October 26, 2023

By Dr. Valerie Wardlaw

Contributing Writer


Richard Roundtree, the actor known and loved for his iconic portrayal of the first Black action hero, John Shaft, died on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at his Los Angeles home surrounded by his family.

His longtime manager, Patrick McMinn, confirmed his death and said the cause was pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis Roundtree received two months ago. He was 81.

This was not Roundtree's first battle with cancer. He was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and underwent a double mastectomy.

He spoke publicly about his breast cancer fight, hoping to educate and inspire men to get tested:

"Breast cancer is not gender specific," Roundtree said. "Men have this cavalier attitude about health issues. I got such positive feedback because I spoke out about it. I'm a survivor," he said.

Roundtree was more than a survivor as he took the movie industry by storm, bringing private eye John Shaft, a sophisticated, intelligent, masculine, and smooth-talking beautiful Black man, to the big screen.

He was not the movie studio's first choice. Still, astute director Gordon Parks saw it differently and chose Roundtree, a former college football player turned fashion model, among the many who turned out for the audition. Parks would later say he chose Roundtree because of his "presence."

"Shaft" was an immediate hit with audiences around the world. As soon as you heard the opening of the late Isaac Hayes' Academy Award-winning original song, you knew the movie was special. The theme song would earn Hayes, 29, at the time, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy award.

To watch Shaft, the first Black private eye with an undeniable swagger, walking down Harlem streets in a chocolate brown leather coat, collar turned up, a slight smile on his face, knowing that others were admiring his confidence, his beauty, you understood why the theme song asked: "Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about?" And "Who is the man that risks his neck for his brother, man? Of the impact of John Shaft, Roundtree would say:

"I know "Shaft" is a fantasy person, but the image kids see of him on the screen is of a Black man who is, for once, a winner. And I think that's positive," Roundtree said in a 1972 interview with the New York Times.

The movie made "$13 million in ticket sales (roughly $82 million in today's money) off a $500,000 production budget," according to Variety. Roundtree was paid $13,500 for the first "Shaft" but refused to make the second "Shaft" movie for $25,000 after seeing how much the studio earned. Parks said he would not make another "Shaft" without Roundtree. The lesson: Roundtree and Parks walked the "Shaft" path as brothers creatively and financially.

Roundtree would go on to make "Shaft's Big Score!" in 1972, "Shaft in Africa" in 1973, and "Shaft," the television series that lasted only seven weeks.


Richard Roundtree is credited for opening the door of an era known as "Blaxploitation" films where Black actors, writers, and directors were sought after and made millions for studios during the 70s. Roundtree had ambivalent feelings towards the term Blaxploitation:


"I had the privilege of working with the classiest gentleman possibly that I've ever known in the industry, Gordon Parks. So, that word, exploitation, I take offense to with any attachment to Gordon Parks. I've always viewed that as a negative. Exploitation. Who's being exploited?" Roundtree said. "But it gave a lot of people work. It gave a lot of people entrée into the business, including a lot of our present-day producers and directors. So, in the big picture, I view it as positive," said Roundtree.


Roundtree didn't want to be thought of as John Shaft all his life, and his professional acting career was prolific. He starred with some of the biggest names in the business: Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner in "Earthquake" and "City Heat" with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, to name a few.

In 1977, Roundtree played Sam Bennett in one of the most significant events on the small screen, Alex Haley's "Roots." He would appear in more than 50 television series, notably "Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored," "Being Mary Jane," "Heroes," Ava DuVernay's "Cherish the Day," and he would return to "Shaft" starring Samuel L. Jackson and directed by the late John Singleton.

Richard Arnold Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, NY, to John and Kathryn Watkins Roundtree. He grew up as a popular kid attending New Rochelle High School, where he was voted "most popular, best-dressed and best-looking senior." He would attend Southern Illinois University, playing football on scholarship. Roundtree would return to New York a year-and-a-half later, where he joined the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). A time of growth for Roundtree, he would reflect on the value of the NEC, saying:

"It made me more aware of how many great Black writers we had who did not have the spotlight."

He was called "Tree" by his friends and was only 28 years old when he debuted in "Shaft" and became a bona fide movie star. Gordon Parks shared his thoughts on "Shaft" as the Black Superman with the late film critic Roger Ebert saying:

"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."

Tributes to Richard Roundtree, the actor, poured in as news of his death spread. Samuel L. Jackson acknowledged that he will always be our "Shaft' writing:

"Shaft, as we know it, is and will always be His Creation! His passing leaves a deep hole not only in my heart but, I'm sure, a lotta y'all's, too. Love you, Brother…I see you walking down the middle of Main Street in Heaven & Isaac's conducting your song, coat blowin in the wind!"

Gabrielle Union, his "Being Mary Jane" co-star, wrote: "Working with Richard Roundtree was a dream. He was always the coolest man in the room, with the best vibes. He was simply the best, and we all loved him."

Sheryl Lee Ralph shared her condolences: "When I was a teenager, I dreamed about growing up to meet Richard Roundtree. I did, and what a wonderful human being."

"Richard's work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men," his manager Patrick McMinn said. "The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated."

The late Isaac Hayes captured it best:

“They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother, shut your mouth; But I’m talkin’ ‘bout Shaft, then we can dig it.”

Roundtree is survived by his children, four daughters, Kelli, Nicole, Taylor, and Morgan; and one son, John.

Category: Featured News