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Richard Roundtree, the ultracool actor who helped open the door to a generation of Black filmmakers and performers with his portrayal of private eye John Shaft, “the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about,” died Tuesday. He was 81.
Roundtree died at his home in Los Angeles of pancreatic cancer, his manager, Patrick McMinn, told The Hollywood Reporter.
He was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and had a double mastectomy. “Breast cancer is not gender specific,” he said four years later. “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 also portrayed the title character opposite Peter O’Toole as Robinson Crusoe in Man Friday, was featured as an army sergeant opposite Laurence Olivier as Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War drama Inchon (1981) and played Burt Reynolds’ partner in a private-eye business in City Heat (1984).
On the 1977 groundbreaking ABC miniseries Roots, Roundtree took on the pivotal role of carriage driver Sam Bennett, who falls for Leslie Uggams’ Kizzy. (He said George Hamilton apologized to him for years for the scene that required Hamilton’s character, a slave owner, to whip Bennett.)
Roundtree once revealed that he was most proud of his work in Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored (1996), about a Black Mississippi family confronting inequality in the south. His father, who had become a Pentecostal minister, had refused to see any of his son’s movies until this one.
Dubbed the first Black action hero, Roundtree became one of the faces of the 1970s blaxploitation movement when he starred as the street-smart New York sleuth in Shaft (1971), directed by Gordon Parks. Apart from a brief turn in the 1970 comedy What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, it marked his first big-screen appearance.
Based on a 1970 novel by Ernest Tidyman, Shaft was originally conceived to be fronted by a white actor. It was Parks who insisted on casting Roundtree, a former model, after spotting him during a cattle call.
“Gordon Parks is Shaft,” Roundtree told radio station WBUR in a 2019 interview. “The way he moved, the way he talked. He is the most sophisticated, smooth person that I have ever met. And to be in his presence and to be a part of something that he has his stamp on is magical to me.”
Shaft was one of only three MGM movies in 1971 to turn a profit.
“Shaft is not a great film, but it’s very entertaining,” Vincent Canby wrote in his review for The New York Times. “Shaft is the sort of man who can drink five fingers of scotch without gagging or his eyes watering. He moves through Whitey’s world with perfect ease and aplomb but never loses his independence or his awareness of where his life is really at.
“When a friend of his — a white homosexual bartender — gives him a rather hopeful caress, Shaft is not threatened, only amused. He has no identity problems, so he can afford to be cheerful under circumstances that would send a lesser hero into the kind of personality crisis that in a movie usually ends in a gunfight, or, at the least, a barroom brawl.”
“I’ve had so many people from all over the country — and all over the world, actually — come up and say what that film meant to them back in ’71,” he said. “It’s heavy.”
Roundtree returned for Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973) and played the detective on 1973 CBS series that lasted just seven episodes. When the franchise was rejuvenated in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson starring as the nephew of the famed shamus, Roundtree appeared as his uncle. He and Jackson came back in 2019 for another movie.
He was born on July 9, 1942, in New Rochelle, New York. His father, John, worked as a garbage collector and caterer, and his mother, Kathryn, was a maid and a nurse. He attended New Rochelle High School and played for its undefeated football team.
After graduating in 1961, Roundtree headed to Southern Illinois University and landed a football scholarship as a walk-on, but he left in 1963 to pursue a modeling career. He was hired by Eunice W. Johnson to appear at the Ebony Fashion Fair and posed for print ads for Salem cigarettes and Duke hair products.
In 1967, Roundtree heeded advice from Bill Cosby and moved to New York to hone his acting skills. He joined the Negro Ensemble Company and worked with the likes of Esther Rolle, Arthur French, Robert Hooks, Rosalind Cash, Denise Nicholas and Moses Gunn (later a Shaft co-star).
He was in a Philadelphia theater portraying the boxer in a production of The Great White Hope when he heard about the Shaft audition.
Thanks to Parks, the first film’s cultural impact went far beyond a simple crime drama premise. Shaft was one of the first big-screen Black characters to be his own man and not kowtow to anyone, no matter the skin color.
“People come up and ask me if we really need this image of Shaft the Black superman. Hell, yes, there’s a place for John Shaft,” Parks told Roger Ebert in a 1972 interview. “I was overwhelmed by our world premiere on Broadway. Suddenly, I was the perpetrator of a hero. Ghetto kids were coming downtown to see their hero, Shaft, and here was a Black man on the screen they didn’t have to be ashamed of. Here they had a chance to spend their $3 on something they wanted to see. We need movies about the history of our people, yes, but we need heroic fantasies about our people, too. We all need a little James Bond now and then.”
Shaft‘s success was fueled by its title tune, written and sung by Issac Hayes; he performed it at the 1972 Academy Awards ceremony and won the Oscar for best original song.
Roundtree revisited his blaxploitation roots by appearing in Original Gangstas (1996), a homage to the genre that also starred Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Pam Grier.
His other features included Earthquake (1974), Escape to Athena (1979), Opposing Force (1986), Maniac Cop (1988), Seven (1995), George of the Jungle (1997), Corky Romano (2001), Brick (2005), Speed Racer (2008) and What Men Want (2019).
On television, he played private eye “Ice” McAdams on CBS’ Outlaws, the disgraced doctor Daniel Reubens on the NBC daytime soap opera Generations, a fire station commander on the WB Network’s Rescue 77, the cold-blooded Mr. Shaw on ABC’s Desperate Housewives and the cryptic Charles Deveaux on NBC’s Heroes.
His small-screen résumé also included recurring roles on Soul Food, Roc, Chicago Fire, Being Mary Jane and Family Reunion.
Roundtree was married to Mary Jane Grant from 1963-73 and to Karen Michelle Ciernia from 1980-98. Survivors include his daughters, Kelli, Nicole, Tayler and Morgan, and a son, John.
Roundtree wasn’t always ultracool with being typecast during his career, but he eventually came to accept it, he said.
His father “was out visiting me in L.A. and I was complaining about (how) 24/7, the Shaft character comes up,” he recalled, “and he says, ‘Son, let me tell you something. A lot of people leave this Earth not being known for anything. Shut up.’”