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Richard Roundtree, star of 'Shaft,' dies at 81

A man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and blazer sits on a white couch with his hand resting on the couch's arm and his other arm slung over the back of the couch.
Michael Loccisano
Getty Images
Richard Roundtree at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022.

Updated October 25, 2023 at 11:00 AM ET

Richard Roundtree, who died Tuesday at 81 in Los Angeles, was easily one of the coolest actors ever.

When he was cast as the Black private eye John Shaft in the 1971 film of the same name, the former college football player and model was relatively unknown. But he commanded the screen from the very first minutes of its opening sequence, said film scholar Novotny Lawrence.

"This guy, he comes up out of the subway, he's walking down the streets of New York City, and he's owning it," Lawrence said.

Shaft was a new kind of figure in film, unapologetically Black with swagger. He clapped back at white cops who said dumb things; he busted mobsters. "He gave Black people that icon in the '70s," Lawrence said.

Richard Roundtree pictured in August 1972.
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Getty Images
Richard Roundtree pictured in August 1972.

Shaft was a huge success and helped create an entire genre: Blaxploitation. Roundtree went on to star in a few Shaft sequels and had more than a 150 movie and TV credits, ranging from Roots to Desperate Housewives to Being Mary Jane.

He also went public with his 1993 diagnosis of breast cancer. In doing that, he "became a figure to demonstrate, 'Men, it's OK, Shaft had breast cancer," Lawrence said.

Roundtree died Tuesday from pancreatic cancer. He is survived by five children.

Actor Samuel L. Jackson, who starred in later Shaft films, suggested on social media that Roundtree was surely walking that unforgettable Shaft stride in Heaven — that swagger that left deep footprints in film and in American culture.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.