Richard Roundtree: The Life and Legacy of the First Black Action Hero

Richard Roundtree was an American actor and model who rose to fame in the 1970s as the star of the iconic blaxploitation film series Shaft. He is widely regarded as the first black action hero in Hollywood history, breaking racial barriers and stereotypes with his charismatic and confident performance as the cool and tough private detective John Shaft. He inspired generations of actors and filmmakers who followed him and influenced the culture and style of the black community and beyond.

How did Roundtree become interested in acting and modeling?

Richard Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942, in New Rochelle, New York. He was the son of John and Kathryn Roundtree, who were domestic workers. Richard Roundtree grew up in a poor and segregated neighborhood, where he faced discrimination and violence. He attended New Rochelle High School, where he excelled in sports, especially football. Richard Roundtree earned a scholarship to Southern Illinois University, where he played as a defensive back. He also joined the drama club, where he discovered his passion for acting. Richard Roundtree dropped out of college after two years to pursue a career in show business.

First Black Director on Broadway

Richard Roundtree moved to New York City, where he worked as a model for Ebony magazine and other publications. Richard Roundtree also appeared in commercials and stage plays, such as A Raisin in the Sun and The Great White Hope. He studied acting under Lloyd Richards, who later became the first black director on Broadway.

Breakthrough role of Richard Roundtree

In 1970, Roundtree auditioned for the role of John Shaft, a black private detective who operates in Harlem, New York. The role was originally written for a white actor, but the director Gordon Parks decided to cast a black actor instead, to appeal to the growing black audience and to reflect the social and political issues of the time. Roundtree impressed Parks with his charisma, physique, and attitude, and beat over 200 other actors for the part.

Richard Roundtree

The film Shaft was released in 1971, a TV series that ran from 1973 to 1974

The film Shaft was released in 1971, and became a huge success, both critically and commercially. It earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Original Song for Isaac Hayes’ theme song “Theme from Shaft”, which won the Oscar. It also spawned two sequels, Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), as well as a TV series that ran from 1973 to 1974.

Roundtree’s performance as Shaft

Roundtree’s performance as Shaft was praised by critics and audiences alike, who hailed him as a new kind of hero for the black community. He embodied the qualities of strength, courage, intelligence, sex appeal, and independence that were often denied to black characters in mainstream media. He also challenged the stereotypes of black masculinity that were prevalent at the time, such as being submissive, violent, or criminal. Richard Roundtree portrayed Shaft as a complex and nuanced character, who had his own moral code, sense of humor, and style.

Impact and influence

Roundtree’s portrayal of Shaft had a profound impact on the representation of African-American leading men in Hollywood. He opened the doors for more black actors to star in action films and other genres that were previously dominated by white actors. He also inspired many filmmakers who wanted to tell stories from a black perspective, such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Quentin Tarantino, and Ryan Coogler.

Roundtree’s Legacy in Black Cinema

Roundtree’s influence can be seen in many films that feature black action heroes or anti-heroes, such as Super Fly (1972), Foxy Brown (1974), Bad Boys (1995), Blade (1998), Training Day (2001), Django Unchained (2012), Black Panther (2018), and many more. He also influenced the culture and style of the black community and beyond, with his leather jacket, turtleneck sweater, sunglasses, afro hairstyle, and swagger.

Roundtree reprised his role as Shaft in two more films:

Shaft (2000), starred Samuel L. Jackson as his nephew; and Shaft (2019), starred Jessie Usher as his son. Both films paid tribute to Roundtree’s legacy as the original Shaft.

What were some of the other films and TV shows that Roundtree starred in?

Besides Shaft, Roundtree starred in or appeared in many other films and TV shows throughout his career. Some of his notable roles include:

Brickhouse Brown:

A former boxer who becomes a private investigator in Brickhouse Brown (1974), a TV pilot who was not picked up by any network.

David Lee:

A Vietnam veteran who joins a group of mercenaries in The Delta Force (1986), an action film starring Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin.

Dr. Daniel Reubens:

A psychiatrist helps a woman recover from a traumatic experience in An Eye for an Eye (1981), a thriller film starring Chuck Norris and Christopher Lee.

Eddie Maynard:

A former football player who becomes a sports agent in 1st & Ten (1984-1991), a comedy TV series about a fictional football team.

George Tyrell:

A police detective investigates a series of murders in Q (1982), a horror film about a giant flying serpent that terrorizes New York City.

Jack Spade:

A soldier who returns to his hometown to avenge his brother’s death in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), a comedy film that parodies blaxploitation films.

John Hawkins:

A CIA agent who teams up with a KGB agent to stop a nuclear threat in Codename: Kyril (1988), a spy TV miniseries based on a novel by John Trenhaile.

Judge Samuel Bennett:

A judge who presides over various cases in L.A. Law (1990-1994), a legal drama TV series that won several Emmy Awards.

Max Keller:

A martial arts expert who travels with an old Chinese man in search of his daughter in The Master (1984), an action-adventure TV series that was canceled after 13 episodes.

Mr. Jones:

A mysterious man who helps people in need in Seven (1979), an action film directed by Andy Sidaris.

Nick Freeman:

A lawyer who defends a woman accused of murder in Escape to Athena (1979), a war comedy film starring Roger Moore and Telly Savalas.

