Shaft’ Icon Richard Roundtree Passes Away at 81

Iconic Actor Leaves Legacy in Hollywood and Beyond

by Nouman Rasool
Shaft’ Icon Richard Roundtree Passes Away at 81
© Michael Loccisano/GettyImages

The legendary Richard Roundtree, celebrated for his seminal role as detective John Shaft in the iconic 1971 Blaxploitation film directed by Gordon Parks, passed away on Tuesday afternoon following a brief yet intense battle with pancreatic cancer.

At 81 years old, Roundtree leaves behind a legacy that has indelibly shaped the landscape of cinema, particularly for African American actors in leading roles. Patrick McMinn, who had the honor of managing Roundtree's illustrious career since 1987, confirmed his passing.

"Richard's work and career served as a watershed moment for African American leading men in the film industry,” McMinn reflected in his heartfelt statement. “His influence and impact on the industry is immeasurable, and he will be dearly missed."

Roundtree's Rise to Stardom

Roundtree's journey in the world of screen acting began with a blaze of glory.

From his initial forays into modeling, he landed the role of a lifetime in “Shaft” at the tender age of 28. This MGM blockbuster not only raked in a whopping $12 million in ticket sales against a modest $500,000 production budget but also played a crucial role in rescuing the studio from the brink of bankruptcy.

Beyond its commercial success, “Shaft” was a cultural phenomenon, setting the stage for a prolific era of Blaxploitation filmmaking and challenging Hollywood's longstanding neglect of Black talent and audiences.

Reflecting on the term “exploitation” associated with “Shaft” in a 2019 interview with the New York Times, Roundtree shared his complex feelings. "I had the privilege of working with one of the classiest gentlemen in the industry, Gordon Parks.

So, I do take offense when ‘exploitation’ is attached to any project associated with him... I see the term as negative. However, the movement gave a plethora of opportunities to many, providing a gateway for numerous current producers and directors.

So, in hindsight, I view it positively." Roundtree's legacy extended beyond “Shaft,” with a slew of successful sequels and a plethora of roles across film and television, including notable performances in “Earthquake,” “Man Friday,” and “Q — The Winged Serpent,” as well as guest appearances in hit TV shows like “Roots,” “Magnum P.I.,” and “The Love Boat”.

He reprised his role as John Shaft in the 2000 revival and 2019 comedic take on the series, alongside Samuel L. Jackson. Born on July 9, 1942, in Rochester, N.Y., Roundtree briefly pursued education at Southern Illinois University before venturing into modeling, eventually joining the Negro Ensemble Company and delving into New York's vibrant stage scene.

With a career spanning over five decades, Roundtree leaves behind an enduring legacy, a testament to his unmatched screen presence and his pivotal role in transforming the cinematic landscape. His recent work includes a supporting role in “Moving On,” a comedy starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, showcased at the Toronto Film Festival and released in theaters this past summer.

Roundtree's personal life saw him married twice, first to Mary Jane Grant and then to Karen M. Cierna. He is survived by his four daughters, Nicole, Tayler, Morgan, and Kelli Roundtree, as well as his son, James.