Richard Roundtree, the trailblazing actor who starred as the ultra-smooth private detective in several Shaft films beginning in the early 1970s, has died. He was 81.
Roundtree’s longtime manager, Patrick McMinn, said the actor had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday. He was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and underwent a double mastectomy.
“Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men,” McMinn said. “The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated.”
Roundtree, who was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., was considered as the first Black action hero and became one of the leading actors in the blaxploitation genre through his New York street smart John Shaft character in the Gordon Parks-directed film Shaft in 1971. At age 28, it was Roundtree’s first feature film appearance after starting his career as a model.
WATCH | The 1971 Shaft trailer:
Roundtree’s Shaft was part of a change in how Black movies were viewed in Hollywood, which failed to consider Black actors — especially for leading roles — in projects at the time. The blaxploitation films were primarily aimed at the African American audiences.
In the film, his character navigated the world of thugs. He regularly whipped out popular one-liners like, “It’s my duty to please that booty.”
“What we were doing was a good, old Saturday afternoon shoot ’em up,” Roundtree said in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press.
LISTEN | Black myths on screen:
Ideas53:59Black Myths on Screen: Hollywood and a Century of Race, Part One
Featured VideoSince its beginnings, Hollywood has portrayed African Americans in a variety of ways: as primitive beings in Birth of a Nation, as happy former slaves in Gone With the Wind, and as hypersexual heroes during the 1970s “blaxploitation” era. In this three-part series, IDEAS explores a century of racial politics in Hollywood. *This episode originally aired on March 17, 2021.
Reprised role several times
Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme song — which included the line You a bad mother— (Shut your mouth) — helped insinuate the original movie into the pop-cult consciousness. The singer, who died in 2008, said the song was like the “shot heard round the world.” His single won an Academy Award for best song in 1971 and two Grammys the following year.
After the film’s success, Roundtree returned in sequels Shaft’s Big Score in 1972 and Shaft in Africa in 1973. That same year, he played the savvy detective once again on the CBS television series Shaftwhich lasted only seven episodes.
Roundtree reprised his role in the 2000 Shaft film reboot, which starred Samuel L. Jackson. Roundtree appeared as Jackson’s uncle in the big-budget film that was aimed at the general audience. Both appeared again in the same roles in the 2019 film Shaft starring Jessie T. Usher.
Through his 50-plus year career, Roundtree appeared in a number other notable films including Se7en, Earthquake, Man Friday and Maniac Cop and What Men Want. He also made his mark with television roles in the landmark miniseries Rootsand on episodic television with Magnum P.I., Being Mary Jane and The Love Boat.
The passing of Richard Roundtree is a real blow. Loved being around him, learning, working, laughing & feeling Blessed to have an idol live up to who I expected him to be!! Thanks for making us feel REAL GOOD about ourselves! Rest In Power‼️‼️‼️👊🏾👊🏾👊🏾🤎🤎 pic.twitter.com/yQq6SXyn9K
Several actors, including Jackson, paid tribute to Roundtree on social media, as did the estate for Hayes. New York City Mayor Eric Adams paid tribute on social media.
“Richard Roundtree told young Black men like me that we could be heroes – and that heroes ‘won’t cop-out when there’s danger all about'” said Adams. “His impact on the stage and screen paved the way for generations of Black actors and he will never be forgotten.”
“Getting to hang with him & our Being Mary Jane family was always a good ass time with the best stories & laughs,” said Gabrielle Union. “He was ALWAYS the coolest man in the room with the BEST vibes & ppl would literally run over to come see him.”