He played Leadbelly and Sonny Liston on the big screen. But his most high-profile role was a rugged, wry Vietnam War veteran opposite Tom Selleck on TV.
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Roger E. Mosley, whose knack for playing a tough guy with a mischievous streak earned him accolades playing an action-ready helicopter pilot on the hit 1980s television series “Magnum, P.I.,” as well as real-life figures like Sonny Liston and Leadbelly on the big screen, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 83.
He died after sustaining injuries from a car accident in Lynwood, Calif., last month that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down, his daughter Ch-a Mosley announced on Facebook.
Mr. Mosley, who grew up in a public-housing project in the Watts section of Los Angeles, appeared on dozens of television shows over four decades, starting with 1970s staples like “Cannon” and “Sanford and Son.” He also appeared in the mini-series “Roots: The Next Generations” in 1979.
Aspiring to a career in film, he made early appearances in so-called blaxploitation films of the early 1970s like “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.”
A strapping 6 feet 2 inches tall, Mr. Mosley was often cast as a bruiser. But his natural warmth and humor brought a depth to even the most macho parts, including the title role in “Leadbelly,” a 1976 movie about the brawling early-20th-century folk and blues pioneer Huddie Ledbetter, which Roger Ebert called “one of the best biographies of a musician I’ve ever seen.”
“Leadbelly” offered Black audiences “the kind of film they’re hungry for,” Mr. Mosley was quoted as saying in a 1976 article in People magazine. “Not a Super Fly character but the story of a man who actually lived.”
The next year, he earned critical praise playing Sonny Liston, the heavyweight boxing champion famously dethroned in 1964 by Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), in the 1977 film “The Greatest,” which starred Ali as himself.
While Mr. Mosley’s career continued to build momentum during that decade, it was “Magnum, P.I.,” the popular CBS crime drama that ran from 1980 to 1988, that brought him mass recognition.
His character, Theodore Calvin, known as T.C., was a rugged yet wry Vietnam War veteran helicopter pilot who was continually rescuing Thomas Magnum, Tom Selleck’s Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, Ferrari-driving private investigator character, when he landed in danger in the jungles or on the beaches of Oahu, where he lived in a guesthouse 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 part was originally written for a white actor, Gerald McRaney, The Hollywood Reporter wrote in its obituary for Mr. Mosley, but the producers reached out to Mr. Mosley to bring diversity to the cast.
Although Mr. Mosley reportedly had little interest in the role at first because his sights were on work in feature films, he later said he was proud that he helped break stereotypes as one of television’s first Black action stars.
“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 aimed 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 caretaker — although Mr. Hillerman was actually American.) “We have a little bit of everything for everyone.”
When CBS rebooted “Magnum” in 2018, with Jay Hernandez as Magnum and Stephen Hill as T.C., Mr. Mosley appeared in two episodes as a barber.
Roger Earl Mosley was born on Dec. 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 ran a tire shop in Watts supplying eighteen-wheelers, his son Brandonn Mosley said. (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 try acting and took a drama class at the Mafundi Institute, an arts education center in the area. One day, a visiting director from Universal Pictures lectured the class on the self-discipline needed to make it in the field.
“I know actors who had to eat ketchup sandwiches,” Mr. Mosley recalled him saying in 1976.
Mr. Mosley fired back: “You have the audacity to tell us to eat ketchup sandwiches for our art. I know people who are eating ketchup sandwiches to survive. We need somebody to give us a break.”
“Young man,” the director said, “I want to see you at the studio next Wednesday.”