My first memory of Richard Roundtree was seeing him in the TV series Shaft sometime in 1974 on Granada TV here in the UK. I thought, even in this sanitised version (I knew of no other at that point), he was the coolest thing on TV. I then realised there were some paperback novels on the character, spotting Shaft Has a Ball on the shelves of my local WH Smith. Being only thirteen at the time, I was surprised at how much more adult and harder-edged Ernest Tidyman’s books were compared to the series. It wasn’t until I caught up with the movie Shaft on UK TV in 1976, that I truly understood the extent of Richard Roundtree’s “coolness”. Here was Ernest Tidyman’s hero truly brought to life, accompanied by Isaac Hayes’ iconic theme and guided by Gordon Parks’ expert direction.
Although there are some common traits between Roundtree and Shaft, the actor has always been keen to point out that he is a very different man from the part he made his own. Richard Roundtree spoke in considered tones and he was a confident, yet humble, man who insisted on giving all the cudos to Gordon Parks for his performance in Shaft. Roundtree though was a far better actor than he ever gave himself credit for. You only need to look at his diverse performances in Charley-One-Eye (1973), Man Friday (1975), and Roots (1977) for evidence of this. Unfortunately, his career would never again scale the heights he achieved through the Shaft films, but he remained one of the busiest actors in Hollywood right up to his death.
RICHARD ARNOLD ROUNDTREE was born in New Rochelle, New York State on Friday 9 July 1942. His father, John Roundtree, was a chauffeur, and his mother, Kathryn, was a housekeeper, and they kept a strictly religious home. Roundtree commented in a 1972 interview, “My dad has always been a deeply religious man, and for years it was a ritual to go to Sunday School.” His father would later become a Pentecostal Minister. “They slaved to get me an education”, he told Ebony. He was a popular student at high school, where he was noted for his athleticism and sense of style. He cared little for the educational environment and managed to get a football scholarship at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He chose to major in Special Education, a subject his aunt had specialised in, and his father felt would provide a good income for his son.
An encounter with a racist shopkeeper on his first day was one of the reasons Roundtree eventually dropped out of college. He recalled, “I went into this store to get change for a five-dollar bill. Before I could finish asking for it the proprietor said, ‘we didn’t have any.’ I really thought he misunderstood until he told me point blank to ‘get the hell out’ of his store.”
Roundtree soon realised he did not have what it took to become a pro footballer as he told Jet magazine: “I found that one of the linemen, Sam Silas, who stood six-four and weighed somewhere between 240-250 pounds could outrun me.” Instead, he cut his acting teeth by getting involved in campus stage productions such as A Raisin in the Sun, Zoo Story and The Connection. “All the good-looking girls were aspiring to be actresses,” he noted in Ebony, “Since I was aspiring for girls, I joined up.” It was also here he met Mary Jane Grant, and the couple married on 27 November 1963 and would go on to have two children, Kelli Elaine and Nicole Suzan.
The Roundtree family suffered a tragedy during the July 4th weekend in 1964, when Richard’s brother died in a swimming accident. “…. the whole family just disintegrated,” Roundtree remembered sadly, “Soon afterwards my parents got divorced.” Roundtree remained close to his mother and sister, but his relationship with his father drifted for a while. Whilst his mother and sister would later delight in Roundtree’s later success with Shaft, his father wrestled with his ideals and ultimately declined to view the film. Roundtree respected his father’s decision and reflected that by this point they were much closer than they had ever been.
After dropping out of college in the middle of his sophomore year, Roundtree took a janitor’s job at New Rochelle’s City Hall for a short period. He was encouraged by a colleague to seek other opportunities and Roundtree moved to New York and took on a series of jobs – one of which was selling suits at Barney’s department store on 17th Street. Here he was spotted by Tom Ford, who ran a modelling agency. Ford suggested Roundtree could get work as a male model. Roundtree remembered, “…he would periodically come in and he’d say, ‘You ought to be a model.’ And being the mercenary that I was at that point, I said, ‘How much does it pay?’ ‘40 dollars an hour.’ ‘What?’ So I went out and I got a portfolio, put it together, and I think it was Black be—not Black beauty, Grace DelMarco Modeling Agency on 42nd Street. And I got with them. What Tom failed to tell me that 40 dollars an hour wasn’t a 40-hour week.”
