Richard Roundtree, America’s First Black Action Hero, Dead at 81

Lisa Collins

      Richard Roundtree, credited as America’s “first Black Action hero”, with his iconic portrayal of private detective John Shaft, passed away October 24 surrounded by his family after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 81.

      Samuel L. Jackson, who starred in two Shaft sequels, was among the many celebrities to share tributes of the late actor on social media.

      “Richard Roundtree, The Prototype, The Best To Ever Do It!! SHAFT, as we know it is & will always be His Creation! His passing leaves a deep hole not only in my heart, but I’m sure a lotta y’all’s, too,” Jackson posted on Instagram. ““Love you Brother, I see you walking down the Middle of Main Street in Heaven & Issac’s Conducting your song🎶🎶👊🏾coat blowin’ in wind!!”

      “Being Mary Jane” star Gabrielle Union posted: “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 the best & we all loved him.”

      “You meant SO much to SO many!”, Power star Omari Hardwick wrote. “The character Ghost i had the honor of helping to bring to light & “life” was undoubtedly a consistent homage to the timeless work you created & left us with. SMOOTH in all things life & art. Rest in your eternal paradise & power King Richard.”

      Tia Mowry, who starred alongside Roundtree and Loretta Devine in the Netflix series, Family Reunion, also wrote of his lasting impact.

      “Richard, you have made such a lasting impact on my life. I am forever grateful for your warm energy, your light, your heart, and your incredible wisdom,” on Instagram. “I will miss you and our times together in our trailers – you teaching me the right way to take down some whiskey. I love you.”

      In 1971, at just 28 years old, Roundtree skyrocketed to fame with his role as private detective John Shaft. The movie, produced on a $500,000 budget, grossed $12 million at the box office. Heralded as one of the best films ever by the New York Times, Shaft cemented Roundtree as America’s first Black Action Hero. Its theme song, composed by Isaac Hayes, scored an Oscar for Best Original Song.

      The Rochester, New York native would repeat the role in the film’s four sequels stretching over five decades from 1972 to 2019 that brought in over $150 million in combined ticket sales.   

      Ironically, longtime friend Sheila Frazier, who portrayed his wife in the 1973 series, Firehouse, said that he didn’t always like it that when he would enter a room, they would play the theme from “Shaft”.

      “He understood his impact as Shaft and was proud of his work in the role, but he wanted to be seen beyond it,” said Frazier, a trusted friend of 52 years.

      “He was the very reason why I am in the industry. I met him just after he had finished Shaft through a mutual friend, and he encouraged me to pursue acting. The one thing he kept saying was when you go in for a role act like its yours already. That advice is what helped me to land the role opposite Ron O’Neal in Superfly.”

      Aside from Shaft, Roundtree amassed an impressive body of work spanning over five decades including co-starring credits in Roots, Se7enDesperate Housewives, Soul Food, Being Mary Jane, What Men Want, George of the Jungle and Family Reunion.

      In what would mark the final film to be released before his death, Roundtree had a supporting role in “Moving On,” a comedy starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda that debuted in theaters earlier this year.

      Roundtree is survived by his four daughters, Nicole, Tayler, Morgan and Kelli Roundtree, and his son, James.

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