June 15, 2024

Actor Richard Roundtree was more than ‘Shaft’

3 min read

by Herb Boyd

A mere posting on these pages that the actor Richard Roundtree had joined the ancestors is not sufficient, even though this column tends to give notice to those less famous. Something more seems necessary for such a distinguished artist, whose performance as Shaft in Gordon Parks’ film by the same name gave both of them eternal recognition and honor.

Born July 9, 1942, in New Rochelle, NY, to John and Kathryn Roundtree,  he attended New Rochelle High School where he was a member of the school’s nationally ranked football team. A talented athlete, he earned a scholarship to attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, but he answered a more compelling calling to the world of modeling and acting and dropped out of school.

During an interview with HistoryMakers in 2018, Roundtree recalled that day in 1963 when Eunice Johnson of Ebony magazine hired him to model for the Ebony Fashion Fair. Four years later, he was a member of NEC (Negro Ensemble Company) where he played the lead role as the great boxer Jack Johnson in “The Great White Hope.” But his real breakthrough occurred in 1971 when Parks chose him to star as groundbreaking private detective John Shaft. The film “Shaft” was pivotal for him and for propelling the development of the so-called Blaxploitation era in which author Nelson George cited “Roundtree’s trend-setting wardrobe…established several recurring Blaxploitation themes: Black nationalists are depicted as inept if well-meaning supporting characters; young women of all colors are sexual pawns or plaything; white and Black mobsters are in constant collaboration and conflict.”

Two subsequent sequels followed the wide popularity of the film: “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972) and “Shaft in Africa” (1973). After the success of the Shaft trilogy, Roundtree was awarded the Golden Globe Most Promising Newcomer Award in 1972. According to HistoryMakers, Roundtree went on to appear in several films throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including “Earthquake” (1974), “Escape to Athena” (1979), “Game for Vultures” (1979), and “Day of the Assassin” (1979).    

In 1977, he appeared in the ABC television miniseries “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” Roundtree reprised the role of John Shaft in the 2000 reboot, starring Samuel L. Jackson as his character’s nephew, directed by John Singleton. Roundtree has also appeared in several television series including “Soul Food,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Heroes,” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” In 2013, he became a series regular on the television show “Being Mary Jane,” appearing alongside actresses Gabrielle Union and Margaret Avery. Roundtree also appeared in multiple episodes of FOX’s television series “Star” in 2017 and 2018.

In 1993, Roundtree was diagnosed with a rare form of male breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. The illness and his prominence brought more awareness about the disease and more exposure and advocacy for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Know Your Score Men’s Health Initiative. He received the MTV Lifetime Achievement Award for his role in “Shaft,” as well as Image Award nominations in 1971 and 1998, a Peabody Award, and a Black Theater Alliance Award Lifetime Achievement Award.

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