Richard Roundtree, the iconic actor who redefined African American masculinity in the movies with his groundbreaking portrayal of the title role in “Shaft,” passed away on Tuesday at his Los Angeles home at the age of 81 due to pancreatic cancer. He was also recognized as the “first black action hero.”
The Birth of a Legend: Shaft
“Shaft,” released in 1971, was a groundbreaking film, marking one of the first entries in the Blaxploitation genre (A sub-genre of exploitation cinema characterized by modest budgets and a departure from mainstream production). This movie not only made Roundtree a star at the young age of 29 but also left an indelible mark on cinematic history.
The Early Life of a Legend
Richard Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942 in New Rochelle, New York. He was the son of John Roundtree and Kathryn Watkins Roundtree, who were identified as a butler and a cook in the 1940 census, both working in the same household.
From Football to Modeling to Acting
Roundtree attended New Rochelle High School, where he played on an undefeated football team. He graduated in 1961 and began attending Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship. However, his life took a different turn when he spent a summer as a model with the Ebony Fashion Fair, sponsored by a prominent Black news and culture magazine. This experience led him to New York, where he embarked on a successful theater career by joining the Negro Ensemble Company.
The Impact Beyond Shaft
After “Shaft,” Roundtree made diverse choices in his movie roles, including “Earthquake” (1974), “Man Friday” (1975), “Inchon” (1981), “City Heat” (1984), and “Q” (1982). He also made a significant impact on the small screen, starring in the acclaimed mini-series “Roots” (1977).
Richard Roundtree: A Legacy of Awards and Nominations
In 2011, he secured the African-American Film Critics Association award, while in 1994, he claimed the MTV Movie + TV Award for his role in “Shaft.” Additionally, he earned a nomination for the Golden Globe Awards in 1972 and was recognized at the Soap Opera Digest Awards, among other accolades.
An Enduring Legacy
Roundtree’s name remains closely associated with the 1970s, but he continued to work actively for the next four decades, appearing in numerous TV series and films. He demonstrated his versatility as an actor in various roles, showcasing his talent and adaptability.
A Beloved Actor’s Last Works
In 2020, Roundtree portrayed a fishing boat’s captain in “Haunting of the Mary Celeste,” and in 2022, he appeared in an episode of “Cherish the Day,” a romantic drama series by Ava DuVernay.