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Richard Roundtree, star of ‘Shaft,’ dies at 81

Richard Roundtree with the film, “Moving On,” photographed in the Los Angeles Times photo studio at RBC House, during the Toronto International Film Festival in Ontario, Canada on Sept. 12, 2022.  (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times))
By Anita Gates New York Times

Richard Roundtree, the actor who redefined African American masculinity in the movies when he played the title role in “Shaft,” one of the first Black action heroes, died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.

His manager, Patrick McMinn, said the cause was pancreatic cancer, which had been diagnosed two months ago.

“Shaft,” which was released in 1971, was among the first of the so-called blaxploitation movies, and it made Roundtree a star at 29.

The character John Shaft is his own man, a private detective who jaywalks confidently through moving Times Square traffic in a handsome brown leather coat with the collar turned up; sports a robust, dark mustache somewhere between walrus-style and a downturned handlebar; and keeps a pearl-handled revolver in the fridge in his Greenwich Village duplex apartment. As Roundtree observed in a 1972 article in The New York Times, he is “a Black man who is for once a winner.”

In addition to catapulting Roundtree to fame, the movie drew attention to its theme song, written and performed by Isaac Hayes, which won the 1972 Academy Award for best original song. It described Shaft as “a sex machine to all the chicks,” “a bad mother” and “the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about.” Can you dig it? Director Gordon Parks’ gritty urban cinematography served as punctuation.

A fictional product of his unenlightened pre-feminist era, Shaft was living the Playboy magazine reader’s dream, with beautiful women available to him as willing, even downright grateful, sex partners. And he did not always treat them with respect. Some called him, for better or worse, the Black James Bond.

Roundtree played the role again in “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972), which bumped up the chase scenes to include speedboats and helicopters and the sexy women to include exotic dancers and other men’s mistresses. In that movie, Shaft investigated the killing of a numbers runner, using bigger guns and ignoring one crook’s friendly advice to “keep the hell out of Queens.”

In “Shaft in Africa” (1973), filmed largely in Ethiopia, the character posed as an Indigenous man to expose a crime ring that exploited immigrants being smuggled into Europe. The second sequel lost money and led to a CBS series that lasted only seven weeks.

But the films had made their impact. As film critic Maurice Peterson observed in Essence magazine, “Shaft” was “the first picture to show a Black man who leads a life free from racial torment.”

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

Richard Roundtree played on New Rochelle High School’s undefeated football team and, after graduating in 1961, attended Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship. But he dropped out of college in 1963 after spending a summer as a model with the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling presentation sponsored by Ebony magazine, the news and culture publication aimed at Black readers.

Roundtree moved back to New York, worked a number of jobs and soon began his theater career, joining the Negro Ensemble Company. His first role was in a 1967 production of Howard Sackler’s “The Great White Hope,” starring as a fictionalized version of Jack Johnson, the early 20th century’s first Black heavyweight boxing champion. A Broadway production starring James Earl Jones opened the next year and won three major Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

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

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

On television he played Sam Bennett, the raffish carriage driver who courted Kizzie (Leslie Uggams) in the acclaimed miniseries “Roots” (1977). That show was transformational, Roundtree said in an ABC special celebrating its 25th anniversary: “You got a sense of white Americans saying, ‘Damn, that really happened.’”

Roundtree’s name remained associated with the 1970s, but he was just as busy during the next four decades. He was an amoral private detective in a five-episode story arc of “Desperate Housewives” (2004); appeared in 60 episodes of the soap opera “Generations” (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 strong-willed Mississippi iceman in “Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored” (1996).

After 2000, when he was pushing 60, he made appearances in more than 25 TV series (he was a cast member of or had recurring roles in nine of them – including “Heroes,” “Being Mary Jane” and “Family Reunion”) and was seen in half a dozen television movies and more than 20 feature films.

In 2020, Roundtree starred as a fishing boat’s gray-bearded captain in “Haunting of the Mary Celeste,” a supernatural maritime movie mystery. In 2022, he was a regular in the second season 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, Tayler and Morgan; a son, John; and at least one grandchild.

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

In 2019, another “Shaft” was released, also starring Jackson (now said to be the original character’s son), with Jessie T. Usher as his son, J.J. Shaft, an MIT-educated cybersecurity expert. Like the 2000 “Shaft,” it also included Roundtree in the cast.

The film felt something like a buddy-cops comedy, but the smartest thing it did, Owen Gleiberman of Variety noted in a review, was to take Roundtree, “bald, with a snowy-white beard,” and “turn him into a character who’s hotter, and cooler, than anyone around him” and whose “spirit is spry and tougher than leather.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.