#BHM Vintage Evening Eye Candy: Richard Roundtree
When you say the name, Richard Roundtree, first thing people think of is Shaft. John Shaft. But there’s more to Richard Roundtree than an uber-popular blaxploitation film. He’s a cancer survivor, a former model and a one-time football star, and did I mention that he’s a pop culture icon? For our last vintage evening eye candy post for Black History Month, we’re showing love to the action star, stage actor and breast cancer awareness activist, who has managed to stay relevant and popular after more than 40 years on the big and small screen.
Richard Roundtree was born and raised in New Rochelle, New York. He was a star football player at New Rochelle High School and received a scholarship to play ball at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Before Richard Roundtree was a big actor, he was a model. No, really. Roundtree signed a deal with Johnson Publications to model for the annual Ebony Fashion Fair show in 1967. He wound up modeling in 79 cities in 90 days.
Though modeling for Ebony Fashion Fair wasn’t bad, Roundtree found that he wanted to delve into acting. He returned to New York and took acting lessons, even joining the Negro Ensemble Company and going on to star as Jack Johnson on stage in The Great White Hope.
When Gordon Parks picked him to play Detective John Shaft in Shaft back in 1971, his whole life changed. From that day forward, folks would know him and think of him as John Shaft (with the Isaac Hayes-helmed theme song playing when they saw him). While Roundtree did two sequels, there were supposed to be four, but he eventually opted out of taking part in anymore Shaft films. “As much as possible, I’d like every role to be totally different from the one before. If you do the same thing too often, it gets to be the only thing you can do.”
In 1993, Richard Roundtree was diagnosed with the male form of breast cancer after feeling a lump in his chest during a shower. The actor underwent a double masectomy and went through chemotherapy. He has openly spoken about dealing with such a health battle, though he decided to wait to share his story until he was five years cancer free:
“Not talking about my cancer was really tough,” he says. “And now that I do talk about it all the time, it’s really become a backhanded blessing. I was getting on a plane recently and a flight attendant ran up to me and said ‘You saved my husband’s life.'” Her husband had a lump in his chest and only agreed to get it checked out after she showed him an article about Roundtree.
While Roundtree is best known for his work in Shaft, he has been in more than 50 films, including Se7en, Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored, and the remake of Shaft in 2000.
When work opportunities became a little hard to find around the ’90s, Roundtree actually returned to the stage, doing successful stage plays like Men Cry in The Dark.
Roundtree has said that while he can’t stand when people call him “Shaft,” the impact the film has had on people over the years always moves him to this day:
“It drives me batty when [fans] call me Shaft. I happen to like my God-given name, but then a young person will walk up to me and tell me how my role impacted his life growing up, which gets me off my stuff.”