Richard Roundtree, Star of ‘Shaft,’ Dies at 81
One of the 1970s’ enduring cinematic icons has died. Richard Roundtree, best known to generations of moviegoers as the title character in the Shaft film series, passed away on Tuesday in Los Angeles. The cause of death, according to his manager, was pancreatic cancer, which he had been diagnosed with several months earlier. Roundtree was 81 years old.
Roundtree had a long and prolific career on film and television. On the small screen he appeared on shows ranging from CHiPs to A Different World, from Magnum, P.I. to Grey’s Anatomy. At movie theaters, audiences saw him in films like Earthquake, Q, Steel, and Brick. But without question, Roundtree’s signature role was that of private eye John Shaft who — according to the Oscar winning theme song that came to define the film — was “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks.”
Based on the novels by Ernest Tidyman, John Shaft was one of the first black action heroes of movies; a private eye who didn’t take any s— from the cops or the New York mob. Shaft’s popularity with audiences not only led to an entire series of movies and a spinoff TV show (all of which also starred Roundtree), it helped launch the blaxploitation film genre.
Shaft’s opening scene, which introduces the character as Roundtree strides through Times Square to the sounds of Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft,” is one of the greatest introductions of any character in the history of cinema.
Shaft’s enormous success in theaters in 1971 led to Shaft’s Big Score! in 1972 and Shaft in Africa in 1973. They were followed by a short-lived series of Shaft TV movies in 1973 and ’74. The franchise ended there until Samuel L. Jackson brought it back to life in 2000 with a new Shaft — which cast Roundtree as the new Shaft’s uncle. In 2019, yet another Shaft was released, with Roundtree as the elder Shaft, Jackson as his son (yes, in the previous movie they were uncle and nephew, they decided to retcon that in this film), and Jesse T. Usher as the youngest Shaft, an analyst for the FBI. Even in his 70s, Roundtree was still the coolest as Shaft in and otherwise not particularly good film.
Shaft was a big hit; it was also an enormous influential one. To today’s audiences, the importance and novelty of the John Shaft character, who wouldn’t cop out when there’s danger all about, may not be obviously apparent. In the early 1970s, the idea of a “Black James Bond,” as he was often called, was beyond powerful. And even in 2023, Roundtree’s Shaft remains one of the defining action heroes in cinema history — not to mention one bad mother.