Richard Roundtree, the actor who helped define cinematic cool with his iconic title role in Shaft and its sequels, has died at age 81.
He was surrounded by family at the time of his death.
In 2019, the screen star reprised his Shaft role with Samuel L. Jackson playing his son.
Roundtree first starred as the detective John Shaft in 1971’s Shaft, which was directed by the photographer and composer–turned–filmmaker Gordon Parks and featured a classic soundtrack recorded by Isaac Hayes.
Classic star: Richard Roundtree, who helped define cinematic cool with his iconic title role in Shaft and its sequels, has died at age 81 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer; seen in 2022
Iconic role: Roundtree first starred as the detective John Shaft in 1971’s Shaft, which was directed by the photographer and composer–turned–filmmaker Gordon Parks and featured a classic soundtrack recorded by Isaac Hayes
Shaft initially received mixed reviews, with some critics objecting to the films harsh language and occasionally brutal violence.
Others criticized the feature for not having a more dignified character for Roundtree and other Black actors to play, though Parks responded to one critical essay in the New York Times in 1971.
The original author had criticized Shaft for focusing on a private detective in the mold of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, rather than being a more high-minded drama in the mold of the Jack Nicholson–starring Five Easy Pieces
‘I don’t think the choice for Black people is limited to either Five Easy Pieces or Stepin Fetchit,’ Parks wrote in defense, referring to the actor who was infamous for his racist portrayals of lazy Black men.
Even if Shaft polarized critics, it was a hit with audiences, at the film went on to earn an astounding $12 million (equivalent to over $373 million when accounting for inflation) against a budget of just $500,000.
The film made Roundtree a star, and he was nominated for the Golden Globe award for New Star of the Year for the 1971 film.
He was back the following year to reprise his role in Shaft’s Big Score!, which was also a commercial success and is now viewed even more favorably than the original by some modern critics.
The film was rushed into production even before work on the first Shaft film had been completed, as MGM executives predicted — correctly — that the first film would be a commercial success.
Fan favorite: Shaft initially received mixed reviews, with some critics objecting to the films harsh language and occasionally violence, but it was a hit with audiences and at the box office
Take two: Roundtree was back the following year to reprise his role in Shaft’s Big Score!, which was also a commercial success and is now viewed even more favorably than the original by some modern critics
Roundtree returned to play Shaft again in 1973’s Shaft In Africa, this time with John Guillermin in the director’s chair, but that film was a commercial and critical bomb.
Part of its failure was attributed to the rise of other Blaxploitation films that were inspired by the 1971 original and now competed with it, while even James Bond — whom the later incarnations of Shaft were compared to — had adopted elements of the controversial genre with 1973’s Live And Let Die.
The Roger Moore–starring spy thriller hit theaters just a week after Shaft In Africa debuted.
Following the film’s failure, MGM attempted to keep the series alive with a TV series with a similar release structure to Colombo, in which the character starred in small seasons of several TV movies, rather than regular hour or half-hour episodes.
Seven of the TV films were produced in 1973 and ’74 for the series, but the series was canceled after just one season, and Roundtree later criticized its supposed pro-police attitude, which was in stark contrast to the edgier theatrical features.
Decades later, Roundtree would accept supporting roles as John Shaft in 2000’s Shaft, a sequel directed by Boyz N The Hood’s John Singleton and starring Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s nephew, later revealed to be his son.
The veteran star’s final turn as the iconic private eye was in 2019’s Shaft, a sequel to the 2000 film that again starred Jackson as Shaft’s son, with Jessie T. Usher now playing a third generation of the Shaft family.
The sequel was a failure with critics and audiences, and it ultimately failed to make back its budget.
Not slowing down: Roundtree reprised his role in 2000’s Shaft, which Samuel L. Jackson playing his son as the lead, and finally in 2019’s Shaft, which featured the same character plus a new grandson
End of the road: The sequel was a failure with critics and audiences, and it ultimately failed to make back its budget
Roundtree, who was born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1942, was a star football player in high school before attending Southern Illinois University.
However, he dropped out in 1963 after planning to start a career as a model.
He moved to New York City on the advice of Bill Cosby and began acting in stage productions later in the 1960s, but his first major film role as the title character in Shaft changed his career forever and established him as an in-demand film and television star. (He previously had a small role in the comedy What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?)
After his initial success, he played the title character in 1975’s Man Friday, opposite Lawrence Of Arabia star Peter O’Toole as Robinson Crusoe.
In 1981, he appeared with Lawrence Olivier and Ben Gazzara in the Korean War drama Inchon, and he again played a private eye working with Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood in 1984’s City Heat.
Other classic or popular films he appeared in included Earthquake (1974), Body Of Influence (1993), Maniac Cop (1988), Se7en (1995), George Of The Jungle (1997) and Brick (2005). One of his later roles was in the 2019’s What Men Want, which received poor reviews but was a box office success.
He also expressed pride in his acting in the 1996 film Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The film detailed the struggles of a Black family living in Mississippi in the middle of the 20th Century.
Despite his bad experience with the Shaft TV series, Roundtree also had a major success when he played the slave Sam Bennett in the classic 1977 miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel.
His other TV appearances included stints on Alias, Generations, Desperate Housewives, Being Mary Jane, Diary Of A Single Mom, Soul Food and more.
Change of plans: Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1942, and was a high school football star before attending Southern Illinois University. He dropped out to model before acting on stage in the late ’60s. Shaft was his first film role; seen in 2019 in Miami
Health scare: Roundtree was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and underwent a double mastectomy. He is survived by his daughters Kelli, Nicole, Tayler and Morgan and his son John; seen in 2019 in Burbank, Calif.
In the 1990s, Roundtree opened up about being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and undergoing a double mastectomy.
‘Breast cancer is not gender specific,’ he said in 1997. ‘And men have this cavalier attitude about health issues. I got such positive feedback because I spoke out about it and it’s been quite a number of years now. I’m a survivor.’
Roundtree was married to his first wife, Mary Jane Grant, from 1963 to 1973, and he later married Karen Michelle Ciernia in 1980. They were together until divorcing in 1998.
He is survived by his daughters Kelli, Nicole, Tayler and Morgan, as well as his son John.