Richard Roundtree, the actor who cemented his legacy playing the classy and self-possessed police detective John Shaft in the 1971 film and its sequels, died Tuesday, his manager said. He was 81.
Roundtree died at his Los Angeles home after a battle with pancreatic cancer, according to a statement from Patrick McMinn, who managed the actor’s career from 1987 to his death.
“Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men in film,” McMinn said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated.”
Besides 1971’s Shaft, Roundtree portrayed the ultimate “bad mother,” as his theme song puts it, in 1971’s Shaft’s Big Score! and 1973’s Shaft in Africa, as well as the franchise’s two 21st century sequels, both of which starred Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft Jr. The franchise also inspired seven television films.
The first film, which grossed $13 million (roughly $82 million in today’s money), made Roundtree into one of cinema’s first Black action heroes, helped rescue MGM from bankruptcy, and helped kick off the 1970s’ Blaxploitation era.
A native of New Rochelle, New York, Roundtree walked away from a football scholarship at Southern Illinois University to start his career in showbusiness. After a few years modeling, driving a cab, and acting onstage as a member of the Negro Ensemble Company, a 28-year-old Roundtree was cast as Shaft.
“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 1972. “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.”
Roundtree was previously diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, and underwent both a double mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy. Around five years after going into remission, Roundtree made a spontaneous decision to disclose his status as a survivor at a celebrity golf benefit in South Carolina. “The room was totally silent,” he recalled to ABC News in 2009. “I think it dawned on people that men can be affected by this, too.”
From there, Roundtree quickly became an advocate of awareness around male breast cancer. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I wish I had had the courage to be open immediately,” he told CURE in 2007.
Tributes from friends and colleagues flooded social media after news of his death was announced Tuesday. In a post to X, Carl Weathers said, “I just heard, the icon that is Richard Roundtree is gone. The original SHAFT!!! His performance influenced so many and so much. And he was a great guy!”
“Working with Richard Roundtree was a dream,” tweeted Gabrielle Union, who starred alongside the actor in the BET drama Being Mary Jane. “Getting to hang with him & our Being Mary Jane family was always a good ass time with the best stories & laughs. He was ALWAYS the coolest man in the room with the BEST vibes & ppl would literally run over to come see him.”
“He was simply the best & we all loved him.”