‘Shaft’ Legend Richard Roundtree Dies of Pancreatic Cancer @ 81

October 24, 2023

Richard Roundtree, the sexy, charismatic star of Shaft, died October 24 at 81. ExtraTV confirmed he died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.

Legend (Image via MGM)

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

By 1963, he was an Ebony Fashion Fair model who was discovered by Eunice W. Johnson (1916-2010), its founder and director.

By 1967, he was a member of the Negro Ensemble Company, for whom he portrayed boxer Jack Johnson (1878-1946) in The Great White Hope. He also appeared in the play Mau Mau Room in 1969.

In 1970, with the success of Ernest Tidyman's (1928-1984) crime novel Shaft, a film was speedily put together by director Gordon Parks (1912-2006), who spotted Roundtree at a cattle call. He advocated for the newcomer's hiring, and it paid off with a massive hit film ($13M box office for a $500K-budgeted film) that made Roundtree an overnight star.

He won a Golden Globe in 1972 as New Star of the Year.

The "Theme from Shaft," by Isaac Hayes (1942-2008), won the Oscar for Best Original Song (making Hayes the first Black man to win the statuette in that category), and two sequels followed in quick succession — Shaft's Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973).

All three films were categorized as blaxploitation, charged by a Black Power theme.

Roundtree went on to a prolific career in movies and on TV. Among his films were Earthquake (1974), Inchon (1981), An Eye for an Eye (1981), City Heat (1984), Se7en (1995), George of the Jungle (1997), Boat Trip (2002), Brick (2005), Speed Racer (2008), What Men Want (2019), Haunting of the Mary Celeste (2020) and Moving On (2022).

He returned to the role of John Shaft on a short-lived TV series (1973-1974) and in both Samuel L. Jackson versions of the movie, each entitled Shaft (2000 & 2019).

Roundtree with Jane Fonda in Moving On (Image via Roadside Attractions)

On TV, he was Sam Bennett in Roots (1977), Dr. Reubens on Generations (1989-1991) and was a series regular on 413 Hope St. (1997-1998) and Rescue 77 (1999), recurred on Soul Food (2000-2001), appeared in Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (1999) and recurred on Desperate Housewives (2004-2005), Heroes (2006-2007), Diary of a Single Mom (2009-2011), Being Mary Jane (2013-2019), Chicago Fire (2015), Star (2017-2018) and Family Reunion (2019-2022), among many others.

He made numerous TV guest spots, memorably on Beverly Hills, 90210 (1991).

Married and divorced twice, he is survived by his five children.

Among Hollywood's tributes to Roundtree, Sheryl Lee Ralph of Abbott Elementary, who wrote, "When I was a teenager I use to dream about growing up to meet Richard Roundtree. I did and what a wonderful human being."

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