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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Richard Roundtree, the trailblazing actor who starred as the ultra-smooth private detective in several “Shaft” films beginning in the early 1970s, has died. He was 81.
Roundtree’s longtime manager, Patrick McMinn, said the actor had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday. He was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and underwent a double mastectomy.
“Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men,” McMinn said. “The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated.”
Roundtree, who was born in New Rochelle, New York, was considered as the first Black action hero and became one of the leading actors in the blaxploitation genre through his New York street smart John Shaft character in the Gordon Parks-directed film in 1971. At age 28, it was Roundtree’s first feature film appearance after starting his career as a model.
Roundtree’s “Shaft” was part of a change in how Black movies were viewed in Hollywood, which failed to consider Black actors – especially for leading roles — in projects at the time. The blaxploitation films were primarily aimed at the African American audiences.
Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” theme song — which included the line “You a bad mother— (Shut your mouth)” — helped insinuate the original movie into the pop-cult consciousness. The singer, who died in 2008, said the song was “like the ‘shot heard round the world.” His single won an Academy Award for best song in 1971 and two Grammys the following year.