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Richard Roundtree, Star of 70s Hit TV Show ‘Shaft,’ Dies at 81: His Life in 16 Rare Photos

Richard Roundtree, the actor considered to be one of the first Black action heroes for his portrayal of private eye John Shaft, “the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about,” died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. The cause was pancreatic cancer. He was 81.

Roundtree’s longtime manager, Patrick McMinn, said the actor had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two months ago, after having struggled with breast cancer decades earlier. “Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men,” McMinn said in a statement. “The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated.”

Here we take a look at Richard Roundtree‘s incredible 50-year life in photos:

Richard Roundtree’s younger years

Richard Arnold Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942, in New Rochelle, N.Y., the son of John Roundtree and Kathryn (Watkins) Roundtree, who had been a butler and a cook in the same household.

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

Richard Roundtree yearbook photo
Roundtree’s High School yearbook photo, 1961New Rochelle High School Yearbook 1961

After moving back to New York, Roundtree joined the Negro Ensemble Company, where his first role was in a 1967 production of “The Great White Hope,” starring as the early 20th century’s first Black heavyweight boxing champion.

Richard Roundtree becomes Shaft (1971-1973)

Richard Roundtree as shaft
Richard Roundtree in Shaft, 1971John Kisch Archive / Contributor

Shaft, released in 1971, was among the first of the Blaxploitation movies, and it made Roundtree a movie star at 29. The character of private detective John Shaft, who keeps a pearl-handled revolver in the fridge in his Greenwich Village duplex apartment, is hired by a Harlem mobster to rescue his daughter, who has been kidnapped by Italian mobsters. Shaft was instantly beloved by audiences for his swagger, confidence and popular one-liners that are still part of pop-culture rhetoric today. Roundtree observed in a 1972 The New York Times article, that Shaft resonated so well because the character is “a Black man who is for once a winner.”

“I was still amazed that — the way it touched people; the excitement of older, middle aged, younger people, were talking about this character. It was a very heady period in my life,” Roundtree said of the character in an interview for the Kunhardt Film Foundation. “And the adulation, that’s some pretty heavy stuff. When I think about the people that I’ve had the opportunity to know and be around and think about the history of this industry, I’m an incredibly fortunate human being.”

Richard Roundtree fighting in Shaft
Richard Roundtree in Shaft, 1971John Kisch Archive / Contributor

Rountree reprised his role as the tough-talking detective in Shaft’s Big Score! in 1972, which amped up the chase scenes to include speedboats and helicopters and even more exotic and sexy women. This time Shaft was investigating the murder of a numbers runner, using bigger guns and ignoring one crook’s friendly advice to “keep the hell out of Queens.”

Richard Roundtree and Kathy Imrie in “Shaft’s Big Score!”, 1972Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer

The third installment, Shaft in Africa premiered in 1973, and the character posed as an Indigenous man to expose a crime ring that exploited immigrants being smuggled into Europe. Filmed largely in Ethiopia, the second sequel reportedly lost money and the CBS series spin off lasted just seven weeks.

Richard Roundtree Shaft in Aftrica
Richard Roundtree and Vonette McGee in Shaft in Africa, 1973. Getty

Richard Roundtree in the late 1970s

After Shaft catapulted him into to stardom, Roundtree took on various roles throughout the 1970s from cowboy dramas to sci-fi thrillers.

Richard Roundtree in Earthquake
Victoria Principal and Richard Roundtree in Earthquake, 1974Michael Ochs Archives / Handout

In 1974, Roundtree was in the all-star ensemble cast, with Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and Victoria Principal, of the disaster movie Earthquake. The next year, 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.

Richard Roundtree and Peeter O'Toole
Richard Roundtree and Peter O’Toole in Man Friday, 1975Getty

In 1976, Roundtree took on a role in the sci-fi film Embryo (1976) directed by Ralph Nelson, before playing one of his most life-changing characters in the ABC acclaimed mini-series Roots in 1977, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel of the same name.

It told the story of Kunta Kinte (who was played by both John Amos and LeVar Burton) an African man who was captured and taken to North America as a slave. The series was nominated for 37 Primetime Emmy Awards and won nine.

