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Richard Roundtree: The Iconic ‘Shaft’ Star Passes Away at 81

Richard Roundtree: The Iconic ‘Shaft’ Star Passes Away at 81

Indelibly associated with the iconic character that catapulted him to stardom in 1971, Richard Roundtree, the thespian who redefined African American masculinity in cinema as the lead in “Shaft,” one of the pioneering Black action heroes, passed away at his Los Angeles residence at the age of 81.

The cause of his demise was pancreatic cancer, according to his manager, Patrick McMinn, who disclosed that the diagnosis occurred just two months prior.

“Shaft,” a 1971 release, stood among the first in the genre known as Blaxploitation cinema, and it swiftly elevated Roundtree to stardom at a mere 29 years of age.

John Shaft, the character portrayed by Roundtree, is a self-assured private investigator, confidently navigating the bustling streets of Times Square while donned in a suave brown leather coat with the collar stylishly raised. His visage includes a vigorous, dark mustache reminiscent of both the walrus and the downturned handlebar styles. Moreover, he stows a pearl-handled revolver in his Greenwich Village duplex’s refrigerator.

Aside from thrusting Roundtree into the spotlight, the film also highlighted its theme song, performed by Isaac Hayes, which secured the 1972 Academy Award for the finest original song. The song hailed Shaft as a “sex machine to all the chicks,” a “bad mother,” and “the cat who won’t back down when confronted by danger.” Can you comprehend the vibe? The cinematography, masterfully executed by director Gordon Parks, exuded a gritty urban allure.

Shaft, a fictional character from a bygone, pre-feminist epoch, lived the quintessential Playboy lifestyle. Beautiful women were at his beck and call, willing and even appreciative partners in his escapades. His treatment of them was often less than respectful. To some, he was the Black James Bond, for better or worse.

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Roundtree reprised the character in “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972), amping up the action with thrilling chase sequences involving speedboats and helicopters, and introducing exotic dancers and the paramours of other men. Shaft delved into the investigation of a numbers runner’s murder, wielding larger firearms and disregarding one hoodlum’s well-intentioned advice to “stay out of Queens.”

In “Shaft in Africa” (1973), the character adopted an Indigenous guise to expose a criminal syndicate exploiting immigrants smuggling into Europe. Filmed predominantly in Ethiopia, this second sequel failed to attain financial success and led to a short-lived CBS series that lasted a mere seven weeks.

Nevertheless, the films had left their mark. As film critic Maurice Peterson astutely noted in Essence magazine, “Shaft” presented the first cinematic portrayal of a Black man free from the shackles of racial prejudice.

Richard Roundtree in a scene from the movie 'Shaft
Richard Roundtree in a scene from the movie ‘Shaft

Richard Arnold Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942 (though some sources suggest 1937) in New Rochelle, New York. His parents, John Roundtree and Kathryn Watkins Roundtree, were classified in the 1940 census as a butler and a cook residing in the same household.

At New Rochelle High School, Richard excelled on the school’s undefeated football team. He graduated in 1961 and received a football scholarship to Southern Illinois University. However, in 1963, he abandoned his collegiate pursuits after a summer spent as a model for the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling presentation sponsored by a prominent news and culture magazine for Black readers.

He returned to New York, assuming a variety of roles before commencing his theatrical career by joining the Negro Ensemble Company. His debut role occurred in a 1967 production of “The Great White Hope,” where he portrayed the early 20th-century’s inaugural Black heavyweight boxing champion. A Broadway rendition, starring James Earl Jones, premiered the following year, securing three major Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

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Following “Shaft,” Roundtree adopted diverse roles in cinema. He was featured in the star-studded cast of “Earthquake” (1974), alongside Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner. He assumed the lead in “Man Friday” (1975), depicting a vibrant, magnanimous character, the more refined counterpart to Peter O’Toole’s 17th-century explorer Robinson Crusoe.

In “Inchon” (1981), Roundtree portrayed an Army officer on General Douglas MacArthur’s (Laurence Olivier) staff during the Korean conflict. He starred alongside Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in “City Heat” (1984) and even encountered a colossal winged reptilian creature in “Q” (1982).

On the small screen, he embodied Sam Bennett, the rakish carriage driver who courted Kizzie (Leslie Uggams) in the celebrated miniseries “Roots” (1977). The show had a transformative effect, leaving viewers with a profound realization of the historical realities it depicted.

While Roundtree’s name is often linked to the 1970s, his career remained vibrant throughout the subsequent four decades. He portrayed an unscrupulous private investigator in a five-episode narrative arc of “Desperate Housewives” (2004) and appeared in 60 episodes of the soap opera “Generations” (1990). He assumed the role of Booker T. Washington in the 1999 TV movie “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.” Additionally, he portrayed a metropolitan district attorney in the film “Seven” (1995) and a resolute iceman from Mississippi in “Once Upon a Time… When We Were Colored” (1996).

In the 21st century, particularly as he neared his 60s, Roundtree made over 25 appearances in small-screen series. He was either a cast member or had recurring roles in nine of them, including “Heroes,” “Being Mary Jane,” and “Family Reunion.” He also featured in half a dozen television movies and more than 20 feature films.

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In 2020, he assumed the role of a bearded sea captain in “Haunting of the Mary Celeste,” a supernatural nautical mystery. In 2022, he graced an episode of “Cherish the Day,” a romantic drama series helmed by Ava DuVernay.

Richard Roundtree
Richard Roundtree

Roundtree’s marital history included a union with Mary Jane Grant in 1963, which produced two children before ending in divorce in 1973. In 1980, he married Karen M. Cierna, resulting in three children, though the marriage concluded in 1998.

The Shaft character, conceived by Ernest Tidyman in a series of 1970s novels, persisted with Hollywood adaptations. Samuel L. Jackson reprised the role with the same name, now portrayed as the original John Shaft’s nephew, in a 2000 sequel entitled “Shaft.”

In 2019, another “Shaft” iteration emerged, once again featuring Jackson (now acknowledged as the original character’s son) and introducing Jessie T. Usher as J.J. Shaft, an M.I.T.-educated.

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