Still, in making the jump from the big screen to the boob tube for a short-lived series in 1973, Roundtree stayed put, and that has to count for something. It does, even if the show is your standard, weekly detective fare. Warner Archive has released all seven episodes in a four-disc set.
In these 75-minute mysteries, John Shaft looks into the in-a-pinch situations of a beaten hooker, a banker’s kidnapping, a fatal hit-and-run accident involving a stolen car, a widow missing a $3 million diamond necklace, and more. They’re typical prime-time plots (this “Shaft” aired on CBS), just with the then-novelty of an African-American man at its heroic core (even if he needs an awful lot of assistance from the lily-white police force).
The only shake-’em-up elements transported from the kick-ass films is the aspect of race, but not in a good way since it’s via baddies spouting the N-word and “spade.” More preferable is seeing Shaft turn the tables, as he does in one episode: "You stay away from that lady or I'll knock your honky brains right out of your thick skull!" (That comment comes back to haunt him, and he finds himself on trial for murder.)
Across the run, look for guest stars Tony Curtis, Darren McGavin, one-time Tulsan Clu Gulager and that cute Cathy Lee Crosby, before she landed on ABC’s “That’s Incredible!,” thus ensuring my grade-school crush. Mr. Roundtree’s clothes provided by Botany 500.
Warner Archive also has another fine, how-do-ya-do set with the classic “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” If the full-series set is $200 too expensive for your checking-account balance, this “8-Movie Collection” is an affordable next best thing. Hard to believe that people would pay to see in theaters what they could see for free at home, but so popular was the post-007 spy craze of the 1960s that cobbled-together episodes of “U.N.C.L.E.” satiated such appetites, eight times over.
“To Trap a Spy” is basically the pilot episode expanded (but still with McCallum having almost no part in it), with Solo out to thwart an assassination attempt by taking the undercover ruse of an Oklahoma City oil richie. The best part is seeing him put the moves on “Thunderball” starlet Luciana Paluzzi, who asks mid-embrace, “What would you like me to change into?" He answers, "Oh, uh, anything ... but a boy." (Similar to “Trap,” “How to Steal the World” is basically the show’s final episode, but with extended scenes.)
My favorite was “The Karate Killers,” one of only two without “spy” singular or plural in its title, partly because it works in the burgeoning kung-fu craze (which wouldn’t explode until a few years later) and partly for the joy of seeing a slumming Joan Crawford appear, albeit briefly, and watching Telly Savalas scream his way through the thing.
Overall, while the series has aged well in looks (retro remains in style), “U.N.C.L.E.” oft-languishing pace had me crying uncle at times. Hearing Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent theme song, however, never gets tiresome. —Rod Lott