June Squibb Honors Late ‘Thelma’ Co-Star Richard Roundtree, Who Delivered Two Dozen Red Roses on Her 92nd Birthday: ‘I Was So Touched’

Though Richard Roundtree passed last October at the age of 81, the actor left behind a legacy of iconic characters and memorable movies – including one that is opening this weekend. Though most associated with badass detective John Shaft in the 1971 classic “Shaft” and its sequels, his warm and charming turn as Ben in “Thelma” is a beautiful coda to a great talent.

Josh Margolin’s directorial debut stars Oscar nominee June Squibb (in her first leading film role at the age of 94) as the titular grandmother, who is conned out of $10,000 by a phone scammer. Thelma decides to take matters into her own hands, tracking down the people who wronged her. While her family panics to find her, she hatches a plan to steal her old friend Ben’s motorized scooter to aid in her journey. But Ben won’t allow her to go alone, and thus the two embark on a senior road trip through Los Angeles.

Margolin says he had a Zoom with Roundtree “where he basically convinced me he was the man for the job within the first two minutes.” Though Margolin has long been a fan, he was charmed by the actor’s warmth and kindness. “He was definitely excited to do something different, to showcase a softer side of himself. I was floored by the sensitivity and tenderness he brought to the role.”

Adds Margolin, “He was also very funny on set. Every time I gave him a note he’d stare at me for an extended period of time – like he wasn’t getting it – then he’d smile and say, ‘Watch this.’ We all loved working with him and miss him a lot.”

Fred Hechinger, who plays Thelma’s patient grandson Danny, echoes the sentiment, calling Roundtree “a colossally charming, kind, funny, and brilliant man.” Early on in the shoot, Hechinger discovered that he and Roundtree shared a love of a specific food. (“I appreciate a bagel as much as the next guy, but – I don’t know – I’ve always felt there’s something extra special about the bialy,” Hechinger says. Because he used to live in New York, Roundtree was always on the lookout for the best bialy in L.A. and Hechinger desperately wanted to help him find it. Soon, both Hechinger and the crew were bringing bialys to the set for Roundtree.

“When I look up to someone a lot, like I do with Richard, I can get tongue-tied the first few days of meeting and working together. So, maybe this bialy was a seemingly small thing that represented more to me since it was this early point of connection,” Hechinger recalls. “The bialy was important because Richard is important. He had this ability to make things effortlessly cool and fun. He also had a tremendous warmth and a beautiful depth. He was a real gentleman.”

Squibb, who shares a wonderful chemistry onscreen with Roundtree, raves about him as a wonderful scene partner to work with. “He wanted very much to do film, because he thought it would get people in and look at him as something very different from ‘Shaft’ and most of the films he had done,” she reveals.

He was also a joy to be around. The day Squibb turned 92, the cast and crew of “Thelma” had decided to dress as her that day, wearing white wigs, unbeknownst to her. Though Roundtree wasn’t called to set, he made an appearance. “He drove up in his big, old car,” she recalls. “He had two dozen red roses for me, and he had put on the white wig for me. I was so touched that he did that.”

Adds Squibb, “I did love him. We all did. And I think we feel very honored that we shared his last film with him.”

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