Richard Roundtree, Star of ‘Shaft,’ Dies at 81

Richard Roundtree, the actor who redefined African American masculinity in the movies when he played the title role in “Shaft,” one of the first Black action heroes, died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his manager, Patrick McMinn, who said that it had been diagnosed two months ago.

“Shaft,” which was released in 1971, was among the first of the so-called Blaxploitation movies, and it made Roundtree a movie star at 29.

The character John Shaft is his own man, a private detective who jaywalks confidently through moving Times Square traffic in a handsome brown leather coat with the collar turned up; sports a robust, dark mustache somewhere between walrus-style and a downturned handlebar; and keeps a pearl-handled revolver in the fridge in his Greenwich Village duplex apartment. As Roundtree observed in a 1972 article in The New York Times, he is “a Black man who is for once a winner.”

In addition to catapulting Roundtree to fame, the movie also drew attention to its theme song, performed by Isaac Hayes, which won the 1973 Academy Award for best original song. It described Shaft as “a sex machine to all the chicks,” “a bad mother” and “the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about.” Can you dig it? The director Gordon Parks’s gritty urban cinematography served as punctuation.

A fictional product of his unenlightened pre-feminist era, Shaft was living the Playboy magazine reader’s dream, with beautiful women available to him as willing, downright grateful, sex partners. And he did not always treat them with respect. Some called him, for better or worse, the Black James Bond.

He played the role again in “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972), which bumped up the chase scenes to include speedboats and helicopters and the sexy women to include exotic dancers and other men’s mistresses. Shaft was investigating the murder of a numbers runner, using bigger guns and ignoring one crook’s friendly advice to “keep the hell out of Queens.”

In “Shaft in Africa” (1973), the character posed as an Indigenous man to expose a crime ring that exploited immigrants being smuggled into Europe. Filmed largely in Ethiopia, the second sequel lost money and led to a CBS series that lasted only seven weeks.

But the films had made their impact. As the film critic Maurice Peterson observed in Essence magazine, “Shaft” was “the first picture to show a Black man who leads a life free from racial torment.”

Richard Roundtree in a scene from the movie ‘Shaft’s Big Score’, 1972.Credit…Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Image

Richard Arnold Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942 (some sources say 1937), in New Rochelle, N.Y., the son of John Roundtree and Kathryn (Watkins) Roundtree, who were identified in the 1940 census as a butler and a cook in the same household.

At New Rochelle High School, Richard played on the school’s undefeated football team, graduated in 1961 and attended Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship. But he dropped out of college in 1963 after he spent a summer as a model with the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling presentation sponsored by a leading news and culture magazine for Black readers.

He moved back to New York, worked a number of jobs and soon began his theater career, joining the Negro Ensemble Company. His first role was in a 1967 production of “The Great White Hope,” starring as the early 20th century’s first Black heavyweight boxing champion. A Broadway production starring James Earl Jones opened the next year and won three major Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

After “Shaft,” Roundtree made varied choices in movie roles. He was in the all-star ensemble cast, with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, of the disaster movie “Earthquake” (1974). He played the title role in “Man Friday” (1975), a vibrant, generous, ultimately more civilized partner to Peter O’Toole’s 17th-century explorer Robinson Crusoe.

In “Inchon” (1981), which Vincent Canby in The New York Times described as looking like “the most expensive B movie ever made,” he was an Army officer on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Laurence Olivier) in Korea. He starred with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in “City Heat” (1984) and with a giant flying lizard in “Q” (1982).

On the small screen he played Sam Bennett, the raffish carriage driver who courted Kizzie (Leslie Uggams) in the acclaimed mini-series “Roots” (1977). The show was transformational. “You got a sense of white Americans saying, ‘Damn, that really happened,’ ” Roundtree said in an ABC special celebrating the show’s 25th anniversary.

Richard Roundtree in 2019. He remained busy as an actor for four decades after his first big role.Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

Roundtree’s name is still associated with the 1970s but he was just as busy during the next four decades. He was an amoral private detective in a five-episode story arc of “Desperate Housewives” (2004); appeared in 60 episodes of the soap opera “Generations” (1990); and played Booker T. Washington in the 1999 television movie “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.” He was a big-city district attorney in the film “Seven” (1995) and a strong-willed Mississippi iceman in “Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored” (1996).

After the year 2000, when he was pushing 60, he made appearances in more than 25 small-screen series (he was a cast member of or had recurring roles in nine of them — including “Heroes,” “Being Mary Jane” and “Family Reunion”) and did half a dozen television movies and more than 20 feature films.

In 2020, he starred as a fishing boat’s gray-bearded captain in “Haunting of the Mary Celeste,” a supernatural maritime movie mystery. In 2022, he acted in an episode of “Cherish the Day,” Ava DuVernay’s romantic drama series.

Roundtree married Mary Jane Grant in 1963. They had two children before divorcing in 1973. In 1980, he married Karen M. Cierna. They had three children and divorced in 1998.

Roundtree is survived by four daughters; Kelli, Nicole, Taylor, Morgan; a son, John; and at least one grandchild.

The Shaft character, created by Ernest Tidyman in a series of 1970s novels, endured — with Hollywood alterations. Samuel L. Jackson starred as a character with the same name, supposedly the first John Shaft’s nephew, in a 2000 sequel titled “Shaft.”

In 2019, another “Shaft” was released, also starring Jackson (now said to be the original character’s son) and Jessie T. Usher as his son, J.J. Shaft, an M.I.T.-educated cybersecurity expert. The film felt something like a buddy-cops comedy, but the smartest thing it did, as the Variety review noted, was to take Roundtree, “bald, with a snowy-white beard,” and “turn him into a character who’s hotter, and cooler, than anyone around him” and whose “spirit is spry, and tougher than leather.”

Orlando Mayorquin contributed reporting.

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