Richard Roundtree, the actor who cemented his legacy as the noble and confident police officer John Shaft in the 1971 film and its sequels, died Tuesday, his manager said. He was 81.
Roundtree died at his home in Los Angeles after a battle with pancreatic cancer, according to a statement from Patrick McMinn, who managed the actor’s career from 1987 until his death.
“Richard’s work and career were a turning point for African-American leading actors in film,” McMinn said The Hollywood Reporter. “The impact he has had on the industry cannot be overstated.”
Except 1971 WaveIn the 1971s, Roundtree embodied the ultimate “bad mother,” as his theme song goes Shaft’s big success! and 1973s Bay in Africaas well as the franchise’s two 21st-century sequels, which starred Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft Jr. The franchise also inspired seven television films.
The first film, which grossed $13 million (about $82 million today), made Roundtree one of cinema’s first black action heroes, helped save MGM from bankruptcy and helped usher in the Blaxploitation era 1970s.
A native of New Rochelle, New York, Roundtree left a football scholarship to Southern Illinois University to begin his career in show business. After several years of modeling, driving taxis and performing on stage as a member of the Negro Ensemble Company, the 28-year-old Roundtree was cast in the role of Shaft.
“People come up to me and ask me if we really need this picture of Shaft, the black Superman. Hell yeah, there’s a place for John Shaft,” Parks said Roger Ebert in 1972. “I was overwhelmed by our world premiere on Broadway. Suddenly I was the perpetrator of a hero. Ghetto kids came 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 films about the history of our people, yes, but we also need heroic fantasies about our people.”
Roundtree was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 1993 and underwent both a double mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy. About five years into his remission, Roundtree made the spontaneous decision to disclose his status as a survivor at a prominent golf event in South Carolina. “There was complete silence in the room,” he recalled to ABC News in 2009. “I think people realized that it can affect men too.”
From there, Roundtree quickly became an advocate for male breast cancer awareness. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I wish I had had the courage to be open right away,” he said CURE in 2007.
After news of his death broke on Tuesday, friends and colleagues flooded social media with tributes. In a post to X, Carl Weathers said“I just heard that the icon Richard Roundtree has disappeared. The original shaft!!! His performance has 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 be Mary Jane. “Spending time with him and our Being Mary Jane family was always a great time with the best stories and laughs. He was ALWAYS the coolest man in the room with the BEST vibe and people would literally run over to see him.”
“He was just the best and we all loved him.”