Richard Roundtree, black action hero who played Shaft, dies aged 81

The actor's family said he died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Los Angeles

Actor Richard Roundtree was heralded as the first black action hero for his starring role in the 1971 hit, Shaft. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Richard Roundtree, a trailblazing black actor who played private investigator John Shaft in the Shaft films of the 1970s and also took on dramatic roles dealing with race relations in America, died on Tuesday aged 81.

Roundtree died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Los Angeles, the Hollywood Reporter said, citing his manager Patrick McMinn. Roundtree's representatives did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.

“Richard's work and career served as a turning point for African-American leading men in film. The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated,” McMinn said, according to Variety, another show business trade publication.

Roundtree shot to fame with the 1971 Blaxploitation movie Shaft about a private detective in the Harlem section of New York. He reprised the role in a number of sequels and a short-lived network TV series.

The rugged and streetwise character, who wore flashy leather jackets and who was accompanied by a catchy theme song from Isaac Hayes, helped define cool as a black leading man and also gained acceptance from white audiences.

Roundtree also had a role in the groundbreaking ABC television slavery drama Roots in 1977 and other prominent projects of the era, playing motorcycle daredevil Miles in 1974's Earthquake.

Among his more poignant films was 1996's Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored, the story a tight-knit black community confronting the racism of post-war Mississippi.

He also played opposite Peter O'Toole's Robinson Crusoe in Man Friday in 1975 and alongside Laurence Olivier's depiction of General Douglas MacArthur in 1981's Inchon.

Roundtree worked regularly until the end, with 159 acting credits to his name plus three projects yet to be released, according to

He was married twice and is survived by four daughters – Nicole, Tayler, Morgan and Kelli Roundtree – and son James, Variety said.

Updated: October 25, 2023, 4:58 AM