Roger E. Mosley, whose talent for playing a tough guy with a mischievous streak, earned him accolades as an action-oriented helicopter pilot on the hit 1980s television series “Magnum, PI,” as well as real-life figures such as Sonny Liston and Leadbelly on the big screen, died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 83.
He died after sustaining injuries in a car accident in Lynwood, Calif., last month that left him paralyzed from the shoulders, his daughter Ch-a Mosley announced on Facebook.
Growing up in a public housing project in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Mr. Mosley appeared on dozens of TV shows over four decades, starting with 1970s staples like “Cannon” and “Sanford and Son.” He also appeared in the miniseries “Roots: The Next Generations” in 1979.
Aiming for a career in film, he made early appearances in so-called blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, such as “Hit Man” and “The Mack.” He also appeared in “Terminal Island,” a 1973 grindhouse film that also starred Tom Selleck, who would later recommend him for “Magnum, P.I.”
Strapping six feet long, Mr Mosley was often cast as a powerhouse. But his natural warmth and humor brought depth to even the most macho of roles, including the title role in “Leadbelly,” a 1976 film about the pugnacious early 20th-century folk and blues pioneer Huddie Ledbetter, who called Roger Ebert “one of the best biographies.” of any musician I have ever seen.”
“Leadbelly” offered black audiences “the kind of movie they crave,” Mosley said in a 1976 article in People magazine. “Not a Super Fly character, but the story of a man who really lived.”
The following year, he received critical acclaim when he played Sonny Liston, the heavyweight boxing champion who was famously dethroned by Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) in 1964, in the 1977 film “The Greatest,” which starred Ali as himself.
While the career of Mr. Mosley continued to gain momentum during that decade, it was “Magnum, PI,” the popular CBS crime drama set from 1980 to 1988, that earned him massive recognition.
His character, Theodore Calvin, known as TC, was a shaggy but wry Vietnam War veteran helicopter pilot who continually rescued Thomas Magnum, Tom Selleck’s Hawaiian shirt-wearing, Ferrari-driving private detective character, when he ended up in danger in the jungle. or on the beaches of Maui, where he lived in a boarding house on a lavish estate. (According to the Internet Movie Database, Mr. Mosley was a certified helicopter pilot, but was not allowed to do his own stunts on the show.)
The role was originally written for a white actor, Gerald McRaney, wrote The Hollywood Reporter in the obituary for Mr. Mosley, but the producers contacted Mr. Mosley to bring diversity to the cast.
While Mr Mosley reportedly initially had little interest in the role as he had his sights set on work in feature films, he later said he was proud to help break stereotypes as one of the first black action stars of the television.
“I’m a good actor, but I’m a black man; there’s a lot of pride in that,” Mr Mosley told Entertainment Tonight in 1985. He always strove to set a good example for black youth; for example, he refused to let his “Magnum” character drink or smoke.
The show’s diversity, he said, was a factor in its success. “We have myself for black people, we have John for the Europeans, we have Magnum for the ladies,” he said. (John Hillerman played Higgins, the estate’s stuffy English janitor—although Mr. Hillerman was actually American.) “We’ve got a little bit of everything for everyone.”
When CBS rebooted Magnum in 2018, starring Jay Hernandez as Magnum and Stephen Hill as TC, Mr. Mosley in two episodes as a hairdresser.
Roger Earl Mosley was born on December 18, 1938 in Los Angeles, the eldest of three children, raised by his mother, Eloise, a school cafeteria worker, and his stepfather, Luther Harris, who owned a tire shop in Watts that sold eighteen road cyclists, said his son Brandonn Mosley. (His mother later changed her first name to Sjuan, pronounced “swan.”)
In addition to his daughter Ch-a and his son Brandonn, Mr Mosley’s survivors include his wife, Antoinette, and another son, Trace Lankford. Another daughter, Reni Mosley, died in 2019. His first marriage, to Saundra J. Locke in 1960, ended in divorce.
Mr. Mosley was a standout wrestler at Jordan High School in Watts, but after graduation, he decided to pursue acting and took drama classes at the Mafundi Institute, an arts education center in the area. One day, a visiting director of Universal Pictures gave the class a talk about the self-discipline it takes to make it in the field.
“I know actors who had to eat ketchup sandwiches,” Mosley recalled in 1976.
Mr Mosley fired back: ‘You have the audacity to tell us we have to eat ketchup sandwiches for our art. I know people who eat ketchup sandwiches to survive. We need someone to give us a break.”
“Young man,” said the director, “I want to see you in the studio next Wednesday.”