Richard Roundtree: I’m Just Talkin’ About Shaft (And We Can Dig It)

Richard Roundtree as film historys first black action hero, John Shaft

Richard Roundtree as film history's first black action hero, John Shaft

The golden age of film always had its share of heroes.  Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood.  These were the kind of men that young boys dreamed to grow up and be like.  These were guys that were tougher then any man they knew.  They fought hard, lived hard and loved hard.  They had guts, women and power.  They were men amongst men.  However, as different as these screen heroes were, one thing remained the same.  They were all white.  There wasn’t much racial diversity in the classic action films, and black kids didn’t have a hero they could relate to.  Sure, there was Sidney Poitier, but Poitier was more of a role model then an action hero.  Black kids needed a hero who was so tough that he would boot fuck Rod Steiger just for calling him “boy.”  They needed a hero who would rather mess with the “man’s” head instead of working with him. They needed a hero who was hotter then Bond and cooler then Bullit. They needed a hero who was a complicated man, and nobody would understand but his woman.  In 1971 movie audiences met that kind of man.  With the pulsating music of Issac Hayes as a backdrop actor Richard Roundtree, dressed in a yellow turtleneck and long black leather jacket, strutted out of a New York subway station.  With his head held high he was the kind of man who doesn’t wait for the traffic light.  He walks right into traffic, letting the drivers know that he owns the streets.  Strong, proud and black, John Shaft was a new kind of action hero.  He was the kind of hero that was so damn cool that even the white kids wanted to be just like him.  Yet, beyond the screen, Richard Roundtree would prove to be just as tough as his most famous character.  While most of his blaxsplotiation contemporaries would see their careers halt by the end of the 70s, Roundtree was versatile and talented enough to have a career that would span four decades.  However, Roundtree would also prove to be man enough to put the smack down on the most shocking enemy of all – breast cancer.  Come and discover the life and career of Hollywood’s first black action hero as





Richard Roundtree during his days as a male model for Ebony Magazine.

Richard Roundtree during his days as a male model for "Ebony Magazine."

Born in  1942 in New Rochelle, New York to a family of modest means, Richard Roundtree found his first success not as an actor, but on the football field.  As a star player on New Rochelle Highs undefeated 1960 football squad, Roundtree received a sports scholarship to Southern Illinois University.  However, while at the university the attractive 6’3 youth came upon the unique opportunity to become a fashion model for Ebony Magazine.  Signing up, Roundtree began appearing regularly in Ebony, which lead to him gaining the opportunity to tour as part of Ebony’s Fashion Fair, bringing him to 79 US cities in 90 days.  As a result of that experience, Roundtree leant that he loved the attention that he received in front of a crowd, and had a natural charisma for an audience.  Upon graduation, Roundtree returned to New York and decided that he wanted to remain in that spotlight and started acting lessons.  Within time Roundtree became a member of New York’s Negro Ensemble Company in which he gained his first early acting success by playing boxer Jack Johnson in an off Broadway production of The Great White Hope.

Roundtree would make his move from the stage to film in 1970 via the candid camera antics of Allen Funt.  Funt was producing a candid camera project that was going to challenge the racial and sexual attitudes of common American people.  Deemed far too racy for television, the project was slated for the big screen.  Titled What Do You Say to a Naked Lady, Funt wrote a scenario where a racially mixed couple would appear at a New York train station, and Funt’s people would be on the scene in order to record the reactions of people waiting for their train.  Richard Roundtree was cast as the male partner in the mixed couple.  However, little acting was required.  Roundtree just had to show up with a white girl and make it convincing to everybody around them that they were an item.  For a stud like Roundtree this wasn’t going to be much of a problem.  While What Do You Say to a Naked Lady was an interesting snapshot into the sexual attitudes of 1970’s America, the film didn’t become very popular.  However, success was around the corner for Richard Roundtree.  MGM Studios had a new project in the works and life for Richard Roundtree was about to change forever.

Shaft (1971)

"Shaft" (1971)

While rival studio Warner Brothers was working on Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood, MGM Studios was looking for a similar type of hard boiled cop film to compete with what they knew was going to be a huge hit.  Originally MGM planned to make another generic copy cat  film featuring another hard boiled white police detective.  However, after the independent success of early blaxsploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, studio executives realized that there was a giant, untapped black movie audience.  What was needed to make MGM’s film unique, and to stand out against Dirty Harry as being distinctly different, was to put a black man in the lead of the film.  It had never been done before, and with the political tide turning away from Dr. Martin Luther King’s passive resistance of the 1960’s to the far more vocal black power movement of the Black Panthers in the 1970’s, the time was right for an ass kicking, tough talking black action hero.  MGM got word that New York Times editor Ernest Tidyman had a novel about a black detective named John Shaft about to be published.  Without the book even hitting the bookstands yet MGM bought the rights to the story.  Director and photographer Gordon Parks was brought in to direct the film, and funk musician Issac Hayes was hired to create the soundtrack.  Now all they had to do was find the right kind of man to bring Shaft to life.

