Shaft Star Richard Roundtree Dies, Aged 81

Richard Roundtree

by James White |
Published on

Richard Roundtree, who will forever be linked with the role of trailblazing Black detective John Shaft, has died. The actor, who on screen is best remembered for the iconic role, was also a breast cancer survivor known for raising funds to treat the condition. He was more recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died yesterday afternoon, with his family at his bedside.

Richard Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, New York, played football for Southern Illinois University and did some modeling before the acting bug bit.

He was drawn to theater and joined New York’s acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company, then starred as Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope off-Broadway before the role of John Shaft presented itself — a lucky break secured after Sidney Poitier refused to screen test for the role, leading director Gordon Parks to cast Roundtree instead.

The role of Shaft, the “hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt” private detective, changed Roundtree’s life and the course of Hollywood by introducing him as an unapologetic protagonist and subterranean fighter of crime.

He went on to play the role in the sequels Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft In Africa as well as the short-lived 1973 spin-off TV series. And Roundtree reprised the role in the 2000 John Singleton movie also called Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson, and the 2019 Tim Story-directed sequel.

The actor’s many film credits include 1981’s Inchon, City Heat (1984) as well as Se7en, George Of The Jungle, Body Of Influence, Amityville: A New Generation, and What Men Want. He was last seen in Paul Weitz’s 2022 comedy Moving On.

On the small screen, Roundtree had one of his best opportunities in the breakthrough miniseries Roots, and can count a variety of dramas and comedies among his many credits.

His agency offered the following statement on his death: "Artists & Representatives Agency mourns the loss of our friend and client Richard Roundtree. His trailblazing career changed the face of entertainment around the globe and his enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come. Our hearts are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time."

But perhaps the last word should go to Jackson, who took to Instagram to pay his own tribute…

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