Tradegy: ‘First black action movie hero’ passes away age 81

Written by Jeppe W

Oct.25 - 2023 2:07 PM CET

Photo: Shutterstock.com
Photo: Shutterstock.com

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Richard Roundtree, the pioneering actor celebrated for his iconic role as the smooth private detective in the "Shaft" film series, has passed away at the age of 81. (Oct. 25)

The actor's longtime manager, Patrick McMinn, announced that Roundtree had been battling pancreatic cancer and passed away at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Roundtree had previously faced a battle with breast cancer in 1993, which resulted in a double mastectomy.

Patrick McMinn reflected on Roundtree's career, highlighting his significant impact on the industry: “Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men. The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated.”

Born in New Rochelle, New York, Roundtree made history as the first Black action movie hero, embodying the role of John Shaft, a New York City detective with a sharp mind and smoother words.

He stepped into this role in the 1971 Gordon Parks-directed film at the age of 28, making his first major screen appearance following a career in modeling.

Roundtree's portrayal of “Shaft” marked a pivotal shift in Hollywood's approach to Black films and actors, especially for leading roles.

The film belonged to the blaxploitation genre, with a target audience of African American viewers. Roundtree’s character in the film navigated through a world filled with criminals, delivering memorable lines such as “It’s my duty to please that booty.”

Reflecting on the film's genre and impact, Roundtree noted in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press, “What we were doing was a good, old Saturday afternoon shoot ’em up.”

The success of "Shaft" led to Roundtree reprising his role in two sequels: “Shaft’s Big Score” (1972) and “Shaft in Africa” (1973). He continued to play the character in a short-lived CBS television series "Shaft" in 1973.

In 2000, Roundtree revisited his iconic character in the “Shaft” revival, playing opposite Samuel L. Jackson. He portrayed Jackson’s uncle in this high-budget production aimed at a broader audience.

Both actors returned to their roles in the 2019 film featuring Jessie T. Usher.

Samuel L. Jackson paid tribute to Roundtree on social media, calling him the “prototype” and “the best to ever do it.”

Throughout his career spanning over five decades, Roundtree appeared in a variety of significant films, including “Earthquake,” “Man Friday” alongside Peter O’Toole, “Roots,” “Maniac Cop,” “Se7en,” and “What Men Want” with Taraji P. Henson.

He also took on roles in television series such as “Magnum P.I.,” “The Love Boat,” “Being Mary Jane,” and “The Love Boat.”

In 1995, Roundtree’s contributions to the entertainment industry were recognized with a lifetime achievement award at the MTV Movie & TV Awards.

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