Los Angeles | Richard Roundtree, the trailblazing Black actor who starred as the ultra-smooth private detective “Shaft” in several 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, 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.
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.
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 “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.
“SHAFT, as we know it is & will always be his Creation," he said of Roundtree. "His passing leaves a deep hole not only in my heart, but I'm sure a lotta y'all's, too.” Through his 50-plus year career, Roundtree appeared in a number 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 on “Magnum P.I.,” “The Love Boat,” “Being Mary Jane” and “The Love Boat.” In 1995, Roundtree received a lifetime achievement award at the MTV Movie & TV Awards.