Richard Roundtree, a trailblazing black actor who played the private eye John Shaft in the “Shaft” films of the 1970s and also took on dramatic roles dealing with race relations in America, died on Tuesday aged 81, the Hollywood Reporter said, citing his manager.
Roundtree died at his home in Los Angeles of pancreatic cancer, the Reporter said, citing his manager, Patrick McMinn. Roundtree’s representatives did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for confirmation.
“Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men in film. The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated,” McMinn said in a statement, according to Variety, another show business trade publication.
Roundtree shot to fame with the 1971 Blaxploitation movie “Shaft” about a private detective in the Harlem section of New York, and he reprised the role in a number of sequels and a short-lived network TV series.
The rugged and streetwise character, who wore flashy leather jackets and who was accompanied by a catchy theme song from Isaac Hayes, helped define cool for a Black leading man and also gained acceptance from white audiences.
Roundtree also had a role in the groundbreaking ABC television slavery drama “Roots” in 1977 and other prominent projects of the era, playing motorcycle daredevil Miles in 1974’s “Earthquake”.
Among his more poignant films was 1996’s “Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored”, the story of a tight-knit Black community confronting the racism of post-war Mississippi.
He also played opposite Peter O’Toole’s Robinson Crusoe in “Man Friday” in 1975 and alongside Laurence Olivier’s depiction of General Douglas MacArthur in 1981’s “Inchon”.
Roundtree worked regularly until the end, with 159 acting credits to his name plus three upcoming projects yet to be released, according to IMDB.com.
He was married twice and is survived by four daughters – Nicole, Tayler, Morgan and Kelli Roundtree – and his son, James, Variety said.