Ji-Tu Cumbuka, actor in ‘Roots’ and ‘Harlem Nights,’ dies at 77


Ji-Tu Cumbuka, an actor known for the original “Roots,” as well as “Bound for Glory” and “Harlem Nights,” has died. He was 77.

Cumbuka died on July 4 in Atlanta after a long illness, according to a Facebook post by his niece Amber Holifield. The website for his organization, Help Somebody Foundation and Ministries, noted that the actor had had at least 10 years of health complications related to vascular disease.

“My uncle has taught me so much over the last few weeks alone about strength and dealing with things,” Holifield wrote. “After having both his legs amputated... I can’t remember him complaining once.”


Born in Montgomery County, Ala., on March 4, 1940, Cumbuka saw his first movie, “Shane,” when he was 12. The ’50s flick starring Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur inspired him to become an actor, despite his Baptist minister father believing acting was “the devil’s work.” He eventually moved to New York to pursue this dream. But after a number of difficult years, he enlisted in the Army, where he played football and ran track. He then attended the historically black Texas Southern University in Houston. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles.

After three years of acting classes and performing in community plays and workshops, Cumbuka landed his first major role in the 1968 movie “Uptight,” directed by the late Jules Dassin. The 6-foot-5 actor would go on to star in “Roots,” “Harlem Nights,” “Brewster’s Millions,” “Mandingo” and “Bound for Glory.” His television roles included gigs on “Knots Landing,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Walker Texas Ranger” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which would be his last in 2004.

Cumbuka published his memoir, “A Giant to Remember: The Black Actor in Hollywood,” in 2011.

Check out some of Cumbuka’s memorable roles below:

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