Richard Roundtree, ‘Shaft’ Star, Dies at 81

The iconic actor, a pioneering force in cinema and an advocate for health awareness, passed away after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.

Richard Roundtree, an inimitable talent and pioneering figure in cinema, has passed away at the age of 81 from pancreatic cancer, according to Deadline.

According to Variety, Roundtree’s manager, Patrick McMinn, confirmed his passing on Tuesday (October 24), saying the actor died at his home in Los Angeles after first being diagnosed two months ago.

Roundtree was also diagnosed in 1993 with a rare form of male breast cancer. He underwent chemotherapy and went public with his diagnosis in an attempt to change societal norms and stereotypes. He became an advocate for early detection and breast cancer awareness.

“Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men in film,” said McMinn. “The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated.”

Publicity still portrait of American actor Richard Roundtree in the blaxploitation crime drama 'Shaft' (MGM), 1971. (
Richard Roundtree in the 1971 Blaxploitation crime drama, "Shaft."

He was widely celebrated for his iconic role as private-eye John Shaft in 1971's Shaft and the subsequent four sequels that followed, including Shaft’s Big Score (1972), Shaft in Africa (1973) and most recently in Shaft (2000) and Shaft (2019). Roundtree's portrayal cemented him as a tall, dark, and handsome sex symbol with a flair for leather trench coats, brown liquor, and beautiful women. This character branded him as a cinematic legend and catalyzed a new era for Black actors in Hollywood.

Hailing from New Rochelle, New York, Roundtree's journey began in modeling, swiftly transitioning into an illustrious acting career. Beyond "Shaft," he showcased his versatility in films such as "Earthquake," "Man Friday," and TV series like the miniseries "Roots: The Saga of an American Family" based on Alex Haley's novel, "Roc" and even BET's "Being Mary Jane." His ability to seamlessly transition between various roles while maintaining his signature charisma endeared him to generations of fans.

Richard Roundtree

AAFCA to Honor George Lucas, Hattie Winston and Richard Roundtree

Roundtree was honored with various accolades. Notably, he received an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture in 1971 for his work in "Shaft". He also received a Peabody Award in 2002, a Black Theater Alliance Award Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 and a MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, reflecting his enduring impact on the industry.

Roundtree was married twice, first to Mary Jane Grant and together they had two children before divorcing in 1973. He remarried Karen Cierna in 1990 and their union resulted in three children before they divorced in 1998. He is survived by his four daughters, Kelli, Nicole, Taylor, and Morgan, and a son, John.

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