Roundtree’s portfolio led him into modelling for Sears, Montgomery Ward Catalogue and Johnson Publications. He then successfully auditioned for the Ebony Fashion Fair with its theme ‘Fashion Rebellion ‘67’. The Fair took in 79 cities over 90 days, closing in Santa Barbara, California, on 11 December 1967. “A lot of the places were whistle stops,” recalled Roundtree, “but it was out of sight and I had a ball. Up to that point I had been a basically shy person and the Ebony Fashion Fair brought me out of myself.” The schedule was gruelling, but on the L.A. leg of the tour Eager to boost his income to support his family, Roundtree looked toward acting. When he met actor Bill Cosby and I-Spy producer Mort Fine at a party Cosby was throwing for the Fair, they advised him to go back to New York for acting training with the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Supported by friend and future manager Bill Cherry and at the suggestion of the AADA, Roundtree joined the Negro Ensemble Company training programme, for which Cherry was undertaking publicity work. This caused problems with Roundtree’s home life and led to a separation from his family as the certainty of an income through modelling was replaced by the uncertainty of the acting profession. Encouraged by the Company co-founder, actor Robert Hooks, he appeared in productions including Kongi’s Harvest (1968), Mau Mau Room (1969) and Man, Better Man (1969) where he began to attract attention. Roundtree reflected on what he learned with the NEC, “It made me draw on my experiences as a black child, young man and man in a totally black situation as opposed to doing the same thing in a white theatrical group in a totally white situation. The main difference is the dialogue: the nuances are missed in the white situation. I also liked it because it let white people see a part of black life other than what they read about in the newspapers or saw as they rode through Harlem on the train going back to their castles in suburbia. And it made me more aware of how many great black writers we had that just weren’t getting exposure on the Great White Way.”
Roundtree supplemented his acting education by appearing in commercials as well as in industrial movies. In 1970, he made a brief and low-key feature film debut with a bit part in What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? The film was made by Candid Camera’s Allen Funt, the premise taken from that TV show in trying to gauge public reaction to staged situations. Roundtree’s short scene involves him passionately kissing a white woman – Donna Whitfield – in a bus terminal. Another bit part in Floyd L. Peterson’s 1969 satiric fantasy Parachute to Paradise, shot in New York and starring Roger Davis, went unnoticed as the film was never released. Although this was not the highest-profile start to a career, it would be just another year before Roundtree hit the heights of stardom.
It was a stage performance in the eight-week run at the Society Hill Playhouse in Philadelphia of The Great White Hope – the story of boxer Jack Johnson (renamed Jack Jefferson), the first black heavyweight champion – which got him good notices, if not a great deal of money at $60 per week. The production was initially scheduled to run from November to 21 December, but was extended to 16 January 1971. During this production, Roundtree was one of 200 actors who were being considered for the role of John Shaft in Gordon Parks’ adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel Shaft. Roundtree attended the auditions but held out little hope. He was as surprised as anyone when Parks offered him the role ahead of better-known actors such as Jim Brown, Ron O’Neal, and Raymond St. Jacques. Roundtree was tall at six feet and one inch and athletically muscular at two hundred and five pounds. Parks had certainly seen a raw talent he could mould and negotiated with the producers of The Great White Hope to release Roundtree a week earlier. However, Roundtree entered the production with more than a little trepidation as he stated in a later interview: “I was scared to death… I didn’t really begin to feel comfortable with the character until three-fourths of the way through the film.”
Roundtree’s performance on screen belied his lack of confidence. Guided by Parks, and aided by Isaac hayes’ iconic theme, Roundtree produced a muscular and assured interpretation that helped make Shaft a smash hit at the box office and confirmed Roundtree as a star. The actor’s good looks and machismo made him ideal fodder for the day’s cultural magazines and he was to appear on the covers of Newsweek, Ebony, and Jet. He also recorded an album of songs under the title The Man from Shaft. Roundtree had sung on stage when he was younger and had always been keen to explore his musical side further. Having discussed his thoughts on making an album with his manager Bill Cherry, a meeting was arranged with soul singer Eugene McDaniels who agreed to produce the album and hired some excellent session players.
