'First Black Action Hero' Is Dead at 81

Richard Roundtree, who played lead character in 'Shaft' franchise, succumbed to pancreatic cancer
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 25, 2023 8:40 AM CDT
His Work Was a 'Turning Point' for Black Actors
Richard Roundtree is seen in New York on March 9, 1972.   (AP Photo/Ron Frehm, File)

Richard Roundtree, the trailblazing Black actor who starred as the ultra-smooth private detective John Shaft in several Shaft films beginning in the early 1970s, has died. He was 81. Roundtree's longtime manager, Patrick McMinn, said the actor had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday, per the AP. He was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and underwent a double mastectomy. "Richard's work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men," McMinn said. "The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated."

Roundtree was considered the "first Black action hero" and became one of the leading actors in the blaxploitation genre through his street-smart New Yorker character John Shaft in the Gordon Parks-directed film. At age 28, it was Roundtree's first feature film appearance after starting his career as a model. Roundtree's Shaft was part of a change in how Black movies were viewed in Hollywood, which failed to consider Black actors—especially for leading roles—in projects at the time. The blaxploitation films were primarily aimed at the African-American audiences. In the film, his character navigated the world of thugs. He regularly whipped out popular one-liners like "It's my duty to please that booty."

Isaac Hayes' Shaft theme song, meanwhile, helped infuse the original movie into the pop-culture consciousness. After the film's success, Roundtree returned in sequels Shaft's Big Score in 1972 and Shaft in Africa in 1973. That same year, he played the savvy detective once again on the CBS television series Shaft, which lasted only seven episodes. Roundtree reprised his role in the 2000 Shaft film, a revival that starred Samuel L. Jackson. He appeared as Jackson's uncle in the big-budget film that was aimed at a general audience. Both appeared again in the same roles in the 2019 film starring Jessie T. Usher.

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Throughout his 50-year-plus career, Roundtree appeared in a number of other notable films, including Earthquake, Man Friday with Peter O'Toole, Roots, Maniac Cop, Se7en, and What Men Want starring Taraji P. Henson. He also made his mark with television roles on Magnum PI, The Love Boat, and Being Mary Jane. In 1995, Roundtree received a lifetime achievement award at the MTV Movie & TV awards.

(More celebrity death stories.)

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