Richard Roundtree Dies: Iconic ‘Shaft’ Star Was 81

Richard Roundtree (Credit: OWN and MGM)

Richard Roundtree, an actor known as “the first Black action hero” for his groundbreaking role in the 1971 film Shaft, has died. He was 81.

Roundtree passed away Tuesday afternoon at his home in Los Angeles after battling pancreatic cancer, his manager Patrick McMinn, confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter.

“Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men in film,” McMinn said in a statement. “The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated.”

In 1993, Roundtree was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.

He spoke with entertainment news program Extra about the disease in 2019, after Mathew Knowles went public with his own breast cancer battle.

Roundtree said he was stunned when his doctor called with the test results. “How could I possibly have breast cancer?” he recalled asking his physician.

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By going public with his breast cancer diagnosis, Roundtree inspired other men to get tested.

“The response was incredible,” he told Extra. “I was going to work up in Vancouver. The flight attendant said, ‘Mr. Roundtree, you saved my husband’s life.'”

Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, New York on July 9, 1942.

He rose to superstardom for his portrayal of private detective John Shaft in the action crime thriller, Shaft.

The blaxploitation film from director Gordon Parks was a massive hit, earning $12 million dollars at the domestic box office on a budget of $500,000.

LOS ANGELES, CA. January 28, 2019: Richard Roundtree at the US premiere of "What Men Want!" at the Regency Village Theatre, Westwood — Photo by Featureflash
Roundtree had a role in the 2019 film “What Men Want” and attended the premiere in Los Angeles. (Photo by Featureflash)

According to published reports, Shaft was one of only a few MGM films to make a profit in 1971.

The movie was based on a 1970 novel by Ernest Tidyman. Following its success, Roundtree returned to play John Shaft in four sequels and a short-lived CBS television series. He played the title role in Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). He then portrayed “Uncle” John Shaft, Sr. in two sequels starring Samuel L. Jackson in the 2000s.

Early on, Roundtree was an athlete. He attended New Rochelle High School and played on the school’s nationally ranked football team. After graduating from high school, he landed a football scholarship and went to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.

With dreams of a career in entertainment, he dropped out of college and moved to New York.

He worked as a fashion model for Fashion Fair and later joined the Negro Ensemble Company, a New York City-based theater company. It was there that Roundtree worked on his craft alongside Esther Rolle and Moses Gunn, who would later co-star in Shaft as Bumpy Jonas.

After gaining a legion of fans through the Shaft franchise, Roundtree continued to act for decades.

Most recently, he had a role in the second season of the OWN romantic anthology series Cherish the Day, from creator Ava DuVernay. He played former judge Mandeville “MV” St. James, the father of season 2 lead Joy Bryant.

He also had recurring roles in the BET series Being Mary Jane starring Gabrielle Union; the Fox series Star; NBC’s Chicago Fire, the TV adaptation of Lethal Weapon; and guest roles in Roots, Magnum P.I. and The Love Boat.

Roundtree married twice, to Mary Jane Grant from 1963-73 and to Karen M. Ciernia from 1980-98.

The actor is survived by his five children, daughters Kelli, Nicole, Tayler and Morgan, and his son John.