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A graduate celebrates during the 141st Southern Illinois University Commencement on May 13, 2017.

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Richard Roundtree talks about 'Shaft,' breast cancer during visit to Carbondale

Who’s the cat who’s getting an honorary degree from his alma mater?


Actually, it's actor Richard Roundtree, who played the iconic character in the early 1970s film franchise. He is receiving a Doctorate of Performing Arts during the 5:30 p.m. commencement exercises Saturday for SIU's College of Mass Communication and Media Arts.

Roundtree sat down with Novotny Lawrence, associate professor of race, media and popular culture in the Radio, Television and Digital Media Department at SIU, for a conversation about SIU, acting, health, advocacy and, of course, “Shaft.”

Marilyn Halstead / Marilyn Halstead, The Southern 

Actor Richard Roundtree answers questions Friday afternoon in McLeod Theater at SIUC. Roundtree will recelve a doctorate of performing arts during commencement exercises at 5:30 p.m. today in SIU Arena. 

Roundtree came to SIU in 1961 because he knew a track athlete and football player who attended SIU. He says he was fortunate to walk-on to the Saluki football team and get a scholarship. His goal was to be a professional football player. His “awakening” to a new career came the day he got a concussion.

“This is a very addicting drug,” Roundtree said while clapping.

Roundtree first experienced the applause of a crowd on the football field in high school, then in college. After being hit hard enough to get a concussion, he began to think of other ways to earn applause. That became leaving college to model for Ebony Fashion Fair in 1963.

At the end of the tour, the models were invited to a party at Bill Cosby’s home.

“I owe a big part of my transition to Bill Cosby,” Roundtree said. “He told me to go back to New York and learn my craft.”

He followed that advice and joined Negro Ensemble Company. He called being around professional actors a great learning experience.

“I happened to go to an audition for an obscure film that the great MGM was doing called 'Shaft.' The rest is history,” Roundtree said.

When he went to a callback audition in front of director Gordon Parks, Parks showed him a tear sheet of an ad Roundtree was in and said they were looking for someone like that. He got the job. The movie was a huge success and spawned two sequels in the 1970s and another in 2000.

He took his mother, sister and grandmother to the opening of “Shaft.” Later his grandmother asked him if that was how he planned to make a living, suggesting he go back to school. He wishes she were alive to see him receive his doctorate from SIU.

Lawrence asked about the term “blaxploitation,” which is often used to describe “Shaft” and other movies of the 1970s.

“My dissatisfaction for that term comes from knowing Mr. Parks,” Roundtree said.

Parks was the first African-American to direct a Hollywood film. About 10 years ago, Roundtree realized he was playing Parks in “Shaft.”

“After describing things to me, the way he moves is Shaft,” Roundtree said.

Lawrence also asked how much longer we can expect to see Roundtree on television or in movies.

“The writers’ strike of the 1980s was the worst period in my career,” Roundtree said. “I need to work. I don’t even know what it is to sit around.”

Marilyn Halstead / Marilyn Halstead, The Southern 

Novotny Lawrence, associate professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Digital Media at SIUC, moderates a discussion with Actor Richard Roundtree on Friday in McLeod Theater. Roundtree will be honored during commencement exercises at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in SIU Arena. 

He called “Roots” “the most gratifying family feeling” of any film. He said everyone knew what that was about and came together to do it.

He added that the scene where his character is whipped had to be done, but he only gave them one take. He said George Hamilton still apologizes for that scene.

He is most proud of his role in “Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored,” the first thing his dad saw that he had done.

Roundtree also talked about surviving breast cancer. He found a lump while working in Costa Rica, and saw his physician as soon as he returned home. After a procedure to remove the cancer and six months of chemotherapy, he was finally diagnosed as cancer-free.

“Breast cancer is not gender specific, and a large percentage of the population is not aware of that,” Roundtree said.

Marilyn Halstead / Marilyn Halstead, The Southern 

Actor Richard Roundtree answers questions Friday afternoon in McLeod Theater at SIUC. Roundtree will recelve a doctorate of performing arts during commencement exercises at 5:30 p.m. Satuday in SIU Arena. 

His favorite memory of Carbondale?

“We used to frequent a place called Junior’s,” Roundtree said.

Roundtree was too young to get into Junior’s, so he asked to borrow the ID of teammate Amos Bullocks, who was a running back and went on to play professional football.

Roundtree gave the ID to the guy at the door. He looked at it.

“He said, ‘If you’ve got big enough balls to come in here with Amos’ ID, come on in,' Roundtree said.

He advised new graduates to realize what they have accomplished so far, to be inquisitive, to let no one dictate their choices and to stay on track. He added that there are a lot more distractions than when he was coming along.

“I’ve had an incredibly fortunate career and worked with incredibly talented and gifted actors,” Roundtree said.

