Richard Roundtree, the pioneering Black actor who starred as the ultra-smooth private detective “Shaft” in several films beginning in the early 1970s, has died. It 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. She 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 it has had on the industry cannot be overstated.”
Roundtree, who was born in New Rochelle, New York, was considered the “first black action hero” and became one of the leading actors in the blaxploitation genre through his portrayal of New York street smart John Shaft in Gordon Parks' film in 1971. At age 28, it was Roundtree's first feature appearance after beginning his modeling career.
Roundtree's “Shaft” was part of a shift in how black films were viewed in Hollywood, which failed to consider black actors – especially for lead roles – in projects at the time. Blaxploitation films were primarily aimed at African-American audiences.
In the film, his character navigated the world of villains. He regularly delivered popular one-liners such as “It's my duty to please this booty.”
“What we did was a good, old Saturday afternoon to shoot them,” Roundtree said in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press.
Isaac Hayes' theme song “Shaft”—which included the line “You a bad mother-(Shut your mouth)”—helped cement the original film into the pop-cult consciousness. The singer, who died in 2008, said the song was “like the ‘shot heard around the world.' The single won him an Academy Award for Best Song in 1971 and two Grammys the following year.
After the film's success, Roundtree returned for the sequels “Shaft's Big Score” in 1972 and “Shaft in Africa” in 1973. In the same year, he played the experienced detective once again in the CBS television series “Shaft”, which lasted only seven episodes.
Roundtree reprized his role in the 2000 film “Shaft,” a revival starring Samuel L. Jackson. He appeared as Jackson's uncle in the big-budget mainstream film. Both appeared again in the same roles in the 2019 film starring Jessie T. Usher.
Jackson called Roundtree the “original” and “best thing to ever do” in a social media post.
“SHAFT as we know it is and always will be his creation,” he said of Roundtree. “His passing leaves a deep hole not only in my heart, but I'm sure in many of yours as well.”
During his 50-plus year career, Roundtree appeared in many other notable films, including “Earthquake,” “Man Friday” with Peter O'Toole, “Roots,” “Maniac Cop,” “Se7en” and “What Men Want” starring Taraji. P. Henson. He also made his mark with television roles in ‘Magnum PI', ‘The Love Boat', ‘Being Mary Jane' and ‘The Love Boat'.
In 1995, Roundtree received a lifetime achievement award at the MTV Movie & TV Awards.