UNITED STATES - JANUARY 23: ROOTS - Sunday, Jan. 23-Sunday. Jan. 30, 1977, The 12-hour ABC Novel for Television "Roots", which aired for eight consecutive nights, remains one of TV's landmark programs. Based on Alex Haley's best-selling novel, "Roots" followed 100 tumultuous years and several generations of the author's African ancestors, from the arrival of Kunta Kinte, the West African youth kidnapped into slavery and shipped to America, through emancipation after the Civil War., Pictured: Ji-Tu Cumbuka (The Wrestler) , (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)
Nivea Serrao
July 09, 2017 05:36 PM
This story originally appeared on Entertainment Weekly

Ji-Tu Cumbuka, the actor known for his role of Wrestler in the ABC miniseries Roots, has died at the age of 77.

Cumbuka died Tuesday, July 4 in Atlanta, Georgia, according to his niece Amber Holifield in a Facebook post.

“In my Uncle Ji-Tu’s final days until his final moments he was surrounded with love and support!” said Holifield in her post (below). “It’s was a blessing for all of us to be together in his final hour, and not to mention we pretty much stayed at the hospital with him, and boy did he enjoy our company. The nurses, maybe a different story… lol. He stayed strong and just as sweet as he wanted to be the entire time and that I will never forget that!!”

Among those paying tribute was LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte, the central character in Alex Haley’s 1977 Emmy Award-winning miniseries. “He played the Wrestler in the original Roots, one of Kunta’s primary mentors,” shared Burton on Twitter soon after news spread Saturday of Cumbuka’s death. “As he was for me on my first gig! #RIP”

Cumbuka, who released an autobiography in 2011 called A Giant to Remember: The Black Actor in Hollywood, landed many roles on various television and film productions throughout the years. He played Hawk on 1977’s Young Dan’l Boone show, and then in 1979 landed the role of Torque, a recurring character on the short-lived NBC spy series A Man Called Sloane. Other TV credits include IronsideSanford and SonKnight RiderThe Dukes of HazzardThe A-TeamSt. ElsewhereThe Six Million Dollar ManHunterMatlockKnots LandingWalker Texas Ranger, and CSI.

On the big screen, Cumbuka best known for playing the “Toothless Gambler” in the 1989 Eddie Murphy comedy Harlem Nights. Before that, he appeared in Richard Pryor’s 1985 comedy Brewster’s Millions. He also had parts in BlaculaMaurie (in which he played NBA guard Oscar Robertson), MandingoBound for GloryDr. Black, Mr. HydeFun With Dick and Jane, Moving, and Midnight Edition.

Born in Alabama, the actor was named by his grandmother. In Swahili, Ji-Tu means “giant” and Cumbuka “to remember.”

Cumbuka spent the last few years of his life founding the Help Somebody Foundation Ministries, a non-profit organization that helps people battle addiction and face social challenges to once again become part of the community as productive citizens.

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