He followed Shaft with two sequels – Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa – each time commanding a higher fee. The actor felt he peaked with the Shaft character in the third film, commenting: “It was ahead of its time, because we were discovering present-day slavery and abuse of children and prostitution — a lot of stuff that is going on today. I think that was the film where I really found my footing.”
Roundtree had reportedly initially signed up for seven Shaft movies, but the series halted after three and moved to TV. Roundtree was offered big money to continue in the role and the seven TV Movies he made for CBS earned him more money than the three theatrical movies had done. By now Roundtree had become as synonymous with the role of John Shaft as Sean Connery had with James Bond. He noted, “The identification with the Shaft character is great to a point, but there still has to be a sense of self – my-self. The whole thing can mushroom and I can lose me, and I don’t want to do that ‘cause I ain’t too bad a cat myself…If I’m not careful the character’s going to swallow me up.”
It was the common fear of being typecast that led Roundtree to push himself into areas far removed from Shaft’s urban crime setting. He took the lead in the spy thriller Embassy (1972), shot in the autumn of 1971, as well as the western Charley One-Eye (1973), which was filmed in Almeria in Spain during the early summer of 1972 for David Frost’s Paradine Productions. In addition to playing John Shaft on TV, Roundtree also made the TV movie pilot, Firehouse (1973) – which dealt with issues of racism in the fire service. It was a powerful and well-received performance. Firehouse was later developed as a weekly series, but without Roundtree who was already signed up for the Shaft TV series.
In December 1973, Roundtree was divorced from Mary Jane, the couple had been separated since 6 December 1968. Since the couple’s separation, Roundtree had embarked on a series of relationships, including singer Freda Payne and former tennis professional turned actress Cathy Lee Crosby – who had guested in The Capricorn Murders episode of the Shaft TV series. Roundtree and Crosby stayed together for four years and were regular guests on the pro-am tennis circuit. They even formed Crosstree Productions together, with the intention of making an international caper film together, but this would not bear fruit.
When the Shaft TV series was cancelled, Roundtree, who regretted committing to the series, became disillusioned. “The nature of this business is ups and downs and I’ve had my share,” he recalled. “My rough period was roughly from 1974-1976. It was a time of not working. A time of thinking and trying to get the pieces back together. I went from the highs of Shaft to utter frustration during this time. It was like night and day emotionally. I wanted for something to happen, something good, but it never did.”
Roundtree took to camping and fishing to help balance his state of mind. His need to distance himself from the Shaft character burned on until his later years, by which time he had reconciled himself to a career in character roles. He would eventually briefly return as an older and wiser Shaft in John Singleton’s Shaft in 2000 and then again in Tim Story’s Shaft in 2019.
Roundtree had some success with a role in the blockbuster Earthquake (1974), in which he featured as a stunt bike rider – a black Evel Knievel – who gets caught up in disastrous events in L.A. A young Victoria Principal plays his girlfriend. He followed this in 1975 with the title role of Man Friday – a low-key adaptation with a new twist of Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe – opposite Peter O’Toole’s Crusoe. Roundtree was particularly fond of this film and the way it stretched him as an actor. The same year he starred with Robert Shaw and Barbara Hershey in the lame caper thriller Diamonds. “I wish I could forget that one,” he told Roger Ebert. “I made it for the money, and that’s exactly what I got out of it.”
As the Blaxploitation cult faded through the mid-1970s, so did Roundtree’s star – he had turned down many roles to avoid being typecast as a black action hero. By doing so, as the decade played out, he increasingly restricted his capacity for starring roles and moved toward supporting and character roles in movies such as Escape to Athena and Game for Vultures (both 1979). He also occasionally appeared on TV – the most memorable of his appearances was as Sam Bennett in the ground-breaking 1977 adaptation of Alex Haley’s tale of black slavery, Roots. He also returned to the stage taking on challenging roles in musicals Purlie Victorious in March and April 1977 in Salt Lake City and Guys and Dolls in St. Louis in July 1977.
