Richard Roundtree, Star of ‘Shaft,’ Dead at 81

Richard Roundtree, US actor, crouching behind a red sports car in a publicity still issued
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Richard Roundtree, star of the genre-defining blaxploitation series Shaft, has passed away at 81 years old, according to his agency.

Per Deadline, Roundtree died Monday afternoon surrounded by family, after a brief bout with pancreatic cancer. A statement from his representatives reads:

“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.”

Shaft as #59 on his 2017 ranking of the 165 greatest American movies ever made. Nolte writes:

At the time director Gordon Parks was credited with kicking off what became known as the Blaxploitaton genre and delivering America’s first black action hero. And deservedly so. More than 45 years later, Shaft has aged into something even more exquisite.

Shot mostly on-location, few movies capture their time and place better. Moreover, watch it again and you will discover that Shaft really is not about race. That is what so many of its imitators never understood. As personified by star Richard Roundtree, John Shaft is the ultimate outsider, not because he’s black, but because he is an outspoken and unapologetic member of the smallest and most vulnerable minority in the world — John Shaft is his own man.

“Shaft,” in which Roundtree played the eponymous private eye John Shaft, sparked a series of sequels and a TV spinoffs.

Five decades later, Roundtree was still acting, appearing in the television romance drama “Cherish the Day” and film comedy “Moving On” just last year.

“Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men in film,” his manager Patrick McMinn said in a statement to Variety. “The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated.”

Roundtree’s major debut, “Shaft” was hailed as a founding classic in the “Blaxploitation” genre the 1970s were known for — which boosters say tackled race relations while critics blast the style for trafficking in stereotypes.

Either way, the genre was critical to pushing Hollywood to finally cast Black Americans in starring roles.

“I used to look at it as a double-edged sword. But I’ve had so many people from all over the country — and all over the world actually — come up and say what that film meant to them back in ’71,” Roundtree told broadcaster NPR in 2019.

“It’s heavy.”

“The other side of it is I got typecast for quite some time, and then I’ve gone out of my way to establish a different side of my acting,” he said.

He was largely successful in that endeavor, with “his trailblazing career (changing) the face of entertainment around the globe,” his agency told Deadline.

“His enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come. Our hearts are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”

AFP contributed to this report.


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