Richard Roundtree dies aged 81

Richard Roundtreen as Shaft

The actor, whose career spanned more than four decades in Hollywood, died in Los Angeles from pancreatic cancer

Richard Roundtree, known for playing the suave lead role in the 1971 film Shaft died on Tuesday.

Roundtree, 81, died in Los Angeles after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Patrick McMinn, Roundtree’s longtime manager reported.

“His trailblazing career changed the face of entertainment around the globe and his enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come. Our hearts are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time,” Artists & Representatives, the agency that represented the late actor, said in a statement to Deadline.

Roundtree shot to fame with the 1971 Blaxploitation movie Shaft about a private detective in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, and he reprised the role in a number of sequels and a short-lived network TV series.

The rugged and streetwise character, who wore flashy leather jackets and who was accompanied by a catchy theme song from Isaac Hayes, helped define cool for a Black leading man and also gained acceptance from white audiences.

Richard Roundtree

Throughout his more than four decade career in Hollywood, Roundtree played numerous roles in films and television shows including the 1977 limited series Roots and 1974’s Earthquake in which he played motorcycle daredevil Miles.

Among his more poignant films was 1996’s Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored, the story a tight-knit Black community confronting the racism of post-war Mississippi.

In the 2010s he was reintroduced to younger audiences when he played Gabrielle Union’s father in the BET series Being Mary Jane.

“Working with Richard Roundtree was a dream … He was simply the best & we all loved him,” Union tweeted.

Tributes to Roundtree poured in from all sides. Sheryl Lee Ralph, star of Abbott Elementary, remembered him as a “wonderful human being”.

Lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund remembered the “iconic” actor.

Roundtree worked regularly until the end, with 159 acting credits to his name plus three upcoming projects yet to be released, according to

Roundtree was born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1942. He went to Southern Illinois University in the early 1960s on a football scholarship, but left college early to pursue a modeling career. In 1967 he joined the Negro Ensemble Company to begin his life as an actor, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

He was married twice and is survived by four daughters – Nicole, Tayler, Morgan and Kelli Roundtree – and his son, James.