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Remembering Hollywood icon Richard Roundtree

Tanya Hart
Remembering Hollywood icon Richard Roundtree

Richard Roundtree, who died on October 24 at 81 from pancreatic cancer, was a cultural icon for more than six decades.

Richard Arnold Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942, in New Rochelle, New York, the son of John and Kathryn (Watkins) Roundtree. His parents were identified in the 1940 census as a butler and a cook in the same household.

Their son played on New Rochelle High School’s undefeated football team and, after graduating in 1961, attended Southern Illinois University on a football scholarship. But he dropped out of college in 1963 when Eunice Johnson scouted him to work as a model at Ebony Fashion Fair‘s traveling shows. Roundtree then began modeling for Ebony and Jet, Chicago-based magazines that her husband John H. Johnson owned, in ads for hair care products and cigarettes.

In 1967, Roundtree joined the Negro Ensemble Company in New York. He then went on to play his first theatrical role, portraying heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in the company’s production of “The Great White Hope.” Roundtree made his first big-screen appearance, playing a minor role in “What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?,” a 1970 hidden-camera style reality film directed by “Candid Camera” creator Allen Funt. 

Roundtree’s timing was impeccable, just like his style and persona. By the 1960s, the golden age of Hollywood had met an unceremonious end. The glitz and glamour that were popularized from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s ended when many of the stars of the era retired or died.

It was clear that Hollywood needed some “new blood” to survive. The Civil Rights Movement was also playing out in cinema with film auteurs like Melvin Van Peebles. When Van Peebles’ movie “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song” made $15 million in less than six months, Hollywood studio chiefs quickly put into place what would become the blaxploitation era of movie-making, with films that were criticized by some for glorifying violence and the street life.

“Shaft,” released in 1971, was among the first of the so-called blaxploitation movies and made Roundtree a star at 29. As the first Black action hero, he redefined African American masculinity in the movies. 

The character John Shaft is his own man, a private detective who jaywalks confidently through moving Times Square traffic in a long flowing brown leather coat with the collar turned up. He keeps a pearl-handled revolver in the fridge in his Greenwich Village duplex apartment. As Roundtree observed in a 1972 article in the New York Times, he is “a Black man who is for once a winner.”

In addition to catapulting Roundtree to fame, the movie drew attention to its theme song, written and performed by Isaac Hayes, which won the 1972 Academy Award for best original song. Director Gordon Parks’ gritty urban cinematography served as punctuation.

Roundtree’s name remained associated with the Shaft franchise of the 1970s, but he was just as busy during the next four decades. He was an amoral private detective in a five-episode story arc of “Desperate Housewives” (2004); appeared in 60 episodes of the soap opera “Generations” (1990); and played Booker T. Washington in the 1999 television movie “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.” He was a big city district attorney in the film “Seven” (1995) and a strong-willed Mississippi iceman in “Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored” (1996).

After the year 2000, when he was pushing 60, he made appearances in more than 25 TV series. He was a cast member of or had recurring roles in nine of them, including “Heroes,” “Being Mary Jane” and “Family Reunion.” He was seen in a half-dozen television movies and more than 20 feature films.

Roundtree had many leading roles in his life but none were as important to him as shining a much-needed spotlight on men with breast cancer, having been diagnosed with the disease in 1993.

Back in 2000, the legendary actor talked about his treatment for the disease and why men should not be afraid to speak up about their breast cancer diagnoses.

“I’m not embarrassed,” he told People magazine at the time. “Breast cancer is unusual in men, yes, but you have to be a man to get through this, damn right.”

The Hollywood star, who is survived by his five children from his two marriages, underwent a modified mastectomy that removed his left breast from the nipple to the underarm. He then had six months of chemotherapy, which left him so sick he struggled to get out of bed. He became an advocate for breast cancer treatment for the rest of his life.

Upon hearing about Roundtree’s death, there has been an outpouring of love from the entertainment community.

No one has said it better than his “Shaft” co-star Samuel L. Jackson, who posted on X,  “I love you brother, I see you walking down the middle of main street in heaven  and Issac’s conducting your song, coat blowin’ in wind!! Angels whispering that cat Shaft is a bad mutha, shutcho mouth!! But I’m talkin’ bout Shaft!! Then we can dig it!!!!!!!!”. Rest in peace Richard Arnold Roundtree, you represented all of us extremely well!”

Richard Roundtree
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