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.