Ji-Tu Cumbuka

When you see the name Ji-Tu, your brain probably checks its card catalog for best matches and then pulls up the sport jujitsu. But he is not jujitsu; he’s a veteran actor.

You may recognize Ji-Tu Combuka from his acting roles in Roots, Harlem Nights, Brewster’s Millions, Mandingo, or Bound for Glory. In a time where black actors are currently protesting the lack of roles for minorities (specifically African-Americans), we can look to Cumbuka as a successful actor of over a hundred films and television series, spanning the decades.

And, yes, Ji-Tu is his given name. Per the site agianttoremember.com, it was all Cumbuka’s grandmother’s idea. In Swahili, “Ji-Tu” means giant, and “Cumbuka means “to remember.” How she knew he was going to grow up to be 6’5″ is another question altogether.

Born in Alabama on March 4, 1942 to a Baptist minister who believed acting was “the devil’s work,” Cumbuka grew up in the segregated South. At the age of 12, he saw his first movie, Shane, which inspired him to act. Once grown, he headed up to Yankee territory in New York and eventually  enlisted in the Army, where he excelled in football and track. Scholarships were offered, and he chose Texas Southern University to major in the devil’s work. Ultimately, he earned a B.A. in theatre and a master’s in cinematography.

After three years taking acting classes and performing in community plays, he landed his first top role in the 1968 movie Uptight, which led to roles, such as Wrestler in the TV miniseries “Roots.” Cumbuka shared a memory from his 1976 audition:

After the introductions, David Green (the director) spoke to me. “I say, ol chap,” he began, “that’s a very unusual name you have. Where are you from?”
“South America,” I replied.
“What part?” he inquired.
“Helena, Alabama,” I immediately responded, not losing a beat. The entire room erupted in laughter…



As you may know, when Michael J. Fox  first joined the Screen Actors Guild, he had to register his name with a middle initial to differentiate himself from the already-registered actor Michael Fox. (Fun fact: “J” wasn’t even legit; his middle name is Andrew.) Cumbuka, however, never had this problem, as there were no other Ji-Tu Cumbukas. Although there IS a drink called GT’s Kombucha, which is powerful in its own way.


Whether in his roles on “Knots Landing,” “The A-Team,” “The Dukes of Hazard,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” or “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” Ji-Tu Cumbuka has certainly lived up to his name as a giant to remember. And he’s still going strong at 73.

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27 Responses to Ji-Tu Cumbuka

  1. markbialczak says:

    Excellent catch, Kerbey. The man’s an acting giant in his supporting scenes who’s been giving us great shots on the shows of our lives forever. And that’s a lyrical name I’ll be singing to myself the rest of this day, Against Ji-Tu Cumbuka, don’t dare put up’a your duke’as.

  2. Dave says:

    Wow, I wish I had that kind of height. Perhaps he made a deal with you-know-who in order to succeed doing the devil’s work, and as part of the deal, there was an “extraordinary height” clause.

    You gotta love when a name perfectly fits the person. The ol’ BoFN “Nominative Determinism” theory. Someday (not today) I’d love to write an academic manuscript on the topic. Thoughts, BoFN crew?

    • kerbey says:

      It is a perfect fit, I grant you. “Kerbey” means from the church village, and I can’t say I’m from the church village. Austin is more like the weirdness village.

      • Dave says:

        The sad thing is I’ve never been to Austin… I’ve been to Dallas (business trip and later as a boxing reporter) and Houston (business trip again) but Austin seems like the coolest of those…

        And I just typed in Kerbey and Google suggested “Kerbey Lane in Austin”. You’re famous!!!!!

    • Dave–that’s a really great idea. Nominate Determinism deserves it time in the sun.

      • Dave says:

        Yes! Word on the street is that one of the co-founders of the BoFN is a linguistics major who is familiar with 5 languages. Maybe we’re onto something….