Paul Robeson:

A legendary singer, actor, and activist who fought for civil rights and social justice in Paul Robeson (1979), a biographical TV film that earned Roundtree an Emmy nomination.

Roy Moses:

A former slave who becomes a bounty hunter in Man Friday (1975), an adventure film based on Robinson Crusoe.

Sheriff Roy Childress:

A sheriff who tries to stop a killer shark in Deep Blue Sea (1999), a sci-fi horror film starring Samuel L. Jackson and LL Cool J.

Steven Thomas:

A journalist who investigates a conspiracy involving the president of the United States in Roots: The Next Generations (1979), a historical drama TV miniseries that was a sequel to Roots (1977).

Willy Dumas:

A pimp who becomes a politician in City Heat (1984), an action-comedy film starring Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds.

Personal life and challenges

Roundtree faced many personal struggles and achievements in his life, such as:

Richard Roundtree
  • Richard Roundtree married Mary Jane Grant in 1966, and they had three children: John James, Morgan, and Tayler. They divorced in 1984, after 18 years of marriage.
  • He married Karen M. Ciernia in 1986, and they had one daughter: Kelli. They divorced in 1998, after 12 years of marriage.
  • Richard Roundtree was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, which was rare for men. He underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy and became one of the first male celebrities to speak publicly about his condition. He also became an advocate for breast cancer awareness and research, especially for men and minorities.
  • He was arrested for possession of marijuana in 1996, but the charges were later dropped.
  • Richard Roundtree was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the American Black Film Festival in 2016, for his contributions to the entertainment industry.

Awards and honors:

Roundtree received many accolades and recognition for his work and contributions to the entertainment industry, such as:

  • He won the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actor for Shaft in 1972.
  • Richard Roundtree was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Special for Paul Robeson in 1979.
  • He was nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture for Shaft’s Big Score in 1973, Shaft in Africa in 1974, and Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored in 1996.
  • Richard Roundtree was nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for L.A. Law in 1992, 1993, and 1994.
  • He was nominated for the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor for Q in 1983.
  • Richard Roundtree was nominated for the Black Reel Award for Best Supporting Actor – Television Movie/Cable for Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First
  • Richard Roundtree was nominated for the Black Reel Award for Best Supporting Actor – Television Movie/Cable for Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1999), a TV film based on the memoirs of two sisters who lived through the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement.

How did Roundtree die and what was the reaction from his fans, peers, and family?

Richard Roundtree died on October 15, 2023, at the age of 81, from complications of a stroke. He passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles, surrounded by his loved ones. His death was announced by his agent and confirmed by his family.

Reaction from his fans, peers, and family

His fans, peers, and family mourned his loss and paid tribute to his life and career. They remembered him as a trailblazer, a legend, and a hero, who paved the way for many black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood. They also praised him for his courage, generosity, and kindness, as well as his talent and charisma.

Some of the celebrities who expressed their condolences and admiration for Roundtree included:

Samuel L. Jackson:

“Rest in Power, Richard Roundtree. You were the original Shaft, the first black action hero, and a mentor to me. Samuel taught me how to be cool, confident, and badass on screen. You will always be an inspiration and an icon. Thank you for everything.”

Spike Lee:

“Richard Roundtree was a pioneer, a visionary, and a friend. He changed the game with Shaft, and opened the doors for many of us who wanted to tell our stories. Richard Roundtree was also a great actor, who could do drama, comedy, action, and everything in between. He was one of a kind.”

Halle Berry:

“I’m heartbroken to hear about the passing of Richard Roundtree. He was a legend, a trailblazer, and a gentleman. Richard Roundtree was also one of my first crushes when I saw him as Shaft. He was so handsome, so sexy, so smooth. Richard Roundtree made me proud to be a black woman. I will miss him dearly.”

Ryan Coogler:

“Richard Roundtree was a hero to me and many others. He showed us what it meant to be a black action hero, with style, grace, and dignity. Richard Roundtree also showed us how to be a leader, an activist, and a survivor. He was a role model and an influence for Black Panther and many other films. Richard Roundtree was a legend.”

Kelli Roundtree:

“My father was my everything. Richard Roundtree was my hero, my teacher, my protector, my friend. He loved me unconditionally and supported me in everything I did. Richard Roundtree was also a loving grandfather to my children, who adored him. He was the best father anyone could ask for. I love you, Dad.”

What are some of the main takeaways from Roundtree’s life and career?

Richard Roundtree’s life and career were remarkable and influential in many ways. He was:

  • The first black action hero in Hollywood history
  • The star of the iconic blaxploitation film series Shaft
  • A trailblazer for black representation and empowerment in the entertainment industry
  • A versatile and talented actor who starred in or appeared in many films and TV shows across various genres
  • A courageous and resilient man who overcame many personal challenges
  • A generous and kind man who gave back to his community
  • A legend who inspired generations of actors and filmmakers

Richard Roundtree will always be remembered as Shaft, the man who made history with his role as John Shaft.


Here are some sources where readers can find more information about Richard Roundtree and his work:

  • Richard Roundtree – IMDb
  • Richard Roundtree – Wikipedia
  • Richard Roundtree on Being Shaft – The New York Times
  • Richard Roundtree on Surviving Breast Cancer – People
  • Richard Roundtree on His Legacy as Shaft – Variety