RICHARD ROUNDTREE (Photo courtesy Kyle Kaplan/Warner Brothers/Everett Collection).
Model, breast cancer advocate and bad azz trailblazing actor dead at 81
Black actors, in particular, credit Richard Roundtree with paving the way for opportunities to star or appear in today’s action movies.
I grew up during the Blaxploitation Era, so to say I just loved Richard Rountree as a teenager is an understatement.
He was the first Black action figure, with his appearance in the 1971 “Shaft,” as a private detective. This statement doesn’t take away from other Black actors like Jim Kelly, Melvin Van Peebles, Jim Brown and others, who had films around the same time.
But Shaft was the man who could walk through New York and Harlem, giving the middle finger to white cabbies, with no concerns, even when he’s ambushed by goons who are out to get him. He brushed off New York City cops, Mafia types and other burly, brash Black gangsters.
The film’s director, Gordon Parks, reportedly said at the time: “I want you to walk across 42nd Street, and I want you to own it.”
As in the original “Shaft” film, the cigar-puffing, Stetson hat wearing, swagalicious Moses Gunn, who plays Bumpy, hires Shaft to find his daughter who has been kidnapped. Shaft goes about his job, looking so dapper and fine in his turtleneck sweaters and leather coat, literally kickin azz and not bothering to take names.
It was this raucous representation of a Black man that ushered in the Blaxploitation Era, as I recall. This character wasn’t at all submissive. “But I’m talking about Shaft, then we can dig it.”
In my young teenage mind, Shaft (Roundtree) was “da man who would risk his neck for his brother man.” And in perfecting this role as anathema to gangsters, he opened up Hollywood for other Black male leads.
In this first “Shaft” film, (later came “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa”) Issac Hayes cooked up an Oscar-winning soundtrack to boot. The pulsating beats of the late Hayes open the film and all eyes are on the screen. (Check out the sensual Ellie’s Love Theme, which no teenager should have been privy to).
“Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about..Shaft..Right on.”
Roundtree started off modeling for Ebony, and there was even a short-lived television program in the early 70s.
Wikipedia describes “Shaft” as a 1971 American Blaxploitation crime action thriller film directed by Gordon Parks and an adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel of the same name.
Before making “Shaft,” Roundtree joined the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, in its 1967 production of “The Great White Hope.”
In 2000, “Shaft” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It was cited for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Shortly thereafter, “Shaft” was named one of the best films ever made by the New York Times.
Other remakes would come to the big screen decades later, most notably in 2019, featuring Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft and Roundtree playing his uncle.
As tributes came from all over lamenting the actor’s death, Jackson posted on social media: “Richard Roundtree, The Prototype, The Best To Ever Do It!!,” Jackson wrote. “SHAFT, as we know it is & will always be His Creation!! His passing leaves a deep hole not only in my heart, but I’m sure a lotta y’all’s, too. Love you Brother, I see you walking down the Middle of Main Street in Heaven & Issac’s Conducting your song,” he added, citing a line from the late Hayes’ Oscar-winning song “Theme from Shaft.”
Roundtree had television and streaming network roles in the 1977 “Roots” and “Being Mary Jane,” where he played Gabrielle Union’s father. She wrote on social media: “Working with Mr. Roundtree was a dream. He was ALWAYS the coolest man in the room with the BEST vibes & ppl would literally run over to come see him. He was simply the best & we all loved him.” He worked with Tia Mowry and Loretta Devine in “Family Reunion, where he played a grandfather.
In his latest movie with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, a nearly 80-year-old Roundtree, plays the character Ralph.
It’s so poignant that he died at age 81 reportedly of pancreatic cancer near the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month on October 24, in that in 1993 he was diagnosed with male breast cancer.
At that time, there were rare discussions about men and breast cancer and few resources available for men with the disease. Roundtree decided to speak publicly about his experience to raise awareness and help other men facing the same diagnosis.
Reportedly, Roundtree underwent surgery and treatment for his breast cancer, and fortunately had been cancer free for many years.
The website BlackHistory.com reported that in 1996, Roundtree testified before Congress about the need for more funding for breast cancer research, particularly for male breast cancer, which is still relatively rare and underfunded compared to breast cancer in women.
He told ABCNews in 2007: “The doctor told me, ‘You have breast cancer,'” recalls Roundtree. “I heard the cancer part first — it was only later that I heard the breast part. I couldn’t believe it.”
Roundtree will be missed for his regal presence in dozens of film and television roles.
Roundtree was reportedly married and divorced twice. He is survived by two daughters, Kelli and Nicole, from his first marriage, and two daughters, Tayler and Morgan, and a son, John, from his second.