Actor Richard Roundtree died on October 24, 2023. The star of the “Shaft” franchise was 81. Through his action-packed portrayal of Detective John Shaft, Roundtree transitioned the Black male movie lead from the safe, upright roles of Sidney Poitier to the Blaxploitation prototype of a fist-fighting hero with 007-like sexiness.
Roundtree was an unlikely candidate for this cinematic sea change. While enrolled at the University of Southern Illinois in the early 1960s, the former high school football star from New Rochelle, New York, caught a lucky break due to his appearance. Roundtree was approached by Eunice Johnson, the wife of EBONY magazine founder John H. Johnson, about modeling for the magazine in its Fashion Fair series. Soon, Roundtree’s dashing features became familiar in nearly every Black U.S. household as the model for the Duke line of men’s haircare products. He was known in Black culture as “The Duke Man.” We didn’t know his name, but we knew his face.
Richard Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, a bedroom suburb of New York City, in July 1942. His hometown was later made famous as the residence of the fictional Rob and Laura Petrie on the 1960s sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” His sports talents earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern Illinois, where Dick Gregory had been a track star before him, and Walt Frazier, a basketball standout right after Roundtree, dropped out to focus on modeling.
In 1967, Roundtree leveraged his modeling success by joining the theater group The Negro Ensemble. His first role there was as controversial 1910s heavyweight champ Jack Johnson in The Great White Hope (the lead later made famous on stage and screen by James Earl Jones). The acting bug stuck. He starred in the Ensemble’s 1969 New York City production of the militant play The Mau Mau Room.
As the 1970s dawned, a new wave of Black film was born. On July 10, 1969, a day after Roundtree’s 27th birthday, the film “Putney Swope” premiered. Written and directed by Robert Downey, Sr., “Putney Swope,” which satirizes the advertising industry, is widely credited as the first Blaxploitation film. Its tagline was “Up Madison Avenue,” with its poster art positioning a woman model as a middle finger directed at the mad, mad world. On March 31, 1971, Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song” debuted. By this time, famed Black photographer Gordon Parks, Jr. had optioned the screen rights to a novel named Shaft by Ernest Tidyman. Tidyman and his screenwriting partner John D.F. Black originally wrote “Shaft” for a white male lead. Parks cast Roundtree as his lead, and the picture was released on June 25, 1971, three months after Van Peebles’ breakthrough.
Set to a revolutionary and eventually Academy Award-winning jazzy soul soundtrack by Isaac Hayes, Jr., “Shaft” set the tone for 1970s, Black-themed action movies. As white males had done for decades through roles played by actors like Humphrey Bogart, Sean Connery, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Newman, Roundtree played Shaft as a no-nonsense type who skirted the conventions of his profession. Roundtree rocked a signature black leather jacket over a black turtleneck and, unlike his clean-shaven Duke days, a macho mustache. Manhood personified, with a very black twist.
Where male leads such as Poitier and his contemporary Harry Belafonte assumed relatively tame relationships with their female counterparts, Roundtree’s Shaft leaned into the sexual revolution of the decade. Free of the restrictions of Poitier’s heyday, Roundtree swore on screen and, in the terminology of the era, “bedded” beautiful ladies. Brothers wanted to be like him; sistas wanted to be liked by him. The former model lent depth to a role that may have come off as comic book or superficial in the wrong hands. Roundtree’s flashing smile, well-timed wit, and believable bravado layered into unavoidable screen sex symbolism. He was critically well-received, earning a Golden Globe award as Most Promising Newcomer in 1972. But it was the sex that sold. When Roundtree visited McKinley High School in D.C., the reception was just short of a riot, but in an adoring way.
The box office success of “Shaft” sparked a sub-genre featuring Black male leads such as Ron O’Neal in 1972’s “Superfly” and former pro football players Jim Brown and Fred Williamson in many films. In each performance, the actors emulated the tough-talking, two-fisted example set by Roundtree.
Roundtree reprised his most famous role in 1972’s “Shaft’s Big Score” and 1973’s “Shaft in Africa.” Blaxploitation had its first franchise. After the “Shaft” trilogy, Roundtree was cast in 1974’s “Earthquake” and 1979’s “Escape To Athena,” as well as the latter year’s “Day of the Assassin” and “A Game For Vultures.” The popular star portrayed the enslaved Sam Bennett in the landmark made-for-TV mini-series “Roots” (1977) and was Dr. Daniel Reubens on the U.S. first Black cast daytime drama (soap opera) “Generations” (which ran on NBC from 1989 to 1991). That won him recognition as Best Supporting Actor in A Daytime Series from the fan magazine Soap Opera Digest.
With his work in “Shaft,” “Roots,” and “Generations,” Roundtree not only demonstrated his acting range, but was also featured in three important vehicles in entertainment history. Not bad for a nameless hair model.
In 1993, Roundtree was diagnosed with breast cancer, for which he became a male spokesperson and awareness advocate. His masculine screen image helped spread the word that not only women were subject to the disease. During the 1990s and 2000s, he appeared, with varying degrees of success, in TV shows such as “The Closer” and “Lincoln Heights.” He was often cast in fatherly roles or as accomplished professionals, tributes to his serious screen demeanor. He remained tied to his Blaxploitation roots, as in 1996’s “Original Gangstas,” in which he played a character named “Slick.” Williamson, Brown, and Pam Grier joined him in that cast.
In 2000, he reprised his role of John Shaft, uncle to Samuel L. Jackson, who played the detective lead role in a new version of “Shaft.” Roundtree also had recurring roles on “Desperate Housewives,” and more recently “Being Mary Jane” and “Family Reunion.”
To the younger generation of viewers, he was the consummate calm dad; to their parents, he was a screen badass. Roundtree will be remembered for introducing filmgoers to a new breed of Black man, both dangerous and Don Juan. For Black audiences in particular, Shaft was the first in-your-face screen figure they could embrace for his uncompromised maleness. He died of pancreatic cancer in his Southern California home and lives forever in celluloid and streamed video.