Richard Roundtree on the set of Shaft (1971)

Richard Roundtree on the set of "Shaft" (1971)

Despite his lack of film credits, Richard Roundtree beat out future blaxsploitation star Ron “Superfly” O’Neal, as well as Issac Hayes who, at one time, was being considered for the role on top of his soundtrack credit.  With his cool confidence and good looks Richard Roundtree fit exactly what MGM wanted.  He was tough enough to unapologetically throw a thug out a window to his death, but had a smile and a laugh for the people he liked.  He could shoot guns, lay women and kick ass.  He was John Shaft – one bad mother…(shut your mouth).  Shaft was released in July 1971 and received a thunderous response.  A box office triumph, it became a favorite of both black and white audiences alike, and even won the Oscar for Issac Hayes’ score.  Most of all, it put Richard Roundtree on the pop culture map.  His portrayal of John Shaft became one of the most important roles of the 1970’s, opening the flood gate for the popularity of  blaxsploitation films, and giving black kids a positive type of hero to look up to.  Sure, John Shaft wasn’t perfect.  He did use violence as the means to an end, and he might have been a bit misogynistic.  However, Richard Roundtree made Shaft a man to be respected and to be looked up to.  He was not a thug.  He was not a pusher.  He was well groomed, well dressed, intelligent, educated, and tough as hell.  He was a positive role model that black kids could strive to grow up to be like, and in an industry that had a history of creating negative black stereotypes, that made Roundtree’s portrayal of John Shaft truely groundbreaking.

Richard Roundtree reprised the role of Shaft in 2000 in an attempted relaunch of the franchise starring Samuel L. Jackson.

Richard Roundtree reprised the role of John Shaft in 2000 in an attempted relaunch of the franchise starring Samuel L. Jackson.

The role would continue to follow Roundtree throughout the rest of his career.  Roundtree was back in 1972 in Shaft’s Big Score, and 1973 in Shaft in Africa, before bringing Shaft to television in a series of TV movies between 1973 and 1974.  Roundtree would even return to the role in 2000, nearly thirty years after the character’s debut, in a relaunch of the Shaft movie series starring Samuel L. Jackson as the nephew of the original John Shaft.  Originally planned to be a remake, Jackson, who has publicly stated that Richard Roundtree was one of his childhood heroes, was unwilling to take the role away from Roundtree.  Refusing to be in the film unless Richard Roundtree reprised his original role as well, Roundtree’s Shaft was written into the script as a major supporting character.  Even in 2000 Roundtree’s presence in Shaft dominated the screen, robbing Jackson of the attention.  Although much older and with a few more pounds on him, Roundtree was as cool as ever and tough as nails, reminding film audiences that there is only one true Shaft.

Richard Roundtree as stunt driver Miles Quade in Earthquake (1974

Richard Roundtree as stunt driver Miles Quade in "Earthquake" (1974

However, while he’ll always be remembered as John Shaft, Richard Roundtree’s career was only beginning when the first film came out in 1971.  Although his Shaft projects kept him busy throughout the early 70’s, Roundtree was cast as the star of a British political thriller called Embassy in 1972 as well as the 1973 blaxsploitation western Charley One Eye in 1973.  Yet, by 1974 Roundtree was getting tired of playing action heroes and feared typecasting.  Feeling that the blaxsploitation market was limiting to black actors Roundtree sought to not get trapped and began to drift away from the blaxsploitation industry, looking for different type of roles away from the action genre.  1974 saw him in the role of Evil Knevel inspired stunt cyclist Miles Quade in the classic disaster film Earthquake, and he even turned to comedy in 1975’s Man Friday opposite of Peter O’Toole, which told the story of Robinson Crusoe through the eyes of his companion Friday, who was played by Roundtree.  Roundtree also broke stereotype by playing slave Sam Bennett in 1977’s groundbreaking TV miniseries Roots gaining him critical acclaim, while shocking his fans to see him in a role which he was not empowered.

In an attempt to stay out of blaxploitation films, Richard Roundtree was demoted from star to co-star before the 1970's ended.

