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Roger Mosley, the chopper pilot T.C. on ‘Magnum, P.I.,’ dies at 83

He also starred in the musical biopic ‘Leadbelly,’ directed by Gordon Parks, and played boxer Sonny Liston in the Muhammad Ali movie ‘The Greatest’

Actors Larry Manetti, Tom Selleck and Roger E. Mosley accept an award for “Magnum, P.I.” at the 2009 TV Land Awards in Los Angeles. The show premiered in 1980, ran for eight seasons and continued to reach a wide audience in syndication. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Roger E. Mosley, who brought wit and intensity to dozens of film and television roles, playing heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and blues-folk singer Lead Belly before reaching a wider audience as T.C., the droll helicopter pilot who flies Tom Selleck across Hawaii on “Magnum, P.I.,” died Aug. 7 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 83.

The cause was injuries he suffered in a car accident last month in Lynwood, Calif., said his daughter Ch-a Mosley.

As Theodore “T.C.” Calvin, Mr. Mosley was one of the few Black actors of his era to play an action hero on a network television show. He was featured in almost every episode of the crime drama “Magnum, P.I.,” which premiered on CBS in 1980, ran for eight seasons and remained popular in syndication. After it was rebooted in 2018, Mr. Mosley made a guest appearance as a barber trimming the beard of his former character, now played by Stephen Hill.

Filmed on location in Hawaii, the original “Magnum, P.I.” starred Selleck as the mustachioed, Ferrari-driving investigator Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV, who is aided on his cases by two fellow veterans of the Vietnam War: T.C., who runs a charter helicopter company, and Orville “Rick” Wright, a bar owner played by Larry Manetti. The show also starred John Hillerman as the stuffy British army veteran Higgins, who manages the estate that Magnum uses as his base.

As Mr. Mosley told it, the role of T.C. was intended for another actor, Gerald McRaney, until the producers decided that they needed a person of color for what was then an all-White cast. Mr. Mosley was recommended by Selleck, who had worked with him on a seldom-seen exploitation film called “Terminal Island” (1973), about a group of murderers dumped on an island off the California coast.

Mr. Mosley initially declined the part, saying he had little interest in a regular TV role. He preferred acting in movies, which allowed him to work for a few weeks or months at a time and then head home to the Watts section of Los Angeles, where he coached a children’s swim team for many years.

But his agent was insistent. “They really want you,” he said. “So go to Hawaii for two weeks, they’ll treat you like a king.” Besides, the agent added, the new show was “starring this guy Tom Selleck,” who had appeared in several pilots, none of which had gotten picked up. “The show with Tom Selleck on it won’t sell,” he said, “and you’ll be fine.”

“I went ‘for two weeks,’ ” Mr. Mosley told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “and the rest is history — eight and a half years.”

Although Mr. Mosley said he enjoyed working with Selleck and his other co-stars, he found shooting in Hawaii an often lonely experience. “There’s nothing here for me as a Black person,” he told a reporter during the show’s fourth season. He set about changing that, starting a nightclub, Reni’s, that catered to African Americans, and opening a hair salon specifically for Black customers. Naturally, he called it T.C.’s.

His business projects dovetailed with his effort to promote African American actors and artists, including by founding an acting group, the Watts Repertory Company, and a production company, Mo-Laud. He said he also felt a responsibility to promote a positive image of Black manhood, explaining that he refused to smoke or drink in episodes of “Magnum, P.I.” because “that’s not what I want Black kids to see.”

Mr. Mosley often recalled his shock at arriving on set for the show’s first episode, when he discovered that his helicopter-flying stunt double was “some White guy with a big natural wig and black shoe polish on his face.”

“They told me they couldn’t find any qualified Blacks,” he told Ebony magazine in 1982. “I raised hell, telling them that as many Blacks as there were flying in Vietnam, I know they could find somebody.”

Soon, the showrunners hired a Black stunt pilot.

The oldest of three children, Roger Earl Mosley was born in Los Angeles on Dec. 18, 1938, and grew up in Watts. His mother was a school cafeteria worker, and his parents separated when he was young; his mother later married the proprietor of a car repair shop in South Central.

After graduating from Jordan High School, Mr. Mosley hoped to work in broadcasting. He decided to try acting after enrolling in a drama class taught by Raymond St. Jacques — who helped blaze a trail for Black TV actors as a star of “Rawhide” — at the Mafundi Institute, a Watts arts center where Mr. Mosley later served as a board member.

By then, Mr. Mosley was increasingly engaged with social justice issues, motivated in part by the 1965 Watts riots, a six-day uprising that came to signify the long-simmering fury over racism and police brutality. He told People magazine that during acting class one day, he erupted in anger when a visiting director from Universal Pictures gave a lecture about the importance of self-sacrifice.

“You have the audacity to tell us to eat ketchup sandwiches for our art,” Mr. Mosley shouted. “I know people who are eating ketchup sandwiches to survive. We need somebody to give us a break.”

As Mr. Mosley told it, the filmmaker pointed at him and said, “Young man, I want to see you at the studio next Wednesday,” an invitation that led to his first TV appearances.

Mr. Mosley appeared in episodes of “Sanford and Son,” “Starsky and Hutch” and “Roots: The Next Generations,” as well as blaxploitation films including “Hit Man” (1972), “The Mack” (1973) and “Sweet Jesus, Preacherman” (1973). But he said he didn’t feel fully liberated as an actor until he played musician Huddie Ledbetter in the biopic “Leadbelly” (1976), directed by trailblazing Black photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks.

The film was hailed by critics including Roger Ebert, who praised the “great strength” of Mr. Mosley’s performance and called “Leadbelly” “one of the best biographies of a musician I’ve ever seen, and one of the most direct.”

Mr. Mosley also appeared opposite John Wayne in “McQ” (1974) and was pummeled on-screen by Muhammad Ali while playing Liston in “The Greatest” (1977). Two years later, he was featured in two acclaimed TV movies, “The Jericho Mile,” directed by Michael Mann, and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” adapted from Maya Angelou’s autobiography.

After the success of “Magnum, P.I.,” he became a familiar face on game shows including “The $10,000 Pyramid” and played a high school basketball coach on “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” an ABC sitcom. He was also featured as Ray Liotta’s partner in the police thriller “Unlawful Entry” (1992) and had a recurring role on the Showtime sitcom “Rude Awakening.”

Mr. Mosley’s marriage to Saundra Locke ended in divorce. He later married Antoinette “Toni” Laudermilk, his partner of almost 60 years. She survives him, as does their daughter, Ch-a Mosley. He also had two children from his first marriage and two children from another relationship, although complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Like his “Magnum, P.I.” character, who starred on the football and basketball teams at Grambling State, Mr. Mosley was a gifted athlete. Standing 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds in his prime, he was twice a runner-up for the California state wrestling title, according to People, and later got involved in track and field, coaching his daughter Ch-a in the hurdles and working with student-athletes in the Los Angeles suburbs.

In a phone interview, his daughter said that coaching was a way for him to give back to the community, by imparting lessons about discipline and the price of success. When he was coaching her in high school, she recalled, he once made her go out and run in the rain, even though the track team practice had been canceled and she had just gotten her hair done.

“I was crying I was so mad,” she said. “And he said, ‘When you’re out there training, everyone is back home. This is when you get ahead. When everyone else is losing time, you’re gaining time. And this is how you win.’ ”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the “Magnum, P.I.” character Higgins owns the estate that Magnum uses as his base. He is the property manager. The article has been corrected.