How Did Richard Roundtree Die? 'Shaft' Star Dies Aged 81 after Brief Battle with Pancreatic Cancer

Roundtree, born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1942, was a standout high school football player before enrolling at Southern Illinois University.

Actor Richard Roundtree, who became synonymous with cinematic cool through his iconic portrayal of Shaft in the film series and its follow-ups, has died at the age of 81. Roundtree died on Tuesday afternoon following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, as reported by Deadline. He was surrounded by his family at the time of his death.

Richard Roundtree had a career that spanned over five decades, encompassing a wide range of roles. His career included diverse work, such as an early appearance on "As the World Turns" in 1956, and more recently, a prominent role in Season 2 of Ava DuVernay's series "Cherish the Day" on OWN last year.

Death of an Icon

Richard Roundtree
Richard Roundtree X

Patrick McMinn, who had been Roundtree's manager since 1987, confirmed the actor's death. "Richard's work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men in film," McMinn said in his statement. "The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated."

In 2019, Roundtree revisited his iconic role as John Shaft, with Samuel L. Jackson portraying his character's son. He first starred as the detective John Shaft in the 1971 film "Shaft," directed by Gordon Parks, a photographer and composer who transitioned into filmmaking. The film was notable for its classic soundtrack, which was recorded by Isaac Hayes.

"Shaft" initially received mixed reviews, with some critics objecting to the film's use of harsh language and occasional brutal violence. Others were critical of the movie for not providing a more dignified character for Roundtree and other Black actors.

Richard Roundtree
Richard Roundtree X

In response to one critical report published in The New York Times in 1971, Gordon Parks, the director, addressed these concerns. The author of the essay had criticized "Shaft" for focusing on a private detective character similar to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, rather than presenting a more high-minded drama akin to Jack Nicholson's "Five Easy Pieces."

"I don't think the choice for Black people is limited to either Five Easy Pieces or Stepin Fetchit," Parks wrote in defense, referring to the actor who was infamous for his racist portrayals of lazy Black men.

Richard Roundtree
Richard Roundtree X

"Shaft" might have divided critics, but it resonated strongly with audiences. The film earned an impressive $12 million at the box office (equivalent to over $373 million when adjusted for inflation), all while having a relatively modest budget of just $500,000.

Roundtree's portrayal in "Shaft" elevated him to stardom, and he even received a nomination for the Golden Globe award for New Star of the Year for his role in the 1971 film.

The success of the first film prompted a swift sequel, "Shaft's Big Score!" which was released the following year. This sequel also gained commercial success and is even regarded more favorably by some modern critics than the original. The sequel's production began even before the first Shaft film had wrapped, as MGM executives correctly predicted its commercial potential.

A Career Worth Remembering

Roundtree continued to play the role of Shaft in 1973's "Shaft In Africa," directed by John Guillermin. Unfortunately, this film was a commercial and critical disappointment. Its lackluster performance was partly attributed to the growing competition from other Blaxploitation films inspired by the original 1971 "Shaft."

Richard Roundtree
Richard Roundtree in Shaft in Africa X

Even the James Bond franchise, to which the later iterations of Shaft were compared, adopted elements of the controversial Blaxploitation genre with the release of "Live and Let Die" in 1973, which hit theaters shortly after "Shaft In Africa."

After the failure of "Shaft In Africa," MGM attempted to revive the series with a television adaptation, structured similarly to "Columbo." The character appeared in several TV movies, but this series was canceled after just one season.

Roundtree criticized its perceived pro-police stance, which contrasted with the edgier tone of the original theatrical films.

Decades later, Roundtree returned to the role in 2000's "Shaft," a sequel directed by John Singleton, with Samuel L. Jackson playing Shaft's nephew, later revealed to be his son. Roundtree's final appearance as the iconic private eye was in the 2019 film "Shaft," which was a sequel to the 2000 version.

In this installment, Samuel L. Jackson reprised his role as Shaft, with Jessie T. Usher portraying a third generation of the Shaft family. However, the 2019 sequel was met with negative reviews from critics and did not perform well at the box office.

Roundtree, born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1942, was a standout high school football player before enrolling at Southern Illinois University. However, he left the university in 1963 with the intention of pursuing a modeling career.

Following Bill Cosby's advice, he relocated to New York City and transitioned into acting, making his debut in stage productions in the late 1960s. His breakthrough came with his first major film role as the titular character in "Shaft," which reshaped his career and established him as a sought-after figure in the film and television industry. He had previously played a minor role in the comedy "What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?"

Richard Roundtree
Richard Roundtree X

After his initial success, Roundtree portrayed the lead character in the 1975 film "Man Friday," opposite Peter O'Toole, who played Robinson Crusoe. In 1981, he appeared in the Korean War drama "Inchon" alongside Laurence Olivier and Ben Gazzara.

He also played a private investigator alongside Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood in the 1984 film "City Heat."

His filmography includes other classic and popular movies such as "Earthquake" (1974), "Body Of Influence" (1993), "Maniac Cop" (1988), "Se7en" (1995), "George Of The Jungle" (1997), and "Brick" (2005). One of his more recent roles was in the 2019 film "What Men Want," which was commercially successful despite receiving poor reviews.