Richard Roundtree, star of ‘Shaft’, dies at 81

In addition to playing the cunning private investigator, he was a memorable performer in the TV series ‘Radici’ and in the film ‘Man Friday’

Farewell to a Blaxploitation icon. Richard Roundtree, who helped open the doors of cinema and TV to a generation of African-American performers with his portrayal of the private investigator in ‘Shaft the Detective’ (1971), the first of a series, has died at the age of 81. He also starred in other successful films such as ‘Man Friday’ and on TV as the protagonist of ‘Radici’. The actor died yesterday, Tuesday 24 October, at his home in Los Angeles due to pancreatic cancer. The announcement of his passing was made by Patrick McMinn, his manager since 1987. “Richard’s work and career represented a turning point for African-American cinema protagonists – declared McMinn – The impact he had on film industry can neither be underestimated nor forgotten.”

Breast cancer

In 1993 the American actor was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. “Breast cancer is not specific to women – declared Richard Roundtree in an interview in 1997 – Men have a quibbling attitude towards health problems. I received a lot of positive feedback because I talked about it and now it’s gone several years. I am a survivor.”

The carreer

After being a football player and a model, Roundtree became very popular starring on the big screen in the early 1970s for the role of the black detective John Shaft, a ‘tough guy’ who was not well received by the criminal circles of the New York neighborhood of Harlem and was viewed with suspicion by the police themselves: the first title was “Shaft the Detective” (1971), followed by “Shaft Strikes Again” (1972), both directed by Gordon Parks, and then by “Shaft and the Slave Traders” ( 1973) by director John Guillermin, a Hollywood veteran in action cinema. The soundtrack of the first film was also a great success: “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes won the 1972 Academy Award for best song. “Shaft ” also became a 7-episode television mini-series broadcast in the USA between 1973 and ’74, again with Roundtree in the title role. In 2000, another sequel was made, “Shaft”, with Samuel L. Jackson in the role of the grandson of detective John Shaft, still played by Roundtree.

Roundtree played the title character Friday, opposite Peter O’Toole, as Robinson Crusoe, in Jack Gold’s “Man Friday” (1975); he starred as an army sergeant, opposite Laurence Olivier, as General Douglas MacArthur, in Terence Young’s Korean War drama “Inchon” (1981); he played Burt Reynolds’ partner in a private detective business in Richard Benjamin’s “Please Don’t Save My Life Again” (1984).

In the innovative TV miniseries “Roots” (1977), the slavery saga based on the novel by Alex Haley, Roundtree played the key role of carriage driver Sam Bennett, who falls in love with Kizzy (Leslie Uggams).

In an interview, Roundtree revealed that he was particularly fond of the film “Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored” (1996), which tells of a black family from Mississippi facing inequality in the South. His father, who had become a Pentecostal minister, had refused to see all of his son’s films until this one.

From the second half of the 90s, after defeating breast cancer, the actor returned to the limelight as an iconic character, also thanks to a new interest in Blaxploitation. He appeared in David Fincher’s “Seven” (1995), Larry Cohen’s “Seven” (1996), “George of the Jungle…?” (1997) by Sam Weisman and “Steel” (1997) by Kenneth Johnson.

On TV he was the protagonist in several episodes of “Desperate Housewives” (2004-2005), playing an unscrupulous detective, and also appeared in the science fiction series “Heroes” (2006-2007), “Grey’s Anatomy” (2006) and “Being Mary Jane” (2013-2019).

Born in New Rochelle, New York, on July 9, 1942, Richard Roundtree, after starting his career as a model, landed the role in “Shaft the Detective” at the age of 28, marking his film debut . Based on a 1970 novel by Ernest Tidyman, the film was originally intended to star a white actor. It was director Gordon Parks who insisted on hiring Roundtree after noticing him during a casting. The film, distributed by MGM, earned $12 million at the US box office against a production budget of $500,000, helping save the studio from bankruptcy. “Shaft the Detective,” which was a smash hit, kicked off a prolific decade of Blaxploitation films.

The soundtrack to the 1971 film was also an extraordinary hit, released under the title “Shaft” in a double album by American soul musician Isaac Hayes. Hayes’ biggest commercial and critical success, “Shaft” was his best-known work and the best-selling album of all time on the Stax Records label. Hayes’ fourth consecutive effort to reach No. 1 among R&B albums, staying there for 14 consecutive weeks in 1971, “Shaft” was certified gold. The single “Theme from Shaft” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100, winning two Grammys and the 1972 Academy Award for Best Song and the Golden Globe for Best Original Score. Furthermore, the album earned him a further Grammy for best soundtrack in 1972 and a nomination for best soundtrack at the Oscars of the same year. In 2014 “Shaft” was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically relevant”. In the 1970s the song was also used as the soundtrack for an advertisement for Emulsio wax in Rai’s Caroselli.

(by Paolo Martini)