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Samuel L. Jackson And More Mourn The Passing Of ‘Shaft’ Star Richard Roundtree: ‘The Best To Ever Do It!!’

Richard Roundtree had a long and storied career, with over 150 credits and dozens of characters. But sometimes an actor needs but one role to make history. Roundtree had John Shaft. He played the private dick across five movies and a TV show, in turn reshaping what Black masculinity looked like onscreen.

On Tuesday Roundtree passed away after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 81.

Released in 1971, Shaft instantly catapulted the largely unknown Roundtree to superstardom. It was his first movie. His entrance is like watching God walk amongst humans. John Shaft emerges from a Times Square subway station, clad in a brown leather jacket, collar up, to the strains of Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning song. He walks across 8th Avenue, cooly dodging cars until a cab almost hits him. He flips the cabbie the bird.

Shaft wasn’t the first Blaxploitation hit. That would be Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. But it helped define an era of cinema in which Black protagonists, historically depicted as servile or victims, won. Roundtree soon returned to the role for Shaft’s Big Score!, and again for Shaft in Africa, and once again for a short-lived TV show.

When Samuel L. Jackson starred in his own Shaft movie, it wasn’t a remake. He played John Shaft, alright, just not that John Shaft. He was the nephew of the original, played again by Richard Roundtree. (He did the same thing for the 2019 film also, confusingly, called Shaft.)

Roundtree never had a role as rich or as cool as John Shaft, but he was always around, and always a welcome presence. He appeared in the disaster movie Earthquake, opposite Peter O’Toole in the Robinson Crusoe movie Man Friday, with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in City Heat. He appeared with Michael Moriarty and David Carradine in the nifty low-budget monster movie Q.He played the mayor in Se7en. On television he was part of the vast ensemble in the seminal Roots.

Roundtree left an indelible mark on American culture. His passing was mourned by those who knew him, including Jackson, who called him “The Best To Ever Do It!!”

Others who knew Roundtree weighed in as well.

By other actors.

Many remembered him, of course, for Shaft.

Others praised his non-Shaft work.

Others honored his contribution to Black American culture.

And others shared his great, great looks.