Remembering Richard Roundtree


Best known for his leading role as the iconic 1970s Shaft film franchise and the TV series Roots, Richard Roundtree has died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 81 years old.

For me, Richard Roundtree represented Black Power in Hollywood cinema and television. As we remember his legacy in Hollywood, we have a very heavy torch to bear. The torch of Black unity, Black beauty, and Black excellence are just a few things that ignite the fire. I believe and hope that our generation with actors such as Michael B. Jordan, Marsai Martin, Corey Hawkins, myself, and others will keep the flame in the torch burning.

Roundtree’s trailblazing career changed the face of entertainment around the globe and his enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come. Considered an icon of Blaxploitation film, he starred as the suave, smooth-talking, lady’s man private eye John Shaft in Gordon Parks’ 1971 action thriller.

Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? Shaft! Can you dig it?

Known for his handsome looks and cool swag, Roundtree started as a commercial and runway model. His face was seen in national magazine ads for products such as Duke’s men’s grooming products. He also graced the Ebony Fashion Show runway. After success as a model, Roundtree secured Shaft at the age of 28, marking his Hollywood film debut. The film earned $12 million in ticket sales off of a $500,000 production budget, helping to save MGM from bankruptcy. Shaft was the first and set a very high standard for the decade of Blaxploitation films. It also shined a light on the historical failure of Hollywood’s consideration of Black talent and the Black moviegoing audience.

Crowned as the first Black action hero, Roundtree was a leading man from the very start of his lifetime acting career. He starred in the Shaft sequels Shaft’s Big Score, Shaft in Africa, and the 1973 Shaft television spinoff series. “It put me on the map, number one,” Roundtree once said of playing the role of John Shaft. “It afforded me a long career because I’ve been cast largely in authoritative roles, which is a good thing.”

The legend stated in a 2019 interview that he could still recall his interview with director Gordon Parks that took his career from modeling for the Ebony Fashion Fair to being the guy everyone wanted to be. “I was siting in his office and he’s saying, ‘We’re kind of looking for a guy who looks like this,” said Roundtree. “And I look over, and it’s an ad that I had done. “That’s me!” Roundtree’s casting as John Shaft was all about his obvious looks and swagger.

Richard Arnold Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942, to John and Kathryn Roundtree in New Rochelle, New York. Roundtree played football at New Rochelle High School, graduating in 1961, and earned an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University.

After dropping out of college, Roundtree worked as a model for Ebony, moved back to New York and joined the Negro Ensemble Company, launching his acting career. His early stage roles included The Great White Hope. For his performance in Shaft, Roundtree was nominated for a Golden Globe as new star of the year. He went on to play slave Sam Benneit in the television series Roots, then starred as Dr. Daniel Reubens on the first soap opera to feature a Black family, Generations.

In 2000, director John Singleton reimagined the franchise in a new Shaft starring Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft’s nephew and Roundtree reprised his role as John Shaft. Jackson acknowledged that he’d grown up watching Roundtree as the effortlessly cool Harlem detective, and when he took on the role as his nephew, he’d hoped to garner a little more of Roundtree’s sex-symbol status.

“He created a whole level of cool, that’s the mother—- I need to be,” Jackson said. “Everybody wanted to be John Shaft for a very long time. I didn’t want to be Youngblood Priest. I didn’t want to The Mack. I didn’t want to be Leon Isaac Kennedy in Penitentiary. John Saft defined as cool was. Richard Roundtree has the look, the walk and the atitude.”

Recently, Roundtree was asked if he was aware of the positive impact John Shaft had on the Black community. “Constantly reminded of it,” he said. “I had an experience at LAX coming through TSA, and this guy was watching me. And as I get through, he said, ‘Can I have a word with you?’ He says, ‘I’m from Alabama. And as a kid, we had to sit up in the balcony. And because of watching that film, it made me strive for something more than Alabama.’

“And he was in charge at…LAX. And those types of stories I’ve heard all these years. People will come up to me and say things like that. I’m very proud of that.”
Emmy award-winning comedian Loni Love memorialized Roundtree writing, “Thank you Mr. Roundtree for being that Black Superhero we needed at a time that few Black men could be seen in film.”

Actress Gabrielle Union who starred alongside Roundtree in the show Being Mary Jane, called working with him ‘a dream.’ Gettng to hand with him was always a good ass time with the best stories and laughs,” she wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter. He was always the coolest man in the room with the best vibes and people would literally run over to come see him. He was simply the best and we all loved him. #RIPRichardRoundtree.”

“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,” Samuel L. Jackson wrote on Instagram.

Roundtree’s final film Moving On, is a comedy where he stars as Ralph opposite of Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda streaming now on Hulu.

Guest Entertainment Columnist Amber Pickens is a Dallas native and graduate of Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing and Visual Arts. After graduation, she went on to attend and graduate from The Juilliard School in New York City. Today, Pickens is a rising actress, choreographer, and host of the digital talk show, Kickback & Chat with Amber Pickens. IG: @amberbpickens

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