Richard Roundtree, the legendary star of Shaft, is dead at 81 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.
Who’s that black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks? SHAFT! Sad news to report this evening, with Deadline reporting that the legendary Richard Roundtree, who played the iconic private eye Shaft in five movies, is dead of pancreatic cancer at 81. Roundtree became a major star overnight in Gordon Parks’ landmark 1971 crime thriller, Shaft, with him starring as the titular private eye, John Shaft, who an underworld boss hires to find his missing daughter. The film was a smash hit, landing Roundtree a Golden Globe nomination for new star of the year and kicking his career into overdrive.
Notably, Shaft helped usher in the blaxploitation era. While it wasn’t the first movie of this genre, it was probably the first one produced by a major studio (MGM). The big box office take helped prove that there was an audience for black-led action movies and that the films had significant crossover appeal.
To note, action flicks with black male leads were not normal back then. While Sidney Poitier was a star, he didn’t play streetwise and sexy like Roundtree or later blaxploitation stars did. Roundtree followed Shaft with two big-budget sequels, Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa. They probably could have turned the Shaft series into a long-running franchise like James Bond. Still, for some reason the boneheaded move to make a Shaft TV show was made, with Roundtree himself reprising the role in a much-sanitized version that only lasted seven episodes.
Roundtree would famously reprise the role in the Samuel L. Jackson-fronted sequels, Shaft (2000) and Shaft (2019), but the role proved to be a double-edged sword, as he was heavily typecast. While he had good parts in the disaster epic Earthquake, Diamonds and Escape to Athena, he always played a Shaft-esque character. His best role post-Shaft was on TV, where he was one of the stars of Roots. Recently, he played Jane Fonda’s love interest in Moving On. Notably, he was a male breast cancer survivor, having undergone a double mastectomy in 1993.
Certainly, Roundtree earned his place in cinema history as Shaft. He left a considerable mark and will be missed.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/richard-roundtree-beloved-star-of-shaft-dead-at-81/