He was “hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt,” but the star of Shaft died on Tuesday.
According to Deadline, Richard Roundtree, the actor who helmed the titular role in the 1971 classic Blaxploitation film, was surrounded by family when he died.
Roundtree passed at the age of 81, after losing a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.
The actor blasted into Hollywood playing detective John Shaft, a role that earned him a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year.
The passing of Richard Roundtree is a real blow. Loved being around him, learning, working, laughing & feeling Blessed to have an idol live up to who I expected him to be!! Thanks for making us feel REAL GOOD about ourselves!
Rest In Power‼️‼️‼️👊🏾👊🏾👊🏾🤎🤎 pic.twitter.com/yQq6SXyn9K
— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) October 25, 2023
His character was considered the first Black action hero ever seen on the silver screen, and audiences came out in droves to see his performance.
Shaft was made for a mere $500,000, but scored big at the box office with a $12 million haul, which is equivalent to $373 million in today’s economy.
MGM accurately predicted the film’s potential box office power, and green lit the sequel before director Gordon Parks was finished shooting the original.
The Hayes family would like to share our sadness with the loss of Richard Roundtree, a true icon.
His legendary role as SHAFT, transcended the screen, defining an era.
— Isaac Hayes (@isaachayes) October 25, 2023
Shaft’s Big Score! was was also commercially successful when it premiered the following year, and only earned $2 million less than its predecessor.
However, the formula failed in 1973’s Shaft In Africa, which only made half of its $2 million budget back.
Working with Richard Roundtree was a dream. Getting to hang with him & our Being Mary Jane family was always a good ass time with the best stories & laughs. 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… pic.twitter.com/1N8fHVDsA6
— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) October 25, 2023
The film was considered a both a commercial and critical failure, due to competing with other Blaxploitation films, a genre it helped spawn.
The franchise’s third installment also had an unfortunate release date one week before Roger Moore’s popular James Bond installment, 1973’s Live And Let Die, which grossed $161.8 million world wide.
Roundtree’s John Shaft was relegated to the small screen the same year, which saw MGM attempt to revive the franchise with a series that consisted of seven made for TV movies.
Despite the franchise falling out of favor with viewers, it was rebooted in 2000, with Samuel L. Jackson starring in the titular role as Shaft’s nephew and Roundtree stepping back from the action as his uncle, who was later revealed to be his father.
He took his final turn in the role in 2019’s Shaft, which featured Jessie T. Usher as his grandson, but audiences were seemingly done with the franchise, and the last installment fell $14 million short of its $35 million budget.
After Roundtree’s death, Jackson wrote: “The passing of Richard Roundtree is a real blow. Loved being around him, learning, working, laughing & feeling Blessed to have an idol live up to who I expected him to be!! Thanks for making us feel REAL GOOD about ourselves!”
— Holly Robinson Peete 💃🏾♍️ (@hollyrpeete) October 25, 2023
Outside of his role as Shaft, Roundtree appeared beside Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner in 1974 disaster hit Earthquake, supported Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood in 1984’s City Heat, and appeared in Brad Pitt-Morgan Freeman serial killer thriller Se7en in 1995.
Roundtree also did stints in popular television series including CHiPs, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., Murder, She Wrote, 21 Jump Street, Beverly Hills, 90210, The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire, and Desperate Housewives, amongst many others.
God bless all associated with the Great & Legendary Richard Roundtree "Shaft"
He was truly 1 of my childhood heroes. He was Him!!!!! pic.twitter.com/qsgNnpFizi
— COACH PRIME (@DeionSanders) October 25, 2023
Though Roundtree ultimately succumbed to pancreatic cancer, it wasn’t the first cancer he was diagnosed with.
The actor fell ill with male breast cancer in 1993 and had a double mastectomy, which he kept quiet about for years.
“I was in the closet, so to speak, until after the fifth year when I was cancer free,” he told ABC News in 2009.
Sad to hear of the passing of Richard Roundtree.. He was fabulous as John Shaft at a time when there were few leading Black men in film. He put the sexy and cool in being a detective. Rest well. Condolences to his family. 🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/9HNJHS6yUz
— Loni Love (@LoniLove) October 25, 2023
He told the outlet that he found a lump on his chest while filming a movie in Costa Rica and got it checked out when he returned to Los Angeles, because “It just didn’t feel right.”
“The doctor told me, ‘You have breast cancer,'” he recalled. “I heard the cancer part first — it was only later that I heard the breast part. I couldn’t believe it.”
He didn’t publicly admit to having the disease until he was at a celebrity golf tournament that was raising money for a mobile breast cancer diagnostic unit.
“I just got up and told everybody that I was a breast cancer survivor. The room was totally silent,” Roundtree said about his announcement. “I think it dawned on people that men can be affected by this, too.”