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"Shaft" Star Richard Roundtree, Considered the First Black Action Hero, Dies at 81

Wednesday, 25 October 2023 11:46 Culture

LOS ANGELES - Richard Roundtree, the trailblazing black action hero who played a supercool private detective in the 1971 blaxploitation classic "Shaft" and several sequels, has died. He was 81.

Longtime manager Patrick McMinn said Roundtree had pancreatic cancer and died Tuesday in his Los Angeles home. In 1993, he had been diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy.

"Richard's work and career became a turning point for leading African American actors," McMinn said. "The impact he made on the industry can't be overstated."

Roundtree, a New Rochelle, New York, native, was considered the first black action hero and one of the leading actors in the blaxploitation genre thanks to his street-smart New York City police detective John Shaft character in director Gordon Parks' 1971 film. At 28, it was Roundtree's first appearance in a feature film after starting his career as a model.

Roundtree's Shaft was part of a shift in how movies featuring black characters were seen in Hollywood, which had typically not cast African American actors, especially in leading roles, in projects. Blaxploitation films were aimed primarily at Black audiences.

In the film, his character traveled through a world of assassins. He regularly cracked wise with lines like, "My duty is to please that booty."

"What we were doing was good old escapism," Roundtree told The Associated Press in 2000.

Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" theme song, featuring the memorable line "You're damn right," helped the original film permeate pop culture. The singer, who died in 2008, said the song "sounds like a gunshot heard around the world." His single won an Oscar for best original song in 1971 and two Grammys the following year.

After the success of the film, Roundtree returned for sequels "Shaft's Big Score!" in 1972 and "Shaft in Africa" in 1973. That same year, he also played an experienced detective in the CBS series "Shaft," which lasted only seven episodes.

Roundtree reprised his role in the 2000 film "Shaft," a revival starring Samuel L. Jackson. He appeared as Jackson's character's uncle in the big-budget, wide-release film. Both again appeared in the same roles in the 2019 movie starring Jessie T. Usher.

Jackson called Roundtree the "prototype" and "the best that ever did it" in his social media post.

"SHAFT as we know it will forever be his creation," he said of Roundtree. "His departure leaves a hole not only in my heart but I'm sure in many of yours as well."

Over his more than 50-year career, Roundtree appeared in a number of other well-known films, including "Earthquake," "Man Friday" with Peter O'Toole, "Roots," "Maniac Cop," "Se7en," and "What Men Want" starring Taraji P. Henson. He also made his mark with television roles in movies such as "Magnum PI," "Boat Trip," "Being Mary Jane," and "Boat Trip."

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