‘Shaft’ star Richard Roundtree dies at 81 | ET REALITY


Richard Roundtree, the actor who redefined African-American masculinity on film when he played the lead role in “Axis,” one of the first black action heroes, died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81 years old.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his manager, Patrick McMinn, who said he had been diagnosed two months ago.

“Shaft,” released in 1971, was one of the first so-called Blaxploitation films and made Roundtree a movie star at age 29.

John Shaft’s character is his own man, a private detective who confidently walks recklessly through Times Square traffic in a nice brown leather coat with the collar turned up; he sports a dark, stout mustache halfway between a walrus style and a downward-sloping handlebar; and he keeps a mother-of-pearl-handled revolver in the refrigerator of his Greenwich Village duplex apartment. As Roundtree observed in a 1972 article in The New York Times, he is “a black man who for once is a winner.”

In addition to catapulting Roundtree to fame, the film also brought attention to its main theme, performed by Isaac Hayes, which won the 1973 Academy Award for Best Original Song. She described Shaft as “a sex machine for every girl,” “a bad mother,” and “the cat that won’t run away when there’s danger.” Can you dig it? Director Gordon Parks’ gritty urban cinematography provided the score.

A fictional product of her unenlightened pre-feminist era, Shaft was living the Playboy magazine reader’s dream, with beautiful women at her disposal as willing and downright grateful sexual partners. And he didn’t always treat them with respect. Some called him, for better or worse, the black James Bond.

He reprized the role in “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972), which upgraded the chase scenes to include speedboats and helicopters and the sexy women to include exotic dancers and lovers of other men. Shaft was investigating the murder of a numbers runner, using bigger guns and ignoring a criminal’s friendly advice to “stay away from Queens.”

In “Shaft in Africa” (1973), the character posed as an indigenous man to expose a criminal network that exploited immigrants smuggled into Europe. Filmed largely in Ethiopia, the second sequel lost money and spawned a CBS series that lasted only seven weeks.

But the movies had had their impact. As film critic Maurice Peterson observed in Essence magazine, “Shaft” was “the first film to show a black man leading a life free of racial torment.”

Richard Arnold Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942 (some sources say 1937), in New Rochelle, New York, the son of John Roundtree and Kathryn (Watkins) Roundtree, who were identified in the 1940 census as a butler and cook at the same home.

At New Rochelle High School, Richard played on the school’s undefeated football team, graduated in 1961, and attended Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship. He but he dropped out of college in 1963 after spending a summer modeling at the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling presentation sponsored by a major news and culture magazine for black readers.

He returned to New York, worked various jobs and soon began his theater career, joining the Negro Ensemble Company. His first role was in a 1967 production of “The Great White Hope,” starring the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the early 20th century. A Broadway production starring James Earl Jones opened the following year and won three major Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

After “Shaft,” Roundtree made several choices regarding film roles. She was in the all-star cast, with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, of the disaster film “Earthquake” (1974). He played the title role in “Man Friday” (1975), a vibrant, generous and ultimately more civilized partner to Peter O’Toole’s 17th-century explorer Robinson Crusoe.

In “Inchon” (1981), which Vincent Canby in The New York Times described as “the most expensive B movie ever made,” he was an army officer on the staff of General Douglas MacArthur (Laurence Olivier) in Korea. He starred alongside Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in “City Heat” (1984) and with a giant flying lizard in “Q” (1982).

On the small screen he played Sam Bennett, the roguish carriage driver who courted Kizzie (Leslie Uggams) in the acclaimed miniseries “Roots” (1977). The show was transformative. “You had the feeling that white Americans were saying, ‘Damn, that really happened,’” Roundtree said in an ABC special celebrating the show’s 25th anniversary.

The Roundtree name is still associated with the 1970s, but it was equally busy for the next four decades. He was an amoral private detective in a five-episode arc of “Desperate Housewives” (2004); he appeared in 60 episodes of the soap opera “Generaciones” (1990); and played Booker T. Washington in the 1999 television movie “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.” He was a big-city district attorney in the film “Seven” (1995) and a tenacious Mississippi iceman in ““Once upon a time…when we were colored” (1996).

After 2000, when she was in her late 60s, she made appearances in more than 25 small-screen series (she was a cast member or had recurring roles in nine of them, including “Heroes,” “Being Mary Jane,” and “Family Reunion.” “) and made half a dozen television movies and more than 20 feature films.

In 2020, he played the gray-bearded captain of a fishing boat in “Haunting of the Mary Celeste,” a supernatural maritime mystery film. In 2022, he starred in an episode of “Cherish the Day,” Ava DuVernay’s romantic drama series.

Roundtree married Mary Jane Grant in 1963. They had two children before divorcing in 1973. In 1980, he married Karen M. Cierna. They had three children and divorced in 1998.

Roundtree is survived by four daughters; Kelli, Nicole, Taylor, Morgan; a son, John; and at least one grandchild.

The character of Shaft, created by Ernest Tidyman in a series of novels in the 1970s, endured, albeit with Hollywood modifications. Samuel L. Jackson played a character with the same name, supposedly John Shaft’s first nephew, in a 2000 sequel titled “Shaft.”

In 2019, another “axis” was released, also starring Jackson (now said to be the son of the original character) and Jessie T. Usher as his son, JJ Shaft, an MIT-educated cybersecurity expert. The movie looked like a buddy cop comedy, but the smartest thing it did, as Variety’s review noted, was take Roundtree, “bald, with a snow-white beard,” and “turn him into a cop.” character who is sexier and cooler than anyone around him” and whose “spirit is agile and tougher than leather.”

Orlando Mayorquin contributed with reports.

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