Richard Roundtree, the First Black Action Hero, Passes Away at 81

Richard Roundtree, the veteran actor who played the iconic role of John Shaft in the 1971 film Shaft and its sequels, died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81 years old and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to his manager Patrick McMinn.

Richard Roundtree

A Trailblazer for Black Actors in Hollywood

Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1942. He started his career as a model and made his film debut in Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks. The film was a landmark in the blaxploitation genre, which featured Black actors in leading roles in action and crime films aimed at Black audiences.

Roundtree’s portrayal of John Shaft, a private detective who navigated the underworld of Harlem and fought against racism and corruption, earned him acclaim and recognition as the first Black action hero. The film also featured a memorable theme song by Isaac Hayes, which won an Academy Award and two Grammys.

Roundtree reprised his role as Shaft in two sequels, Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), as well as a short-lived TV series on CBS. He also appeared in other blaxploitation films such as Earthquake (1974), Man Friday (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1977).

A Diverse and Enduring Career

Roundtree’s career spanned more than five decades and included roles in various genres and mediums. He starred in the landmark TV miniseries Roots (1977), based on Alex Haley’s novel about the history of slavery in America. He also appeared in comedies such as Doctor Detroit (1983) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), dramas such as Once Upon a Time… When We Were Colored (1995) and Se7en (1995), and sci-fi films such as Steel (1997) and Antitrust (2001).

Roundtree continued to work until recently, appearing in the TV romance drama Cherish the Day (2020) and the film comedy Moving On (2020). He also returned to his most famous role in three more Shaft films: Shaft (2000), which starred Samuel L. Jackson as his nephew; Shaft (2019), which featured both Jackson and Jessie T. Usher as his son; and Son of Shaft (2023), which introduced a new generation of the Shaft family.

A Legacy of Inspiration and Influence

Roundtree’s work and career had a significant impact on the film industry and culture, especially for Black actors and filmmakers. He opened doors for other Black artists to pursue leading roles and diverse characters. He also inspired generations of fans who admired his charisma, style, and talent.

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

His agency also paid tribute to him, saying that “his trailblazing career changed the face of entertainment around the globe. His enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come.”

Many celebrities and fans expressed their condolences and appreciation for Roundtree on social media, calling him a legend, an icon, and a hero.

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