Roots
Richard Roundtree and Leslie Uggams in Roots, 1977Getty

Roundtree played Sam Bennett, the a carriage driver who courted Kizzie (Leslie Uggams). In the 2002 ABC special celebrating the series’ 25th anniversary the actor talked about how it impacted him and made an impression on the whole country. He marveled, “You got a sense of white Americans saying, ‘Damn, that really happened.’”

Richard Roundtree
Richard Roundtree and Leslie Uggams in the TV miniseries Roots, 1977Getty

Roundtree in the 1980s

Moving into the 1980s, Roundtree continued to take on a variety of film roles, including Inchon (1981), where he played 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).

Richard Roundtree 1985
Actor Richard Roundtree poses for a portrait in 1985 in Los AngelesGetty

He also made steady appearances on the small screen, in hit series such as The Equalizer (1985-1989), MacGuyver (1989) and held a recurring role as Lt. Tom Reese in Booker (1989)

Richard Roundtree on MacGyver
“Tough Boys” MacGyver with Richard Dean Anderson, Richard Chaves, Don Thompson and Richard Roundtree, 1989Getty

In the early 1980s, Roundtree married Karen M. Cierna — his second wife after Mary Jane Grant, whom he had two children with before divorcing in 1973. He and Karen had three children and divorced in 1998.

Richard Roundtree and his family
Richard Roundtree, his wife Karen and their daughter, 1989 Getty

Roundtree in the 1990 and 2000s

Roundtree appeared in 60 episodes of the soap opera Generations in 1990, a strong-willed Mississippi iceman in Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored (1996) and took on the role of a big-city district attorney in the film Seven alongside Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in 1995. And also appeared on a variety of other television shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1996), 7th Heaven (1999).

Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Richard Roundtree and Will Smith on Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 1996Getty

After the year 2000, when Roundtree was pushing 60, he made appearances in more than 25 small-screen series — he was a cast member of or had recurring roles in nine of them — including Heroes, Being Mary Jane and Family Reunion and he played an amoral private detective in a five-episode story arc of Desperate Housewives in 2004. He also appeared on Grey’s Anatomy in 2006 as character Donald Burke.

Greys Anatomy
Sandra Oh and Richard Roundree on Grey’s Anatomy episode, “I Am a Tree”, 2006Getty

Roundtree also did half a dozen television movies and more than 20 feature films including appearing in the Shaft reboot in 2000 and 2019 starring Samuel L. Jackson, who said in an instagram tribute after Roundtree’s passing, “Richard Roundtree, The Prototype, The Best To Ever Do It!! SHAFT, as we know it is & will always be His Creation!! His passing leaves a deep hole not only in my heart, but I’m sure a lotta y’all’s, too🤎👊🏾👊🏾👊🏾Love you Brother, I see you walking down the Middle of Main Street in Heaven & Issac’s Conducting your song🎶🎶👊🏾coat blowin’ in wind!! Angels whispering, “That Cat SHAFT Is A Bad Mutha, Shutcho Mouth!! But I’m Talkin’ Bout SHAFT!! THEN WE CAN DIGIT👊🏾👊🏾👊🏾👊🏾👊🏾‼️‼️‼️‼️💯💯💯💯🤎🤎🤎🤎🤎🤎🤎”

Shaft premier
Richard Roundtree (LC) and Samuel L. Jackson (R) at Shaft opening night, 2019 Getty

Roundtree’s legacy

Roundtree is survived by four daughters; Kelli, Nicole, Taylor, Morgan; a son, John; and at least one grandchild. But his legacy will also be honored by the characters he so vividly brought to life through the years. Even Roundtree himself was amazed by how they resonated with audiences, especially his portrayal of Shaft more than 50 years ago. “Not a day goes by that I’m not somewhere when someone recites the lines from the theme song, or lines from the film…I’m like, ‘Yeah, man. Cool.‘” he said to the New York Times in 2019.

Roundtree also said in a 2019 interview, “My dad said to me once, he was out visiting me in LA and I was complaining about [how] 24/7, the Shaft character comes up, and he says, ‘Son, let me tell you something. A lot of people leave this Earth not being known for anything. Shut up.'” And remembered he will be.

Richard Roundtree 2022
Roundtree in 2022Getty

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