Brian Pheasant Murder Trial
Trial of Christopher man accused of murder in wife's 2016 shooting death will continue into next week
Provided by Franklin County Sheriff's Office 

Brian Pheasant

BENTON — Friday’s proceedings in the murder trial of a Christopher man accused of murder in his wife's shooting death presented the parts of trial that don’t often make it to T.V. — hours of testimony that detailed the chain of custody of select pieces of evidence.

Brian Pheasant was arrested in 2016 after he allegedly shot his wife, Beth Peasant, twice on Halloween night. Pheasant is facing two counts of first-degree murder.

The type of testimony heard Friday is important for the record, but not always riveting for the jurors. Franklin County state's attorney Evan Owens even admitted as much in Wednesday’s opening statement.

“It’s not exciting all the time,” he told jurors with a grin. Indeed, one juror appeared to fall asleep after the lunch break Friday.

Still, there was meaty testimony delivered, coming mostly from gun shop owner James Hood.

Hood sold Pheasant the gun he allegedly used in the Oct. 31 shooting in the couple's Christopher home.

Hood explained during state questioning that he had gone to grade school with the defendant, and said when Pheasant arrived to pick up his gun the day of the shooting, he showed Pheasant how to take his Springfield .9mm apart — something he said he does with most purchases.

Hood told Pheasant's defense attorney, Paula Newcomb, on cross-examination that he typically recommends customers fire 100 to 150 rounds through a new weapon to check that its mechanics work properly. He said this was particularly important with Pheasant’s gun.

“There was a hiccup with it,” he said of Pheasant’s Springfield model.

“(It is) manufactured so tight, the slide won’t go forward,” he said. Hood should know — he said he carries the same model but a different caliber everyday. He said this malfunction could cause the gun to not fire.

This piece of testimony appeared to corroborate what Pheasant told Illinois State Trooper Jason Colp in a police interview the night of the alleged crime.

“I pulled the trigger and it didn’t do nothing,” Pheasant told Colp in the taped interview, which was played for the court during Thursday’s proceedings.

In that interview, Pheasant said he planned on killing himself in front of his wife after finding out they were getting a divorce — it would be his third. He said after the gun wouldn’t fire, he tried to rack the slide, and in the process accidentally shot Beth Pheasant in the shoulder. Then, as she retreated from the garage to the kitchen, it happened again, he said, this time shooting her in the head.

Another piece of testimony from Friday also seemed to back up Brian Pheasant’s statement to Colp. Illinois State Police crime scene investigator Tammy Turner said she found multiple live rounds on the floor of the Pheasant home during her investigation.

Pheasant told Colp that as he followed his wife from the garage, he was continuing to try and rack the slide to get the gun ready to shoot himself with live rounds falling on the floor. He also said in the interview that he had never fired a gun before.

The trial was scheduled to take about two weeks. Testimony will resume 9 a.m. Monday with the state continuing to present evidence.

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Bryant voices opposition to SIU split; Stuart calls for IBHE study of campus funding change

SPRINGFIELD — State Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, is reiterating her opposition to a package of bills that seek to change Southern Illinois University’s organizational structure.

HB 1292, 1294 and 5860 were introduced by State Reps. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea; Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville; Monica Bristow, D-Godfrey; and LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis after an attempt to rework SIU’s funding formula failed to pass the Board of Trustees in April.

One bill would separate the SIU campuses by creating separate boards of trustees for Carbondale and Edwardsville; another would require equal state appropriations funding for each campus; and a third would mandate an equal number of SIUC and SIUE alumni on the SIU Board of Trustees.

Bryant spoke out against the legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives Thursday, calling the bills “a direct attack on Southern Illinois University Carbondale.”

“SIU Carbondale is a nationally accredited research university, one of only two in Illinois. … I believe that the Democrat-sponsored attack on SIU Carbondale willfully ignores the importance of the research that is performed at SIUC,” Bryant said.

The bills passed the House Higher Education Committee on April 19 and are awaiting a second reading.

“As a Murphysboro resident, as a proud supporter of SIUC, and as a member of the House Higher Ed Committee, I firmly believe that Southern Illinois University will be healthier and more attractive as a cohesive unit, and I believe splitting the system apart will weaken it,” Bryant said.

In her remarks, Bryant cast doubt on the claims that the Edwardsville campus is growing exponentially, and she called for an independent, external study on funding allocation between the two campuses — something Stuart also requested this week, but for different reasons.

On Thursday, Stuart called for the Illinois Board of Higher Education to conduct an independent, unbiased study to review the division of state funding.

“I want the Edwardsville campus to be recognized for the growth and accomplishments they have attained. Recent enrollment trends have seen Edwardsville growing and on the path to exceeding enrollments at Carbondale, and state-funded support should reflect that changing reality,” Stuart said in a news release.

She said Edwardsville is now a residential campus and has spurred growth in the city and surrounding area.

“I believe it is time to look at a change to the governance and funding of the Southern Illinois University system that creates a fair system for our students, and an independent study is the first step we need in the process,” Stuart said.

Provided by Franklin County Sheriff's Office 

Brian Pheasant