For the opening scene of Shaft – the 1971 film that helped inaugurate the “blaxploitation” genre and spawned an Oscar-winning song in Isaac Hayes’s call-and-response classic Theme from Shaft – the director Gordon Parks mapped out to the actor Richard Roundtree exactly what would happen.
Roundtree – playing the New York detective John Shaft who “won’t cop out when there’s danger all about” as the song puts it – was to stride out of the subway near Times Square, tracked by assorted cameras positioned opposite him and at high angles. “I want you to walk across 42nd Street,” Parks said. “And I want you to own it.”
He truly embraced the situation. Wearing a beige turtleneck and brown leather trench coat, Roundtree confidently navigates through the chaos, observing a demonstration happening around him (unrelated to the film, but a real-life protest by the Gay Activists Alliance) and spontaneously flipping off a frustrated taxi driver. “I really took control of it,” he recalled. “It turned out even better than I could have imagined.”
This was Roundtree’s debut on the big screen, and it would go on to shape his career for years to come. Unfortunately, Roundtree passed away at the age of 81 from pancreatic cancer. He was selected for the role after a meeting with Parks, a former photojournalist, who came across a magazine advertisement and mentioned, “We need someone who looks like this.” Interestingly enough, the ad featured Roundtree himself.
When deciding on adapting Ernest Tidyman’s 1970 book, which follows Shaft as he is hired to save a mobster’s daughter who has been kidnapped, MGM entertained the idea of making the characters white. However, Parks stood by the book’s original perspective, which includes a keen understanding of Black culture. He hoped for viewers to witness a victory for a Black protagonist.
That single-mindedness paid off, saving the troubled studio from bankruptcy. “Ghetto kids were coming downtown to see their hero, Shaft, and here was a Black man on the screen they didn’t have to be ashamed of,” the director said in 1972. “We need movies about the history of our people, yes, but we need heroic fantasies about our people, too. We all need a little James Bond now and then.”
John Shaft was stylish and unwavering, able to distribute justice in his own manner, and distinguished from the more dignified roles typically played by African-American actors like Sidney Poitier. In 2000, film critic Elvis Mitchell observed that Roundtree’s “enjoyment on screen, which was a form of energy, resonated with an audience’s desire. He commanded the screen with a regal presence.” Mitchell likened him to Sean Connery, noting “the same immense source of charm and masculinity, but with a touch of self-deprecation.”
Parks mentioned that Roundtree performed most of his own stunts. Due to this, they were able to capture close shots with their helicopter that proved it was Roundtree and not a stunt double. The chase scene took 12 days to film, during which they destroyed four cars, two boats, and a fake helicopter.
The performer came back for two follow-up films, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), both helmed by Parks. Unfortunately, the third film was not. Following a short-lived Shaft television series in the same year, Roundtree referred to it as a low point in his successful career and decided to move on from the character of John Shaft.
Richard was born in New Rochelle, New York, to parents Kathryn and John Roundtree. His mother worked as a cook and housekeeper, while his father was a refuse collector before becoming a church minister. Richard went to New Rochelle High School and earned a football scholarship to Southern Illinois University. He started his career at Barneys department store before becoming a model for the Ebony Fashion Fair, a touring branch of Ebony magazine. He later joined the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City and achieved success in their 1967 production of The Great White Hope.
Taking advantage of the popularity of Shaft, he co-starred with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner in the disaster film Earthquake (1974), portrayed the lead role in Man Friday (1975) alongside Peter O’Toole as Robinson Crusoe, and had a role as a charming carriage driver in the slavery-themed TV series Roots (1977).
In the midst of various television shows, such as his most recent role in Netflix’s Family Reunion, he also appeared in the action comedy City Heat (1984) during the Great Depression, alongside Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. He also had roles in the gruesome serial-killer film Seven (1995) with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, the Disney comedy George of the Jungle (1997), and Rian Johnson’s clever neo-noir thriller Brick (2005).
After turning down multiple offers related to Shaft, he eventually agreed and made an appearance in John Singleton’s remake, Shaft (2000), playing the role of Samuel L Jackson’s nephew. He also returned for a comedic take on the franchise, also titled Shaft (2019), which revealed that Jackson’s character was actually his son. This new installment also introduced a sensitive grandson who despises guns, representing a new generation.
In a 2019 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jackson expressed that many people aspired to be like Roundtree for a significant period of time. According to Jackson, Roundtree embodied coolness with his appearance, mannerisms, and attitude.
After being limited by the role in the 1970s, Roundtree eventually came to terms with it. He stated, “Sometimes it’s simpler to go along with the flow.”
He had two marriages and divorces, first to Mary Jane Grant and then to Karen Ciernia. He is survived by four daughters (Kelli and Nicole from his first marriage, Tayler and Morgan from his second) and one son (John from his second marriage).