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Actor Richard Roundtree, the Original ‘Shaft,’ Has Joined the Ancestors

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October 26, 2023

He was our Black action hero!

Richard Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, New York, and was a celebrated football star at Southern Illinois University, NBC News reports. After college, he dabbled in modeling before getting his big break in the world of acting. A member of New York’s Negro Ensemble Company, Roundtree made his off-Broadway debut as Jack Johnson in “The Great White Hope.” But it was his role as John Shaft in the groundbreaking film “Shaft,” which was directed by Gordon Parks, that would change Roundtree’s life. 

The 1971 film was a milestone in American cinema, earning Oscars for best music and Issac Hayes’ original song, which became a hit. Roundtree’s portrayal as a complex, independent Black protagonist mixed with Hayes’ classic soundtrack made him a household name and solidified his status as a cultural icon. 

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It was the first time mainstream cinema had a Black action hero. And the film earned Roundtree critical acclaim, leading to a wave of Shaft spinoffs. The film also made Roundtree the poster child for Black masculinity. The film opened the door for strong Black leads in Hollywood and paved the way for more roles for Black action heroes that had previously only been reserved for white actors. 

Over the years, Roundtree continued to work in Hollywood, earning hundreds of credits on hit movies and television shows like “CHIPs,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Chicago Fire.” He was ubiquitous on the screen throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. He even reprised his role as John Shaft in the 2000 “Shaft” remake starring Samuel L. Jackson, inspiring a new legion and generation of fans.

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Beyond his acting career, Roundtree was also an advocate for various social causes and a respected pillar in the African American community. He used his platform to address pertinent issues and promote positive change, inspiring audiences for decades.

Roundtree’s manager, Patrick McMinn, announced the icon’s recent passing, saying he was surrounded by family and friends at his side. A former breast cancer survivor, Roundtree had served as an advocate for awareness  among men since his diagnosis in 1993. The beloved actor passed away of pancreatic cancer on Tuesday, October 24, 2023 at the age of 81.

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Many took to social media to share their condolences and memories of the Hollywood star. As we reflect on the legacy of Richard Roundtree, we celebrate the life and career of a man whose charisma, talent, and trailblazing work will forever be etched in cinematic history. His contributions to culture will live on and be cherished and he will forever exist as the ultimate symbol of cool. 

Cover photo by Lev Radin / Shutterstock

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