'Shaft's Richard Roundtree.

'Shaft's Richard Roundtree.


  • Actor Richard Roundtree, best remembered for playing detective John Shaft, has died.
  • Roundtree was 81 and had been suffering from pancreatic cancer.
  • Co-stars and those influenced by him have paid tribute to his memorable work.

Actor Richard Roundtree, who will be forever linked to cult movie detective John Shaft from 1971's 'Shaft,' has died. He was 81.

Roundtree, a famous breast cancer survivor, was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died surrounded by family at his bedside.

His agency, and manager Patrick McMinn, released a statement about his death:

“Artists & Representatives Agency mourns the loss of our friend and client Richard Roundtree. His trailblazing career changed the face of entertainment around the globe and his enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come. Our hearts are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”

“Trailblazing” is as good a term as any for Roundtree, who portrayed the first Black private detective on screen. Yet while he’ll most closely be identified with his Blaxploitation career and particularly the iconic Shaft character, the actor enjoyed a long run of work on screens big and small.



"The mob wanted Harlem back. They got Shaft...up to here."
R1 hr 40 minJun 25th, 1971

Early life

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in 1971's 'Shaft.'

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in 1971's 'Shaft.' Photo: MGM.

Richard Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, New York, played football for Southern Illinois University and did some modeling before the acting bug bit.

He was drawn to theater and joined New York’s acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company, then starred as Jack Johnson in ‘The Great White Hope’ off-Broadway before the role of John Shaft presented itself –– a lucky break secured after Sidney Poitier refused to screen test for the role, leading director Gordon Parks to cast Roundtree instead.

The role of John Shaft, the “hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt” private detective, changed Roundtree’s life and the course of Hollywood by introducing him as an unapologetic protagonist and subterranean fighter of crime.

He went on to play the role in the sequels ‘Shaft’s Big Score!’ and ‘Shaft in Africa’ as well as the short-lived 1973 ‘Shaft’ TV series.

The actor’s many film credits include 1981’s ‘Inchon’, 'City Heat' (1984) as well as ‘Se7en’, ‘George of the Jungle’, ‘Body of Influence’, ‘Amityville: A New Generation’, and ‘What Men Want’. He was last seen in Paul Weitz’s comedy ‘Moving On’.

Related Article: Suzanne Somers of ‘Three’s Company’ and ‘Step By Step’ Dies At Age 76

TV roles

Leslie Uggams and Rochard Roundtree in 'Roots.'

(L to R) Leslie Uggams and Richard Roundtree in 'Roots.' Photo: Warner Bros Television.

On the small screen, Roundtree had one of his best opportunities in the breakthrough miniseries ‘Roots’, playing a handsome, well-groomed carriage driver with whom Kizzy (Leslie Uggams) falls in love until she sees that when the master (George Hamilton) calls, Roundtree grovels.

Roundtree starred in the miniseries ‘AD’ and had a supporting role in the series ‘Outlaws’ (CBS, 1986-1987) as Ice McAdams. He was part of the cast of the short-lived multi-racial NBC daytime drama ‘Generations,’ playing a doctor forced to live in hiding for 15 years for a murder he did not commit. He also appeared in a number of sitcoms and other series, including ‘Being Mary Jane’.

Tributes from co-stars

'Shaft's Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher and Richard Roundtree.

(L to R) 'Shaft's Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher and Richard Roundtree.

Roundtree reprised his most famous role in the 2000 John Singleton movie ‘Shaft’, starring Samuel L. Jackson, and the 2019 Tim Story-directed sequel.



"Still the man, any questions?"
R1 hr 39 minJun 15th, 2000
Showtimes & Tickets

Jackson took to Instagram to pay tribute:



"More Shaft than you can handle."
R1 hr 51 minJun 14th, 2019
Showtimes & Tickets

Gabrielle Union, who worked with Roundtree in ‘Being Mary Jane’, tweeted her own tribute:


Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in 1971's 'Shaft.'

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in 1971's 'Shaft.' Photo: MGM.

Richard Roundtree Movies:

Buy Richard Roundtree Movies On Amazon

To watch our exclusive interviews with Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher and Richard Roundtree about 2019's 'Shaft,' please click on the video player below.