Richard Roundtree

Richard Roundtree Illustration by Brian Smith

Richard Roundtree Illustration by Brian Smith, ©

Richard Roundtree will always be known as the original John Shaft – and that’s a good thing. For years, he tried disassociating himself from his iconic 1970s role, until sometime in the 90s he realized he embodied in John Shaft the leader of a movement in a period of self-expression – an era lost. While some associate his films as “blaxploitation,” Roundtree himself claims they’re not, at least not the original 1971 “Shaft” directed by Gordon Parks. Really, he’s a badass in badass movies.

Richard was born in 1942 in New Rochelle, New York and won a scholarship to play football at Southern Illinois University. He worked as a male model following school back in New York and took acting lessons. His film debut was in 1970’s “What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?” Richard caught the attention of director Gordon Parks who cast him in the title role of “Shaft,” the private dick who’s short on talk but quick on action. On an extremely low budget, the film was a huge hit, spawning two immediate sequels and catapulting Roundtree as head of the blaxploitation movement. He worked his ass off in other parts (“Portrait of a Hitman,” “Escape to Athena,” “Gypsy Angels” among them) but he still could not shake Shaft. By the 1980s, the explosive movies identified with Roundtree pacified and disappeared.

In 1993, Richard developed breast cancer and now speaks at engagements as a cancer survivor. The wandering in ubiquitous roles in television and movies changed in 1995 when David Fincher utilized him in “Se7en.” Five years later, he was Shaft again in John Singleton’s update starring Samuel Jackson as Shaft’s nephew. Richard’s career resurged, appearing as a recurring character on “Desperate Housewives” and “Heroes.” He has acted in over 100 projects, and now proudly claims that it is Shaft himself who made it all possible. Isaac Hayes probably has something to do with that as well.

ALSO: See how Shaft fared in our Badass Bracket!

Richard on the Screen

He’s Shaft five times: in the original 1971 film, the two sequels “Shaft’s Big Score! and “Shaft in Africa,” a short-lived TV series from 1973-1974, and in the 2000 update by John Singleton. In addition, he’s Miles Quade in “Earthquake,” Coco Morell in “Portrait of a Hitman,” and as a guest star on TV in episodes of “CHiPs,” “Magnum P.I.,” and “MacGyver.” He’s Prescott in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Christmas in Connecticut,” and appears in one episode of “90210” as Robinson Ashe, Jr. In “Se7en” he’s the District Attorney, part of the huge “Original Gangstas” cast in 1996, Howard Shuster in “Corky Romano,” and the Assistant V.P. in “Brick.”

Richard Says

On playing John Shaft:
“Number one, it put me on the map. To this day that film still works. I was blessed.”