The Late Richard Roundtree’s Trailblazing Legacy
If Richard Roundtree talked about it, it helped other people embrace the idea. He has been dubbed the first Black action hero and will forever be remembered for his performances as John Shaft in Shaft and Sam Bennett in Roots, among others. Even in his personal life, before his recent death after a battle with pancreatic cancer, he survived breast cancer and became one of the first men to talk about his battle with breast cancer and about undergoing a double mastectomy.
While his most known and beloved role is likely in the Shaft franchise, he once shared that he was most proud of his work in Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored (1995). Perhaps it was because his religious father had refused to view any of his films, until this one, that focused on a Black Mississippi family facing inequality. Prior to the ’95 film, he was already a huge star and became one of the faces of the blaxploitation movements of the ’70s.
John Shaft was originally going to be played by a white actor, based on a 1970 novel. However, the director Gordon Parks saw Roundtree and insisted that he was cast in the role. It was a great decision as Shaft became only one of three MGM movies to turn a profit in 1971. Roundtree returned for Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). He was also the title character in a short-lived CBS Shaft series. In 2000 and 2019, Roundtree returned for the new Shaft films, now starring Samuel L. Jackson as his character’s nephew.
Prior to becoming a famous actor, Roundtree pursued football and then a modeling career. In the ’60s, he was seen in ads for cigarettes and hair products. In the late ’60s, he was advised to move to New York and begin an acting career, starting by joining the Negro Ensemble Company. While he exploded into notoriety after starring in the Shaft films, he wasn’t always happy to be typecast until his father gave him a wake-up call.
He once said that his father “was out visiting me in L.A., and I was complaining about [how] 24/7, the Shaft character comes up and he says, ‘Son, let me tell you something. A lot of people leave this Earth not being known for anything. Shut up.’” Even though most people will recognize him from the Shaft films, he was outstanding in many other movies, across all genres. Let’s talk about a few and let us know in the comments which Roundtree film is your favorite (perhaps one we didn’t have time to list!).
In 1974, on the heels of his Shaft fame, he appeared in two new films: Earthquake and Uptown Saturday Night. Earthquake‘s visual effects were incredible for this time period and Roundtree’s role of Miles Quade, a structural engineer who needs to rescue his family and friends after a devastating earthquake was some of his best work. Uptown Saturday Night was a lighter, comedy-drama that showcased the life of 1970s Harlem.
Roundtree proved he could easily dabble from drama to comedy to action, as he appeared as yet another investigator alongside Clint Eastwood in 1984’s City Heat. Roundtree and Eastwood have some great chemistry in this film and paved the way for more action-comedy cop movies. A few years earlier in 1981, Roundtree took the role of Captain John “Buck” Waterbury in the war drama Inchon and shared a cinematic portrayal of military heroes.
May he rest in peace and always be remembered for his trailblazing contributions to Hollywood and beyond.