• OJ Simpson in Roots (ABC America)Source: ABC America
It wasn't quite a cast of thousands... but not far off!
By
Christopher Hollow

11 Jul 2016 - 9:09 AM  UPDATED 11 Jul 2016 - 9:09 AM

It's no surprise that the original take on Roots still makes for gripping viewing 39 years after it first aired. One of the small pleasures of watching the significant event miniseries is playing Spot the Star.

In the ’70s tradition of The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, where scenes are filled frame-to-frame with actors who were famous for other iconic roles, Roots was crammed with a Hollywood who’s who.

From Mr Brady to Morticia Addams, the former Mrs Miles Davis to Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright - there were countless more unexpected cameos. It begs the question: is there anyone from that era who wasn’t in Roots?

 

Robert Reed

 

Adding outrageous sideburns to his late-period Mr Brady perm, Reed played a “compassionate doctor”, William Reynolds, who didn’t want his niece (Sandy Duncan from The Hogan Family) teaching Kizzy (Deadpool’s Leslie Uggams) how to read. He ultimately sells Kizzy away from her family and engages in an adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife, played by Lynda Day George (Lisa from Mission: Impossible). Mike would never have approved.

 

Carolyn Jones

Not only was Lily Munster (Yvonne De Carlo) in Roots, so was Morticia Addams (The Addams Family). Carolyn Jones portrayed Mrs Moore, wife of Chuck Connors' character, who goes on a pistol-shooting rampage against Chicken George (Broadway veteran Ben Vereen) and shares pleasantries with one George Hamilton.

 

George Hamilton

So full of surprises, handsome George Hamilton. The perfectly tanned lothario was in Roots.

 

Chuck Connors

The 6'5" frame, that Mount Rushmore face... Chuck Connors played the menacing Tom Moore in Roots after being the star of such programs as The Rifleman and Thrillseekers.

 

Gossett Jr won an Emmy for his portrayal of Fiddler, a conflicted slave and mentor to Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) in Roots. He later took out an Academy Award for his role as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman.

 

Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs

Aka Welcome Back Kotter’s Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington. In Roots, Hilton-Jacobs played Noah, who falls in love with Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy. He later played Joe Jackson in The Jacksons: An American Dream.

 

Richard Roundtree

Aka infamous private dick John Shaft ("The man's trouble! He's been to my house!"), Roundtree played the smooth-talking Sam Bennett, who gets dumped by his fiancée, Kizzy, for lacking right-on ambition. 

 

Roxie Roker

The mum of Lenny Kravitz (cue: “Mama Says”). When Roker appeared in Roots, she was in the midst of her best-known role – Helen Willis in The Jeffersons, half of the first interracial couple to be shown on regular prime-time US television.

 

Vic Morrow

Morrow, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s father, played Ames, the harsh overseer who demanded that Kunta Kinte acknowledge his new name was “Toby”. Tragically, Morrow died in 1982 during an accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

 

Scatman Crothers

He performed for Al Capone, and starred in gems like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining, while another generation altogether know him as the voice of Hong Kong Phooey. In Roots, Crothers played Mingo, a crafty cockfighter.

 

Lorne Greene

Bonanza. Battlestar Galactica. And Roots. Lorne Greene played John Reynolds, the first master of Kunta Kinte.

 

John Amos

Amos was already famous as James Evans from Good Times by the time he became the adult Kunta Kinte in Roots. In a case of life imitating art, he got fired from Good Times for being too difficult.

 

Ian McShane

Before breakout roles in Lovejoy and as Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, Ian McShane played Sir Eric Russell, an English cockfighting aficionado in Roots. McShane has caused uproar about his upcoming role as a priest in Game of Thrones, “I was accused of giving the plot away, but I just think get a f***ing life. It’s only tits and dragons.” 

 

Cicely Tyson

The grand dame of stage and screen, Tyson was a former Ebony magazine model, and the girlfriend and future wife (and ex-wife) of Miles Davis (check out the cover of 1967’s Sorcerer). Tyson’s career shows how limited roles for black actors are. In 1974, she won an Emmy playing a slave in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, earnt an Emmy nomination for her role as Binta, mother of Kunta Kinte, in Roots and, more recently, won plaudits as maid Constantine Davis in The Help. How’s that for a flat-line character career arc for a talented actor?

 

OJ Simpson

Despite still being in the midst of his illustrious NFL career, OJ Simpson had his first breakout role as a West African native called Kadi Touray. In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of the murder of wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. He is now serving out a 33-year sentence for kidnapping and armed robbery at the Lovelock Correctional Center.

 

Ed Asner

Worried white audiences would be repelled by their historical role in the slave trade, the producers added a slave captain with a conscience to the Roots story. Ed Asner, known as the cantankerous Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, won an Emmy Award for his performance. In 2009, he provided the voice of Carl Fredricksen in Up.

 

Tracey Gold

She later found fame in the ’80s as Carol Seaver in Growing Pains, but Tracey Gold had dozens of television appearances as a child actress, including Young Missy Reynolds in Roots. She was one of the first celebrities to speak out about anorexia.

 

Lloyd Bridges

After seeing Flying High, it’s hard to see Lloyd Bridges playing it straight. In Roots, Bridges, father of actors Jeff and Beau, portrayed Evan Brent, Confederate officer and proto-Klansman. 

 

Brad Davis

Brad Davis appeared in Roots shortly before his breakout Hollywood role in 1978’s Midnight Express. But his career never really took off. One story had Davis ripping off his shirt at a Hollywood party, roaring, ''OK, who's got the drugs?'' while a director muttered prophetically, ''There goes that career.''

 

Todd Bridges

Before there was "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?", there was Roots. Todd Bridges wrote a book, Killing Willis: From Diff'rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted, which discusses his childhood sexual abuse, drug addiction, criminal charges and Roots.

 

James Earl Jones and Marlon Brando

The Roots sequel, 1979’s Roots: The Next Generation, proved even more star-studded, with Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland and James Earl Jones (as Roots writer Alex Haley) all featuring, while Marlon Brando gives an incredible performance as American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell.

 

 

Roots premieres on Wednesday 27 July at 8:30pm on SBS and encores on Saturday 30 July, 9.30pm on NITV. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand.

Watch the preview right here:

VISIT THE ROOTS HOMEPAGE

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