Richard Roundtree, Iconic 'Shaft' Actor, Passes Away at 81

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Richard Roundtree, Iconic 'Shaft' Actor, Passes Away at 81
Following a brief fight with pancreatic cancer, Blaxploitation legend Richard Roundtree, who played detective John Shaft in Gordon Parks' 1971 action thriller, passed away on Tuesday afternoon. His age was eighty-one.

His manager since 1987, Patrick McMinn, announced his passing.

According to McMinn's comment, "Richard's work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men in film." "It is impossible to overestimate his influence on the industry."

From the beginning of his acting career, Roundtree was a leading figure in motion pictures. At the age of 28, he landed "Shaft," his feature debut, after starting his modelling career. With a $500,000 production budget, the MGM release brought in $12 million in ticket sales, which prevented the studio from going bankrupt. "Shaft," a breakthrough blockbuster that established the standard for a fruitful decade of Blaxploitation films, but exposed Hollywood's historical disregard for Black talent and the potential consumers they might attract to the cinema.

In an interview with the New York Times in 2019, when the term "exploitation" was brought up in relation to "Shaft," Roundtree acknowledged some confusion about it.

"I had the honour of working with Gordon Parks, the most elegant man in the business that I have ever met. Thus, I object to the term "exploitation" in any way that it relates to Gordon Parks. That has always seemed bad to me. Usurpation. Who is the victim here? stated Roundtree. However, it provided employment to a large number of people. Many people had their first taste of the industry thanks to it, including many of the producers and directors we know today. Therefore, I see it as a plus overall.

Within two years, there were two more sequels about the "bad mother (shut your mouth)": Shaft's Big Score and Shaft in Africa. A short-lived run of a few episodes of a "Shaft" television series featuring Roundtree was tried by CBS in 1973.

In 2019, Roundtree said to the Times, "I wish I could erase that particular event, but you can't." I had recently returned from watching "Shaft in Africa" when they attempted to adapt the character for television. It couldn't possibly happen. That was a dark moment in my lengthy and distinguished career.

It was long and distinguished. With roles in the ensemble disaster picture "Earthquake," a major part with Peter O'Toole in "Man Friday," and another as an unfortunate investigator in Larry Cohen's monster comedy "Q — The Winged Serpent," Roundtree swiftly expanded beyond his star-making role. In addition, he was a regular guest star on television, appearing in shows including "The Love Boat," "Magnum P.I.", and "Roots."

In the 2000 resurrection of the Samuel L. Jackson-starring "Shaft" franchise, directed by John Singleton, Roundtree made a comeback to the series. Jackson portrayed John Shaft, a detective, as well, although his role was originally intended to have him as Roundtree's nephew. In 2019 for Tim Story's humorous adaptation of the series, both actors returned to their original roles.

Roundtree, who was born in Rochester, New York, on July 9, 1942, attended Southern Illinois University for a short time before leaving to pursue a career in modelling. He started appearing in New York theatre shows when he joined the Negro Ensemble Company in the late 1960s.

With his legendary performance in "Shaft," extensive background in genre cinema, and captivating on-screen persona, Roundtree contributed a vibrant touch to the worlds of films such as "Se7en," "Brick," and "Speed Racer." He was a prolific worker for almost 50 years. In the comedy "Moving On," which starred Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda and made its theatrical debut at the Toronto Film Festival last year, he had a supporting part. The film was released this past summer.

Roundtree was married twice: to Karen M. Cierna from 1980 to 1998 and to Mary Jane Grant from 1963 to 1973. James, his son, and Nicole, Tayler, Morgan, and Kelli Roundtree, his four daughters, survive him.