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.
Roundtree, who was born in New Rochelle, New York, 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 in 1971. At age 28, it was Roundtree’s first feature film appearance after starting his career as a model.
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.
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 “Shaft,” which lasted only seven episodes.
Roundtree reprised his role in the 2000 “Shaft” film, a revival that starred Samuel L. Jackson. He 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 starring Jessie T. Usher.
Jackson called Roundtree the “prototype” and the “best to ever do it” in a social media post.