Ji-Tu Cumbuka (1940 - 2017)

Ji-Tu Cumbuka, an actor whose roles included “Roots,” “Brewster’s Millions,” and “Harlem Nights,” died Tuesday, July 4, 2017, in Atlanta, according to his niece. He was 77.

The niece, Amber Holifield, said Cumbuka was “surrounded with love and support” at the time of his death. She said she learned much from the actor “about strength and dealing with things.” She said her uncle was a double amputee.


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He was born March 4, 1940, in Helena, Alabama. His name was given to him by his grandmother. Ji-Tu means “giant” in Swahili, while Cumbuka is defined as “to remember.”

After a stint in the U.S. Army, where he played football and competed on the track team, he attended Texas Southern University. To pursue his acting career, he moved to California.

He made his onscreen debut in the movie “Uptight” (1968), directed by Jules Dassin. The following year, he played a role in Elvis Presley’s last film as an actor, “Change of Habit” (1969).

Cumbuka, who stood 6 feet 5, played the memorable slave wrestler character on three episodes of the 1977 TV miniseries “Roots.” His other TV credits include “Daniel Boone,” “The A-Team,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Sanford and Son,” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

Cumbuka acted in a number of films as well. He played the former NBA guard Oscar Robertson in the biopic “Maurie” (1973) about the life of Maurice Stokes. In “Harlem Nights” (1989), alongside Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, he played a toothless gambler who gets shot in a dispute over money. His other films included “Change of Habit” (1969), “Blacula” (1972), “Mandingo” (1975), ”Brewster’s Millions” (1985), “Out of Bounds” (1986), and “Caged in Paradiso” (1990).

In 2012, the actor published his memoir, “A Giant To Remember.”

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