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Richard Roundtree Dies: ‘Shaft’ Star Was 81

Written by on October 24, 2023

Richard Roundtree, who broke ground with his signature role in the Shaft movie franchise, passed away this afternoon, Oct. 24, after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer with his family at his bedside. He was 81.

Roundtree’s career spanned five decades and included everything from his most popular blaxploitation role to a very early appearance on As the World Turns in 1956 to an eight episodes of Cherish the Day last year.

He is best known for playing detective John Shaft in the 1971 action thriller and its sequels, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973) as well as the short-lived 1973 Shaft TV series.

For his performance in the original film, Roundtree was nominated for a New Star of the Year Golden Globe and hailed as the first Black action hero. More importantly, the films made Roundtree a cultural hero, a symbol of Black power onscreen, at the box office and beyond.

Roundtree and his signature role had a profound effect on filmmakers both Black and white.

Decades later, Roundtree reprised his role in the 2000 John Singleton movie Shaft starring Samuel L. Jackson and the 2019 Tim Story-directed sequel.

Quentin Tarantino’s entire filmography is steeped in his love for blaxploitation. Kerry Washington‘s character Brunhilde von Shaft in Django Unchained not only shares a name with Roundtree’s hero but was written by Tarantino as an ancestor of John Shaft

Roundtree’s many film credits also include the 1981 Inchon, in which he appeared opposite Laurence Olivier and Ben Gazzara, the 1984 City Heat opposite Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds as well as Se7enGeorge of the Jungle, Body of Influence, Amityville: A New Generation and What Men Want. He was last seen last year in the Paul Weitz comedy Moving On.

On television, Roundtree played slave Sam Bennett in the acclaimed 1977 miniseries Roots. He had major roles on such series as Generations, 413 Hope St., Alias, Diary of a Single Mom, Buddies, Desperate Housewives, Soul Food, Being Mary Jane, and Family Reunion. He most recently was a Season 2 main cast member on Ava DuVernay’s OWN series Cherish the Day last year.

Roundtree’s death was confirmed to Deadline by his agency, Artists & Representatives, and his longtime manager, Patrick McMinn.

“Artists & Representatives Agency mourns the loss of our friend and client Richard Roundtree,” the agency said in a statement. “His trailblazing career changed the face of entertainment around the globe and his enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come. Our hearts are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”



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