Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here


Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

‘Shaft’ Star Richard Roundtree Dies at 81

The influential actor leaves a legacy that won’t cop out

spinner image richard roundtree at the icon mann's 4th annual power 50 dinner in beverly hill california
Photo by Earl Gibson III/WireImage

Richard Roundtree, the actor who played private detective John Shaft in an influential series of films beginning in 1971, died Oct. 24 of pancreatic cancer at home surrounded by his family. His manager, Patrick McMinn, confirmed his death in a statement.

Shaft’s theme song, by Isaac Hayes, celebrates “the man that would risk his neck for his brother man … the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about.” When Roundtree was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and had a double mastectomy, he did not cop out about the danger, risking his macho public image by publicizing his illness and the fact that one percent of the disease’s victims are men who could benefit by his example of early detection and treatment. “A flight attendant ran up to me and said, ‘You saved my husband's life,’ ” he told ABC News.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership

Join AARP for $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP The Magazine

Join Now

He also did plenty to improve the lives of moviemakers and audiences. “Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men,” said McMinn in the statement. “The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated.”

Director Gordon Parks’ 1971 original Shaft gave the gumshoe genre an original jolt and served as a central influence on Quentin Tarantino’s career. Roundtree called it “a good, old Saturday afternoon shoot ’em up.”

Thanks to Shaft, a titanic Black director got his first hit, and theme composer Hayes became the third black Oscar winner ever, also winning two Grammys. Hayes said the song was “like the shot heard round the world.” It made Hollywood safer for Black actors, directors, screenwriters and musicians, and enriched the culture at large.

spinner image richard roundtree hanging onto a helicopter in a scene from the cbs television series shaft
Richard Roundtree stars as John Shaft in the CBS television series "Shaft."
CBS via Getty Images

“People come up and ask me if we really need this image of Shaft the Black superman. Hell, yes,” Parks told critic Roger Ebert. “Ghetto kids were coming downtown to see their hero, Shaft, and here was a Black man on the screen they didn’t have to be ashamed of. ... We need movies about the history of our people, yes, but we need heroic fantasies about our people, too. We all need a little James Bond now and then.”

Born in New Rochelle, New York, to a garbageman father and a mother who worked as a maid and a nurse, he started out as a model and moved to New York on the advice of Bill Cosby, joining the Negro Ensemble Theater. Besides the Shaft films, he starred in Roots, Se7en, What Men Want, Man Friday with Peter O’Toole and Magnum PI.

Samuel L. Jackson, 74, who took over the Shaft role in 2000, costarring with Roundtree as his uncle (and who would’ve been less likely to become a No. 1 box office star without Roundtree’s success), wrote on Instagram, “SHAFT, as we know it is & will always be his Creation. His passing leaves a deep hole not only in my heart, but I’m sure a lotta y’all’s, too.”

“Love you Brother, I see you walking down the Middle of Main Street in Heaven & Issac’s conducting your song coat blowin’ in wind!!”

Contributing: Associated Press

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?