Remembering Richard Roundtree: His Life Before ‘Shaft’ Stardom

Earlier this week, actor Mr. Richard Roundtree died from pancreatic cancer at 81. We reflect on Mr. Roundtree’s legacy by highlighting a 1971 Chicago Defender article that chronicled the then 28-year-old actor and model on the verge of stardom. 

For his 1971 profile on Richard Roundtree, Chicago Defender journalist Dave Potter made a bold yet prescient declaration about the largely unknown actor.

“Remember the name, Richard Roundtree, for if all goes according to plan, he will be the very next black heartthrob to adorn America’s silver screens. A tall, dark and strikingly handsome former Ebony Fashion Fair model, Roundtree is currently filming “Shaft” on location in New York City.”

That’s how Potter led off his January 14, 1971 story.  

And if you’ve been stuck in a bomb shelter for the last five decades, let this be your spoiler alert: Potter nailed it. 

The 1971 movie “Shaft,” about a private detective hired to rescue the daughter of a crime lord, would launch Roundtree into the exosphere. The film, directed by the legendary Gordon Parks and scored by music icon Isaac Hayes, minted Roundtree into a cultural phenomenon and trailblazer as perhaps our first Black action hero. In the visage of John Shaft, he also became a powerful symbol of Black masculinity. 

But when Potter interviewed Roundtree for the “Daily Defender,” the actor was on the other side of that celebrity. He had modeling assignments with Ebony Fashion Fair and others and bit parts in films and commercials. He was a young Black man in his late 20s trying to make it. 

From the Bubble to the Gridiron to the Stage

But before acting came calling, Roundtree grew up in New Rochelle, New York — about 40 minutes outside of New York City — in “a well-insulated kind of middle-class glass bubble,” he told The Defender. 

His father was a chauffeur who worked around the clock, and his mother stayed home. They owned two houses and lived in one. 

At first, the gridiron beckoned to Roundtree. As a student-athlete at New Rochelle High School, he became a certified football star for a nationally-ranked team, earning an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. 

But when he got to SIU, that Black middle-class bubble he knew got shattered. Roundtree shared with Potter an incident that occurred on his first day there.

“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 recalled. 

Encountering racism while Black at the predominantly White SIU contributed to him eventually dropping out. But before he left, Roundtree got into acting and theater. He also had some extra motivation for getting involved in those pursuits. 

“All of the good-looking girls on campus were in the theatre group,” Roundtree told The Defender, “So that’s where I went.”

He eventually starred in collegiate productions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Zoo Story” and “The Connection.”

Firmly bit by the proverbial bug, Roundtree left Carbondale and returned to New York to join Robert Hooks’ Negro Ensemble Company. That experience allowed him to refine his acting skills. 

After bit parts and modeling gigs, Roundtree landed a starring role as famous boxer Jack Johnson in a theater production of “Great White Hope.” 

While it was a significant accomplishment, he was still an unknown entity in the business. 

Luckily for him, being an unknown worked in his favor. Parks cast Roundtree in “Shaft” because he preferred to work with lesser-known actors. 

“Unknowns are more malleable,” a publicist for the “Shaft” film said. “Not only does Dick [Richard Roundtree] fit the part of John Shaft, but the fact that he brings to screen a new face doesn’t hurt either.”

‘Shaft’: Before and After

Richard Roundtree

Roundtree starred in two sequels after the original “Shaft” movie: “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972) and “Shaft in Africa” (1973). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Roundtree acted in many films and TV series. In 1977, Roundtree would even appear in the legendary, award-winning series based on a novel by Alex Haley called “Roots.”

Even through life-altering adversity, he continued to grace big and small screens. 

Diagnosed with a rare form of male breast cancer in 1993, Roundtree continued to work, playing a dizzying array of roles in various TV and movie series until his death. He starred in acclaimed 2000s shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Being Mary Jane” and “Desperate Housewives.”

He also reprised his John Shaft role in the Samuel L. Jackson-led “Shaft” remakes that appeared in 2000 and 2019.  

But when Potter interviewed him, Roundtree was preparing himself to portray John Shaft. He shared an anecdote about how he got into the character’s mindset.

Believing that John Shaft was the type of man who would cross the street without looking, Roundtree did just that. 

“During the weeks I was getting the character straight in my mind,” he said, “I’d practice crossing the street like Shaft would.”

“It was amazing, but after a while, I could cross the street and just know that everything coming would stop. Then, once, after a successful street-crossing, I just looked over my shoulder and realized that those jokers were whizzing by at 50 miles an hour and probably could not stop if they wanted to. It was sort of frightening.” 

The article finally concludes with some unique factoids about the original “Shaft” movie, that it was the first film to go into production in New York in 1971 and that it was likely inspired by the success of the 1970 action comedy “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” co-written and directed by Ossie Davis. 

At the end of The Defender article, Potter reinforces his point by saying that “Shaft” will “hurl young Richard Roundtree to the heights of stardom where he’ll make lots of money.” 

“And that isn’t too bad for an SIU dropout.” 

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