On 30 August 1980, Roundtree married for the second time to blonde actress and model Karen M. Cernia. “We met about a year and four months ago,” he told Jet at the time, “and it [the relationship] works very nicely. I’ve got to be very happy because I am marrying her. After 10 years, I’ve found somebody I want to marry.” The couple had two daughters – Tayler born in 1988 and Morgan Elizabeth in 1990.
During the 1980s, Roundtree’s professional career seemed to be on the wane descending into appearances in routine made-for-video fodder and guesting in low-key TV series. There were, however, some notable standouts during this period such as the cult sci-fi creature feature Q – The Winged Serpent (1982) and the Clint Eastwood/Burt Reynolds noir parody City Heat (1984). Roundtree also made the TV series Outlaws, a sci-fi western which ran for 11 episodes in 1986/7.
This path continued through the early 1990s until Roundtree was rocked when diagnosed with breast cancer. He undertook chemotherapy, had a mastectomy and was declared free of cancer in 2000 after seven years of treatment. He had also reconnected with the mainstream big-screen audience with a supporting role in David Fincher’s well-received dark crime thriller Se7en (1995), which starred Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. The role itself was a minor one but served to remind the audience of his presence and charisma. This led to him being offered better-quality roles going forward. One such role was in the film Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored (1995), a film concerning racial segregation in the Deep South (Isaac Hayes also had a role).
In 1996, Roundtree re-united with fellow Blaxploitation stars of the early 1970s, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier and Ron O’Neal for Original Gangstas having previously appeared in the similar One Down, Two to Go in 1982. What should have been a fun, affectionate nod to a faded genre bombed at the box office, so Roundtree returned to TV. He made two more series before the decade was out: Buddies (1996) a short-lived comedy concerning two men – one black and one white – going into business together in Chicago; 413 Hope St. (1997-8), set around an inner-city crisis centre, which ran for just 10 episodes; and Rescue 77 (1999) a drama based around the emergency services, which ran for only eight episodes.
It was John Singleton’s desire to return John Shaft to the big screen in his sequel/update Shaft (2000) that brought Roundtree back to the attention of cinemagoers. He played an older, wiser, John Shaft who acts as a mentor to his NYPD detective nephew of the same name (played by Samuel L. Jackson). A further sequel would eventually surface in 2019, directed by Tim Story, and again be simply titled Shaft. Here, it is established that Roundtree’s Shaft is in reality the father of Jackson’s Shaft. The story focuses on the relationship between Jackson’s Shaft and his more politically correct FBI analyst son, played by Jessie T. Usher. Roundtree makes a late appearance in time for the finale.
The actor had become busier than ever following Singleton’s Shaft – mainly taking on character roles. Notable amongst his work were five episodes of the TV series Desperate Housewives (2005-6), the teen noir movie Brick (2005), five episodes of Heroes (2006-7) and a regular slot in the 2009-11 TV series Diary of a Single Mom. Alongside these, he had memorable guest spots in the hit series Alias and Lincoln Heights. He won over new fans for his recurring roles in the TV series Being Mary Jane (2013-9) and Family Reunion (2019-21).
Upon entering his eighties, Roundtree remained as busy as ever. Looking back at the film that made him a star Roundtree generously told Empire, “I was very fortunate in having the guidance of Gordon Parks, and the marriage of the music with the film was an incredible marriage, with Isaac Hayes’ theme song and score. Timing is everything, and that character put me on the map – that movie is in the library of congress – which is amazing when you think about how many films are released annually, and Shaft is in the Library of Congress. That’s huge! And it’s a tribute to Gordon Parks and the way he brought that character to life.”
On 24 October 2023, the sad news emerged of Roundtree’s death following a short battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 81. For many, Roundtree remains the epitome of cool. A humble man and an underrated actor, he was a huge inspiration and helped pave the way into Hollywood for many black actors and technicians.
Roundtree is survived by his four daughters – Kelli, Nicole, Taylor, Morgan – and his son John.
