Richard Roundtree, best known for his groundbreaking role as the star of the now-iconic 1971 film “Shaft,” has passed away at the age of 81. The legendary actor left a lasting legacy in Hollywood, redefining African-American masculinity in movies and making history as one of the first Black action heroes on the big screen.
Roundtree’s manager, Patrick McMinn, confirmed that the actor lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. Roundtree received the diagnosis only two months before his passing, The New York Times reported.
“Shaft,” directed by Gordon Parks, was a significant milestone in cinema, and it propelled Roundtree into stardom at the age of 29. The movie marked the emergence of Black action heroes. The film introduced John Shaft, a confident private detective who fearlessly navigated the streets of New York City, sporting a distinctive brown leather coat.
Although Roundtree was most famous for his portrayal of John Shaft, he had a diverse career spanning over four decades. He revisited the character in two sequels, “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972) and “Shaft in Africa” (1973), and also starred in the franchise’s two 21st-century sequels alongside Samuel L. Jackson.
Beyond the world of Shaft, Roundtree was featured in the disaster movie “Earthquake” (1974), played the title role in “Man Friday” (1975), and appeared in “Inchon” (1981) and “City Heat” (1984).
Richard Arnold Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942 (although some sources report 1937), in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was the son of John and Kathryn (Watkins) Roundtree, who were identified in the 1940 census as a butler and a cook in the same household., The New York Times reported.
Roundtree played on New Rochelle High School’s undefeated football team and, after graduating in 1961, attended Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship. In 1963, he dropped out of college after he spent a summer as a model with the Ebony Fashion Fair. He moved back to New York, where he began his theater career, joining the Negro Ensemble Company. His first role was in a 1967 production of “The Great White Hope,” starring as heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson.
Roundtree was previously diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, and underwent both a double mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy, The Daily Beast reported.
Richard Roundtree in more recent years (left) and from his iconic film “Shaft” (right), NBC News screenshot, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/richard-roundtree-star-original-shaft-dies-81-rcna122042