, the ultra-cool actor who opened the door to a generation of black filmmakers and performers with his portrayal of private investigator John Shaft, “the cat who can’t get away when danger threatens,” died Tuesday. He was 81.
Roundtree died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Los Angeles, his manager Patrick McMinn said The Hollywood Reporter.
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In 1993, he was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a double mastectomy. “Breast cancer is not gender-specific,” he said four years later. “And men have this cavalier attitude towards health issues. I’ve gotten such positive feedback because I’ve been talking about it for a few years now. I am a survivor.”
Roundtree also portrayed the title character Peter O’Toole as Robinson Crusoe in Man FridayHe starred as an Army sergeant alongside Laurence Olivier as General Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War drama Inchon (1981) and played Burt Reynolds’ partner in a private detective business City heat (1984).
About the groundbreaking 1977 ABC miniseries root, Roundtree took on the key role of coachman Sam Bennett, who falls in love with Leslie Uggams’ Kizzy. (He said George Hamilton had apologized to him for years for the scene in which Hamilton’s character, a slave owner, had to whip Bennett.)
Roundtree once revealed that he was most proud of his work Once upon a time…when we were colored (1996) about a black family from Mississippi confronting inequality in the South. His father, who had become a Pentecostal priest, had refused to watch any of his son’s films until this film.
Called the first black action hero, Roundtree became one of the faces of the 1970s blaxploitation movement when he starred in the role of the cunning New York detective Wave (1971), directed by Gordon Parks. Aside from a brief twist in the 1970 comedy What do you say to a naked lady?It was his first film appearance.
Based on a 1970 novel by Ernest Tidyman, Wave The original plan was for a white actor to play the lead role. It was Parks who insisted on casting Roundtree, a former model, after spotting him at a cattle call.
“Gordon Parks is Shaft,” Roundtree told Radio station WBUR in a 2019 interview. “The way he moved, the way he spoke. He is the most cultured and gentle person I have ever met. And to be in his presence and be a part of something that he put his stamp on is magical to me.”
Wave was one of only three MGM films in 1971 to make a profit.
“Wave “It’s not a great movie, but it’s very entertaining,” said Vincent Canby wrote in his review for The New York Times. “Shaft is the type of man who can drink five fingers of scotch without choking or his eyes watering. He moves through Whitey’s world with complete ease and confidence, but never loses his independence or awareness of where his life truly stands.
“When a friend of his – a white gay bartender – rather hopefully caresses him, Shaft is not threatened, just amused. He has no identity issues, so he can afford to be cheerful in circumstances that would plunge a minor hero into a personality crisis, which in a film usually ends in a shootout or at least a bar fight.”
“I had so many people from all over the country – and actually all over the world – come to me and say what this film meant to them back in 1971,” he said. “It is difficult.”
Roundtree came back Shaft’s big success! (1972) and Bay in Africa (1973) and played the detective in a 1973 CBS series that only lasted seven episodes. When the franchise was renewed in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson as the famous Shamus’ nephew, Roundtree appeared as his uncle. Him and Jackson came back in 2019 for another film.
He was born on July 9, 1942 in New Rochelle, New York. His father, John, worked as a garbage collector and caterer, and his mother, Kathryn, was a maid and nurse. He attended New Rochelle High School and played for their undefeated football team.
After graduating in 1961, Roundtree attended Southern Illinois University and received a football scholarship as a reserve player. However, he left university in 1963 to pursue a career as a model. He was hired by Eunice W. Johnson to appear at the Ebony Fashion Fair and posed for print advertisements for Salem cigarettes and Duke hair products.
In 1967, Roundtree followed Bill Cosby’s advice and moved to New York to hone his acting skills. He joined the Negro Ensemble Company and worked with greats such as Esther Rolle, Arthur French, Robert Hooks, Rosalind Cash, Denise Nicholas and Moses Gunn (later, among others). Wave co-star).
He was in a theater in Philadelphia playing the boxer in a production of The great white hope when he heard about it Wave Audition.
Thanks to Parks, the cultural impact of the first film went far beyond its mere crime premise. Shaft was one of the first black characters on the big screen to be his own man and kowtow to no one, no matter the color of his skin.
“People come up to me and ask me if we really need this picture of Shaft, the black Superman. Hell yeah, there’s a place for John Shaft,” Parks said told Roger Ebert in a 1972 interview. “I was overwhelmed by our world premiere on Broadway. Suddenly I was the perpetrator of a hero. Ghetto kids came downtown to see their hero Shaft, and here was a black man on the screen they didn’t have to be ashamed of. Here they had a chance to spend their $3 on something they wanted to see. Yes, we need films about the history of our people, but we also need heroic fantasies about our people. We all need a little James Bond every now and then.”
Wave‘s success was fueled by the theme tune, written and sung by Issac Hayes; He performed it at the 1972 Academy Awards and won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Roundtree revisited his blaxploitation roots by appearing in Original gangstas (1996), a homage to the genre that also starred Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Pam Grier.
His other functions included earthquake (1974), Escape to Athena (1979), Counterforce (1986), Crazy cop (1988), Seven (1995), George from the jungle (1997), Corky Romano (2001), brick (2005), Speed racer (2008) and What men want (2019).
On television he played private investigator “Ice” McAdams on CBS. Outlawsdisgraced doctor Daniel Reubens on the NBC daytime soap opera generations, a fire chief on the WB Network Rescue 77the cold-blooded Mr. Shaw on ABC Desperate Housewives and the cryptic Charles Deveaux on NBC Heroes.
His small screen resume also included recurring roles in Soul food, Roc, Chicago fire, be Mary Jane And family meeting.
Roundtree was married to Mary Jane Grant from 1963 to 1973 and to Karen Michelle Ciernia from 1980 to 1998. Survivors include his daughters, Kelli, Nicole, Tayler and Morgan, and a son, John.
Roundtree wasn’t always cool with being pigeonholed throughout his career, but he eventually accepted it, he said.
His father “visited me in LA and I complained about it [how] “The Shaft character shows up 24/7,” he recalls, “and he says, ‘Boy, let me tell you something.’ Many people leave this earth without knowing anything. Keep your mouth shut.'”
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