25 October 2023

Shaft star Richard Roundtree dies aged 81

25 October 2023

Richard Roundtree, the trailblazing actor who starred as the ultra-smooth private detective in several Shaft films beginning in the early 1970s, has died at the age of 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.

It was the 28-year-old Roundtree’s first feature film appearance after starting his career as a model.

Roundtree’s Shaft was part of a change in how black films 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 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’s 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.

In 2000, Roundtree appeared in a big-budget Shaft revival film starring Samuel L Jackson, playing Jackson’s uncle. Both appeared again in the same roles in a 2019 film starring Jessie T Usher.

In a social media post, Jackson called Roundtree the “prototype” and the “best to ever do it”.

“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.”

During 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 in Magnum P.I., Being Mary Jane and The Love Boat.

In 1995, Roundtree received a lifetime achievement award at the MTV Movie & TV Awards.

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