However, as Roundtree drifted further and further away from the blaxsploitation industry, starring roles began to get more and sparse.  As the 1970’s came to a close Roundtree found himself playing second fiddle to the traditional white action hero.  Playing the token black guy in Roger Moore’s Great Escape rip off Escape from Athena, as well as partners to Richard Harris in Game for Vultures, Chuck Conners in Day of the Assassin and Burt Reynolds in City Heat, Roundtree was slowly losing his grip on Hollywood.  Thus, like most working actors looking to stay afloat in the entertainment industry, Roundtree turned his sights to episodic television starting with a guest appearance on a two part episode of The Love Boat in 1980.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Richard Roundtree would make countless appearances on TV series, including having regular roles on series as diverse as Outlaws, A Different World, Beauty and the Beast and Roc.  Meanwhile Roundtree continued to work in film, although his roles were getting much smaller, and the production values far more questionable.  Maniac Cop, George of the Jungle and Steel were hardly of the same caliber of Shaft.  As Roundtree turned more and more towards television and B movies, Hollywood had seemed to turn his back on Richard Roundtree.

In 1993 Richard Roundtree was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Although rare in men, Roundtree was even man enough to kick breat cancers ass.

In 1993 Richard Roundtree was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although rare in men, Roundtree was even tough enough to kick breast cancer's ass.

Yet Richard Roundtree’s biggest and most unexpected challenge was to come.  In 1993 Roundtree discovered a lump in his right breast.  The diagnosis was breast cancer.  Yes.  You read that right.  Male icon Richard Roundtree had breast cancer.  Although rare in men, hundred of men are diagnosed with breast cancer every year.  While the numbers are small compared to the tens of thousands of women who die from the fatal disease yearly, men are not free from the tragic grip of fatal disease.  However, Richard Roundtree was going to prove that he was man enough to battle even breast cancer and entered chemotherapy.  Yet, fearing that casting directors would not hire him in fear that he was too ill to work, Roundtree kept his illness secret from his friends, family and public.  As a result, despite undergoing chemotherapy, Richard Roundtree made six films and a guest appearance on Bonanza:The Return.  Some may call it crazy, but others would call it the ultimate example of true toughness.  Richard Roundtree was kicking cancer’s ass without giving up an acting opportunity.  It wasn’t until Roundtree got a clean bill of health in 2001 that he let the public know about his battle with breast cancer when he started working with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation as its’ spokesman for male breast cancer awareness.  Roundtree began to speak on the media circuit about his own battle in an attempt to raise awareness of the rare condition.  Roundtree wanted men everywhere to know that if he could get breast cancer, any man could.

Richard Roundtree attempted to make a TV comeback in 1997 via FOXs 413 Hope Street.

Richard Roundtree attempted to make a TV comeback in 1997 via FOX's "413 Hope Street."

With a new lease on life after the end of his chemotherapy, Roundtree finally left the B films that he was making behind and in 1995 appeared in the role of District Attorney Martin Talbot in the hit film Se7en with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.  Although a small role, it reminded casting directors that Richard Roundtree was out there, and put him back on the map.  His exposure in Se7en gave Richard Roundtree the opportunity for his own TV series. Titled 413 Hope Street, Roundtree played the role of Mr. Phil Thomas, a New York business man who opens a community center in a tough section of New York in order to try to help clean up the streets after his son is murdered by a gang over a pair of shoes.  Critics loved the gritty drama series with heart, but audiences virtually ignored it and 413 Hope Street was cancelled after one season.  Yet, the sense of dignity that Roundtree brought to his character won him a NCCAP Image Award for his role as Phil Thomas.  Furthermore, his role on 413 Hope Street reestablished Roundtree as dramatic TV actor.

Since 2000 Richard Roundtree has continued to be a fixture on our television sets.  Although usually playing small roles or making returning guests appearances on programs such as Soul Food, Alias, Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes and Desperate Housewives, Roundtree has been featured in modern cult movie hits Brick and Speed Racer, and currently has another four films in production.  However, the real testament to Richard Roundtree’s success is that since 1970 he has never stopped working in films or television.  Sure, the productions may not have always been great, but unlike most of his blaxsplotiation contemporaries who faded after the industry fell apart at the end of the 70’s, Roundtree’s risky jump out of the industry paid off.  He has become one of the most active and respected character actors in Hollywood.

Yet, Roundtree’s true mark on the pop culture journey will always be for offering black kids a hero all their own.  Roundtree will always be remembered as Shaft – the bad cat who kicked ass as films’ first major black action hero.  Richard Roundtree reset the bar of what it was to be a man.  I mean,  he will forever be remembered as the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks.  I don’t know about you but that’s a mighty high bar to compete with.

  1. Val’s avatar

    I loved Richard Roundtree in his first Shaft film and never forgot him. I’m British and now 66, living in Australia. Didn’t really like Samuel L Jackson as he was not as good looking as Richard. Wherever you are now Richard……love you babe!

  2. Anthony Salemi’s avatar

    I’m a white guy who loved Richard Roundtree, and own all three Shaft films. There never was a Detective portrayed in the movies that was as dynamic and compelling as John Shaft. He was so charismatic that he burned a hole on the big screen. Our introduction to this character came in the early 70s, was long overdue and epically historical. Great Pop culture characters never die, they become immortal!


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