Black Hollywood is in mourning as it bids farewell to a true legend, Richard Roundtree, who famously brought the character of John Shaft to life in the groundbreaking 1971 film Shaft. Roundtree passed away at the age of 81, succumbing to pancreatic cancer, confirmed by his manager, Patrick McMinn of McMinn Management and Artists & Representatives Agency. He breathed his last on a Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by his loving family.
“Artists & Representatives Agency mourns the loss of our friend and client Richard Roundtree,” said McMinn in a statement, marking the passing of a beloved star who had not only graced the silver screen but also made a profound impact beyond it.
Roundtree was not just a Hollywood icon; he was also an advocate for breast cancer awareness among men, having battled the disease himself. In 1993, he was diagnosed with breast cancer, and from that moment on, he became a vocal champion for greater awareness of this often overlooked aspect of the disease.
Roundtree’s journey to fame began in New Rochelle, New York, where he was born. His early career saw him on the football field for Southern Illinois University and even in the world of modeling. However, it was the allure of the theater that truly captivated him. He joined the renowned Negro Ensemble Company in New York, and his talent shone through as he portrayed Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope off-Broadway. It was through these experiences that Roundtree’s path led him to the role of John Shaft, a character that would cemented in cinematic history.
Directed by the legendary Gordon Parks, Shaft achieved remarkable success, even securing Oscars for Best Music and Original Song for Isaac Hayes’ unforgettable hit. However, it was the portrayal of John Shaft as a “hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt” private detective that truly changed Roundtree’s life and, in doing so, altered the course of Hollywood. This iconic character introduced audiences to an unapologetically Black protagonist and fighter of crime, a rarity at the time.
The critical and commercial success of Shaft paved the way for a short-lived but impactful wave of major studio films that celebrated strong Black protagonists in Hollywood. It also provided Roundtree with a plethora of acting opportunities, and his face became a familiar presence on screens large and small. The impact of Shaft was so enduring that Richard Roundtree reprised his iconic role alongside Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher in Kenya Barris’ 2019 adaptation, effectively bridging three generations of Shaft on the silver screen.
Beyond his character as Detective John Shaft, Roundtree’s illustrious career included appearances in television hits like CHiPs where he played Sgt. Aikens, Magnum P.I. as Peter Jordan, Desperate Housewives as Mr. Shaw, Grey’s Anatomy as Donald Burke. He graced numerous action films in the 1980s and 1990s, including Original Gangstas.
The passing of Richard Roundtree marks the end of an era, but his legacy as the trailblazing John Shaft will continue to inspire generations of actors and filmmakers, forever reminding us of the importance of representation in the world of cinema.