Note: The above includes extracts from my book The World of Shaft (McFarland, 2015)
 Rosen, Marjorie. The Richard Roundtree Story: Shaft and Me. Photoplay Film Monthly. November 1972.
 From Model to Movie Star: Richard Roundtree stars in Harlem detective story Shaft. Ebony. June 1971.
 Meet Richard Roundtree: He’s About to Become a Star. The Pittsburgh Courier. 23 January 1971.
 Higgins, Chester. ‘Shaft’ spotlights newest black stars. Jet. 8 July 1971.
 From Model to Movie Star: Richard Roundtree stars in Harlem detective story Shaft. Ebony. June 1971.
 Rosen, Marjorie. The Richard Roundtree Story: Shaft and Me. Photoplay Film Monthly. November 1972.
 Maggio, John. Richard Roundtree Interview – A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks. Kunhardt Film Foundation. 14 November 2019.
 Roundtree’s modelling assignments also took him to Europe, and he experienced Paris, London and Milan for the first time.
 Shaft: Special Publicity Material. ed. Walter Burrell. Russwurm Feature Syndicate, Inc. January 1971.
 The Negro Ensemble Company, designed to provide an outlet for black theatrical talent, was the brainchild of actor Robert Hooks and writer Douglas Turner Ward. Money was raised from the Ford Foundation and a home was established at the St. Marks Playhouse in 1967. The Company had a constant early struggle with funding and objection to some of the political content of its productions. Its production of “The River Niger,” a moving tale of the struggles of a black family in Harlem, was transferred to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway on 27 March 1973 for a run of 162 performances, ensuring the NEC’s future. As well as Richard Roundtree, the NEC alumni include John Amos, Roscoe Lee Brown, Rosalind Cash, Antonio Fargas, Lawrence Fishburne, Danny Glover, Louis Gossett, Jr., Moses Gunn, Julius Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Cleavon Little, Gwenn Mitchell, Ron O’Neal and Denzel Washington.
 Klemesrud, Judy. Shaft – ‘A Black Man Who is for Once a Winner’. The New York Times. 12 March 1972.
 Roundtree worked on around a dozen commercials for TV in total, including, Atlantic Richfield and Duke hair products and filmed seven different ones in the last four months of 1970 for Colgate, McDonalds, Hamilton watches, Hudson furniture (voiceover) Wilkinson Sword blades, Hiedelberg beer, Lido cigarettes.
 Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American films and television. Simon & Schuster. 1988.
 The full track list for the July 1972 release of The Man from Shaft LP (MGM. SE4836) was: ‘Gets Hard Sometimes (Male Version)’, ‘Peace in the Morning’, ‘I’m Here’, ‘Street Brother’, ‘Man from Shaft’, ‘Tree of Life’, ‘Lovin’’, ‘The Letter’. The album was produced by singer Eugene McDaniels and the songs were arranged by top session musician Leon Pendarvis. ‘Man from Shaft was released as a single (MGM. MV10696) and promotional 45s were issued to radio DJs. The following year, Roundtree released the single ‘Goodnight My Love’ backed with ‘Pledging My Love’ (MGM. K14659). The single was produced by Mike Curb and big band specialist Don Costa, who also arranged the songs. A second single, ‘The Magic Moment’ backed with ‘So Much in Love’ (Artists of America. AOA-115), followed in 1976 – again produced by Mike Curb.
 Beifuss, John. ‘Shaft’ star & more at the Epitome of Soul Awards. Memphis Commercial Appeal. 8 November 2017.
 Burrell, Walter Price. Richard Roundtree: A Year After Shaft. Black Stars, July 1972.
 Roundtree, Richard. There’s More to Me Than Shaft. Black Stars. January 1979.
 Ebert, Roger. Richard Roundtree: He’s learning to live with success. Chicago Sun-Times. 10 December 1975.
 Roundtree Set to Marry ‘Lovely Blonde Actress.’ Jet. 11 September 1980.
 Richard Roundtree: Catching up with the original Shaft to discuss career choices new and old. EmpireOnline. www.empireonline.com. (no longer available)