Iconic 70s Action Star Has Passed Away

By Jonathan Klotz | Updated

The man that would risk his neck for his brother man, the cat that won’t cop out when danger is about, talking about Shaft. Variety reports that Richard Roundtree, the legendary star most famous for playing the smooth detective John Shaft, passed away at 81 due to pancreatic cancer. With over 150 acting credits to his name, spread across six decades, Roundtree will forever be remembered for kicking off the blaxploitation era in Hollywood.

Richard Roundtree, famous for bringing the detective Shaft to life, has passed away at 81.

Starting his career as a model, Richard Roundtree’s career as an actor started on the stage, appearing in Off-Off-Broadway productions. A successful high school athlete, Roundtree fell in love with the stage, breaking through at the age of 28 when he took on the role of John Shaft. No one could have predicted the impact of this role on Hollywood and on culture or would have guessed he’d go back to it 50 years later.

Shaft came out in 1972, and almost everything about the film was instantly iconic. Richard Roundtree’s performance brings a suave, sophisticated sex appeal to the role of the private detective, and it was a smash hit upon release. With a box office haul of $13 million, MGM would credit the film for saving the studio, but its largest impact came in the following years.

Shaft made Ricard Roundtree a leading man in Hollywood and saved MGM Studios.

Richard Roundtree, inadvertently, was at the forefront of the “blaxploitation” era in Hollywood; even if it was the fifth such film to be released, Shaft kicked off countless copycats, including the immediately forgettable Man From Harlem, while also launching its own sequels and a TV series. Roundtree starred in Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft Goes To Africa, as well as the series, which lasted for only one season.

Jessie Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, and Richard Roundtree in Shaft (2019)

Later, in 2000, Samuel L. Jackson starred in a new Shaft as the nephew of Richard Roundtree’s original detective, and both iconic stars came back for the 2019 movie with Jessie Usher as the third-generation Shaft. In the ensuing years between Shaft films, Roundtree never stopped working, including a highly-praised role in Roots as Sam Bennett. On the big screen, he never was able to match the success of Shaft, but he shared the screen with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in City Heat and would go on to be part of Se7en.

After Shaft, Richard Roundtree worked continuously for the next 50 years, with multiple projects still in production.

Already an icon in Hollywood, Richard Roundtree was thrown a curveball in the early 90s when he was diagnosed with breast cancer. Undergoing a mastectomy, the star became a spokesman for men who found themselves developing what is usually thought of as a disease that only impacts women. As it turns out, the man behind Shaft was just as cool as his famous character, not letting something like cancer stop him from continuing to appear in shows, movies, and on the stage.

Richard Roundtree has three more projects in various stages of production. Roundtree is survived by four daughters and one son from his two marriages.