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.
Working with Richard Roundtree was a dream. Getting to hang with him & our Being Mary Jane family was always a good ass time with the best stories & laughs. He was ALWAYS the coolest man in the room with the BEST vibes & ppl would literally run over to come see him. He was simply… pic.twitter.com/1N8fHVDsA6
— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) October 25, 2023
— Carl Weathers (@TheCarlWeathers) October 25, 2023
I adored my relationship with Richard Roundtree. The conversations were always fascinating and illuminating. He had that big smile and he was always so gracious, elegant and smooth. I am so glad that God ordained for our paths to cross. RIP, noble Black man! 1/2 pic.twitter.com/Susqzok3Mv
— rolandsmartin (@rolandsmartin) October 25, 2023
I’m sad to announce that my old homeboy Richard Roundtree passed away this afternoon. His daughter Nicole told me the cause was pancreatic cancer. He was 81 years old. He was a dear and supportive friend of many years, going back to our Westchester County, New York days. pic.twitter.com/bEmiZmJruQ
— Billy Vera (@billybeater) October 25, 2023
By other actors.
Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
You’re damn right.
All hail Richard Roundtree. pic.twitter.com/YjmyXJKL6k
— Dana Delany (@DanaDelany) October 25, 2023
Many remembered him, of course, for Shaft.
Sad to hear that the great Richard Roundtree has passed away.
Rest in power brother pic.twitter.com/vaLriX6JS7
— ✭Marc✭ (@wrongstanceprod) October 25, 2023
Rest in Peace Richard Roundtree. The one and only Shaft.
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) October 25, 2023
Back in the 1970s there was a little Shaft shrine at Disco Donut at 14th & Third, where a small, slightly rumpled RR photo was lovingly Scotch-taped on a wall. A gentle late-night reminder, maybe: “Don’t let your mouth get your ass in trouble.” https://t.co/A9p71szRKA
— Kurt Loder (@kurt_loder) October 25, 2023
RIP, Richard Roundtree.
They say that cat was a bad motherfuc…https://t.co/Kd1kirBvJj
— Charles P. Pierce (@CharlesPPierce) October 25, 2023
Others praised his non-Shaft work.
Richard Roundtree had *many* recognizable roles, but I knew him best as Paul Patterson on Being Mary Jane. He truly was a transcendent actor, through and through. RIP! pic.twitter.com/1sQ4L8UFIM
— issa rae’s favorite interviewer. (@TheGreatIsNate) October 25, 2023
RIP Richard Roundtree. His delivery of “This will be the very definition of swift justice!” in SE7EN is one of those line-readings burned into my brain.
— Bill Chambers (@flmfrkcentral) October 25, 2023
RIP Richard Roundtree. In addition to SHAFT, he has a great filmography.
Please check out his work in Q: THE WINGED SERPENT. pic.twitter.com/5ksiQFh6N5
— Rob Dean, Blacula, Dean! (@neuroticmonkey) October 25, 2023
RIP Richard Roundtree. Forever linked to an iconic role synonymous with “cool guy”, I’ll remember him as Carradine’s partner in Q: The Winged Serpent, “Slick” from Original Gangstas, and the DA from Seven pic.twitter.com/gVGWWzs1Se
— Will Menaker (@willmenaker) October 25, 2023
Others honored his contribution to Black American culture.
So many Black men would walk down the street with even more swagger and style and confidence after seeing SHAFT for the first time, and that is largely thanks to Richard Roundtree as John Shaft.
May this legend rest in peace, and my condolences to his family and friends. https://t.co/7p5WcJ31lg
— hellresidentNY (@hellresidentNY) October 25, 2023
Sad to hear of the passing of Richard Roundtree.. He was fabulous as John Shaft at a time when there were few leading Black men in film. He put the sexy and cool in being a detective. Rest well. Condolences to his family. pic.twitter.com/9HNJHS6yUz
— Loni Love (@LoniLove) October 25, 2023
And others shared his great, great looks.