Richard Roundtree, ‘Shaft’ star, dead at 81

Richard Roundtree, best known for playing the titular character in the groundbreaking Shaft franchise, passed away Tuesday, October 24, at age 81. His longtime manager, Patrick McMinn, confirmed to ABC News Roundtree died following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. He said Roundtree’s family was at his bedside.

Roundtree’s career spanned five decades, but it was his portrayal of Detective John Shaft in the 1971 action thriller that established him as the first Black action hero. He went on to star in the sequels Shaft’s Big Score! and the short-lived 1973 TV series Shaft in Africa.

Roundtree would reprise the role in the 2000 John Singleton movie Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson, and the 2019 Tim Story-directed sequel.

Roundtree’s many other film credits included 1981’s Inchon, opposite Laurence Olivier and Ben Gazzara, and 1984’s City Heat, opposite Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, as well as Se7en, George of the Jungle, Body of Influence, Amityville: A New Generation and What Men Want. His last big-screen appearance was in the comedy Moving On in 2022.

His television credits included playing slave Sam Bennett in the acclaimed 1977 miniseries Roots. Other credits included the series Generations, 413 Hope St., Alias, Diary of a Single Mom, Buddies, Desperate Housewives, Soul Food, Being Mary Jane and Family Reunion, as well season 2 of Ava DuVernay’s OWN series Cherish the Day in 2022.

Roundtree’s talent agency, Artists & Representatives Agency, released a statement reflecting on his acting legacy, noting, “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.”

Roundtree’s Being Mary Jane co-star Gabrielle Union reacted to his death on X, formerly Twitter, writing, “Working with Richard 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.”

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