  3. Dave says:

    Trying to think of the neurological correlate for ‘pulling up a card catalog”…. I’m working on it. Probably something related to midbrain memory structures or the hippocampal formation. Hmm…. questions that only I think about…. I’ll keep you posted on the extremely meaningful answer as it comes to me.

    • kerbey says:

      That makes me think of the special I saw with Glenn Campbell having Alzheimer’s and not being able to recall his kids’ names, but still playing a riff he knows.

      • That’s interesting about Glenn Campbell being able to still play a riff. I wonder how much of that is “muscle” memory or if the location of the brain music resides in is in a different location.

        My own father doesn’t have a clue who I am but we can still recite nursery rhymes together. It’s a strange and tragic disease.

      • Dave says:

        That makes so much sense! Procedural memory is in a different set of brain structures than declarative memory (like names of kids or higher-order reasoning stuff).

        One of the most fascinating patients in neurology was a fella named Henry Molaison, *known anonymously as patient H.M. throughout his life) who had an experimental treatment to cure his epilepsy that involved removing part of his hippocampus. He lost the ability to consolidate long-term declarative memories (so he could learn a new fact and use it for a little while (repeating words and phrases, for example) but 10 minutes later it wouldn’t have transferred it to long-term memory).

        HOWEVER, his caudate, putamen and cerebellum were all intact, so he actually could learn new *procedural* memories and skills. The interesting thing is that H.M. learned how to do certain tasks, like play golf, after his surgery. He kept getting better at golf. However, if you asked him whether he knew how to play golf, he would tell you “No.” He couldn’t remember the fact that he played golf, but did remember the motor skills and technique that he had learned about playing golf. Such fascinating stuff! It’s unfortunate that Glenn Campbell has lost his memory, but at least he can still connect with people through his music!

        • kerbey says:

          Wow, that is all so interesting. And sad. and interesting. And sad. So once you lob out that part of the brain on HM, I guess you can’t ever “fix” him back to normal. This hippo is keeping her hippocampus.

  4. Great post, Kerbey. In this case height equals success, but with a name like Ji-Tu Cumbuka, he certainly lived up to it.

  5. Benson says:

    I am not that hip on name origins. I do think that he has a most lyrical name,and I do like Mark’s little rhyme.

  6. ksbeth says:

    i love his name, and that’s he’s lived up to it, and then some. it also would be a wonderful name for a hot sauce or exotic cocktail.

  7. Arto says:

    Seeing the name did make me think of GT’s Kombucha. Good catch. I had some just a while ago. It does pack a punch, in the sense that it’s weird tasting.

    Ji-tu probably wasn’t weird tasting, but he sure made a hell of a career in the devil’s line of work.

    We’re very happy see he also appeared in BoFN’s favorite show Matlock.

    • kerbey says:

      You’ve really had it? LOL. I haven’t tried it. You are hipper than I. Now you’re making me miss Andy Griffith.

      • Arto says:

        Well, I live in California. It’s basically a requirement to consume all the weird hipster foods and beverages that they can think of.

        • kerbey says:

          I hope you were wearing horn-rim glasses and a low-slung beanie over your ears (even though it’s warm) and some skinny jeans and your shirt tucked in only behind your belt buckle but loose everywhere else. Did the kombucha improve digestion and fight candida? You need to reap the benefits.

          • Arto says:

            I don’t think I own any of those things, aside from a shirt, so my credentials are definitely out of date for true hip status.

            I think the kombucha was digested, but I didn’t witness any fights. All I can say is that it was pleasantly fruity and rather tart, just like many hipsters.

  8. wdydfae says:

    “. . . get ready for some verbal jujitsu as Kerby ranges comprehensively over the life and career of Ji-Tu Cumbuka . . .”

    “. . . one way or another Kerbey’s gonna get you get you get you get you with her compelling thumbnail of Ji-Tu Cumbuka . . .”

    “. . . Kerbey serves up a quality bottle-full with her characteristically inventive Ji-Tu Cumbuka kombucha combo . . .”

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