
“Thank you, sir,” I responded. “I’m flattered.”
“Don’t be,” he said. “We called you in because we thought you
would be a good fit for the role of Wrestler, and I will tell you
why. This man actually lived three hundred years ago in West
Africa. He was like the Mohammed Ali of his time. Wrestling
was very big in those days, in Africa, just like boxing is very
important to Americans today.
They would stage elimination contests all over the region.
The man who ended up undefeated would be recognized as
Wrestler. He showed me a picture of the type of warrior I would
be expected to portray. Wrestler was six feet four inches tall,
and weighed slightly over 200 pounds. He had a shaved head
and a gap in his front teeth. He had the perfect African
physique. Lean and mean. He didn’t look like a weightlifter,
bodybuilder, or even a professional football player; he simply
looked like what he was, a warrior.
“Now,” Alex continued, “we wouldn’t ordinarily ask this,
but this character will be bare-chested for the duration of the
film. Therefore, we would like for you to put on his wardrobe so
that we can get a picture of you.” The costume closely resembled
a diaper to me. I had beads and shells around my waist,
and decorative feathers and leather around my biceps and
calves. Now I was physically in my prime; I was in excellent
shape; I mean I was buff, if I may say so myself.
A Giant To Remember
Copyright © 2011 By Ji-Tu Cumbuka
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