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Richard Roundtree, star of the original ‘Shaft,’ dies at 81

The actor’s work as the powerful, unapologetic Black male lead in the 1971 film “introduced into mainstream cinema the African American action hero.”
/ Source: NBC News

Richard Roundtree, a Hollywood icon who played John Shaft in the 1971 introduction to the “Shaft” film franchise, has died after a battle with cancer at age 81.

His manager, Patrick McMinn of McMinn Management and Artists & Representatives Agency, confirmed his passing in a statement on Oct. 24. He said the actor had pancreatic cancer and died Tuesday afternoon.

His family was at his side, McMinn said.

“Artists & Representatives Agency mourns the loss of our friend and client Richard Roundtree,” he said.

Though it was not his cause of death, Roundtree was also a well-known breast cancer survivor. He was diagnosed in 1993, and throughout his survival advocated for greater breast cancer awareness among men.

Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, New York, played football for Southern Illinois University and did some modeling, according to his IMDB biography.

He was drawn to theater and joined New York’s acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company, then starred as Jack Johnson in “The Great White Hope” off-Broadway before the role of John Shaft presented itself, according to the bio.

The 1971 film, directed by the legendary Gordon Parks, won Oscars for Best Music and Original Song for Isaac Hayes’ eponymous hit and other music he created for it. The role of John Shaft, the “hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt” private detective, changed Roundtree’s life and the course of Hollywood by introducing him as an unapologetic protagonist and subterranean fighter of crime.

Richard Roundtree obit 81
Actor Richard Roundtree in Toronto, on Sept. 13, 2022.Michael Loccisano / Getty Images file

The film “introduced into mainstream cinema the African American action hero; until then, action-hero roles had been reserved for white actors,” notes the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in a look at “Shaft” for its Online Film Festival.

The critical and commercial success of “Shaft” launched a short-lived and small wave of major studio films focused on strong Black protagonists in Hollywood. And it provided Roundtree an array of acting opportunities, his face sometimes seeming to be everywhere onscreen.

His other credits include television hits such as “CHiPs,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Chicago Fire.” And he appeared in countless 1980s and 1990s action films, including “Original Gangstas.”

Of course, Roundtree portrayed relatives or older versions of himself in newer versions of “Shaft” starring Samuel L. Jackson.

Roundtree won a Peabody Award for his narration of “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” a PBS documentary released in 2002.

His steel jaw and turtleneck-covered muscle created an archetype for Black masculinity, a macho presentation that was paired with wisdom. He was a thinking man’s brawler.

Cheo Coker, creator of the Netflix comic action hero series “Luke Cage,” said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, “My hero. A huge inspiration for Luke Cage.”

“His trailblazing career changed the face of entertainment around the globe and his enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come,” McMinn said.

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