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#Richard Roundtree Dead: ‘Shaft’ Star Was 81

Richard Roundtree, an icon of Blaxploitation film who starred as detective John Shaft in Gordon Parks’ 1971 action thriller, died Tuesday afternoon after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 81 years old.

His death was confirmed by Patrick McMinn, his manager since 1987.

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

Roundtree was a leading man from the very start of his lifetime in screen acting. After beginning his career in modeling, he secured “Shaft” at the age of 28, marking his feature debut. A smash hit in theaters, the MGM release earned $12 million in ticket sales off of a $500,000 production budget, helping to save the studio from bankruptcy. A breakthrough hit, “Shaft” set the tone for a prolific decade of Blaxploitation filmmaking and demonstrated Hollywood’s historical failure to consider Black talent and the moviegoing audiences that they could reach.

When asked about the “exploitation” label attached to “Shaft” by the New York Times in a 2019 interview, Roundtree expressed some ambiguity about the term.

“I had the privilege of working with the classiest gentleman possibly that I’ve ever known in the industry, Gordon Parks. So, that word, exploitation, I take offense to with any attachment to Gordon Parks… I’ve always viewed that as a negative. Exploitation. Who’s being exploited?” Roundtree said. “But it gave a lot of people work. It gave a lot of people entrée into the business, including a lot of our present-day producers and directors. So, in the big picture, I view it as a positive.”

Two sequels about the “bad mother (shut your mouth)” quickly followed within the span of two years: “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa.” In 1973, CBS attempted a “Shaft” television series starring Roundtree — a run that only lasted a handful episodes.

“You can’t erase events, but that’s one I wish I could,” Roundtree told the Times in 2019. “I had just come back from ‘Shaft in Africa’ when they tried to convert the character to television. It wasn’t going to happen. That was an ugly point in my long, illustrious career.”

Long and illustrious, it was. Already a marquee name, Roundtree quickly grew beyond his star-making role, with roles in the ensemble disaster film “Earthquake,” a starring turn alongside Peter O’Toole in “Man Friday” and an ill-fated detective in Larry Cohen’s monster comedy “Q — The Winged Serpent.” He also frequently popped in for guest starring performances on TV, with credits including “Roots,” “Magnum P.I.” and “The Love Boat.”

Roundtree returned to the world of “Shaft” in director John Singleton’s 2000 revival of the franchise, starring Samuel L. Jackson. Although Jackson also played a detective named John Shaft, his character was written as the nephew to Roundtree’s original private eye. Both actors reprised their roles in 2019 for Tim Story’s comedic take on the series.

Born July 9, 1942 in Rochester, N.Y., Roundtree briefly attended Southern Illinois University before dropping out to pursue a modeling career. In the late ’60s, he joined the Negro Ensemble Company and began acting in New York stage productions.

Roundtree worked regularly for more than 50 years, with his iconic turn in “Shaft,” rich history in genre filmmaking and compelling screen presence adding color to the worlds of films like “Se7en,” “Brick” and “Speed Racer.” He played a supporting role in “Moving On,” a comedy starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year before releasing in theaters this past summer.

Roundtree was married twice, first to Mary Jane Grant from 1963 to 1973, then to Karen M. Cierna, from 1980 to 1998. He is survived by his four daughters, Nicole, Tayler, Morgan and Kelli Roundtree, and his son, James.

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