On Tuesday, October 24, Richard Roundtree, known for his roles on screen, television, and stage, passed away in his Los Angeles home at the age of 81, after recently being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
A native of New Rochelle, New York, Roundtree was a standout on his nationally ranked high school football team before matriculating to Southern Illinois University on an athletic scholarship. He left school to pursue a career in both modeling and acting, and soon began to distinguish himself with the Ebony Fashion Fair and as a member of the historic New York City-based Negro Ensemble Company.
Revered as the world’s “first Black action hero,” stemming from his iconic role in 1971’s Black-film classic “Shaft,” Roundtree’s career spanned 60 years. He would collaborate with “Shaft” director Gordon Parks again, a year later on the sequel, “Shaft’s Big Score,” before starring in the third film in the trilogy and the subsequent television series on CBS.
Over the next half-century, Roundtree starred in over 70 motion pictures and even more TV shows. Among his most notable films were “Earthquake,” “Se7en,” “Original Gangstas,” and reprising his role as John Shaft in the 2000 and 2019 editions of the Shaft franchise starring Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft, Jr. Memorable television appearances include Alex Haley’s “Roots,” sitcoms “A Different World” and “Roc,” and series “413 Hope Street,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Heroes,” and his critically acclaimed five-season run on one of BET’s highest-rated series, the award-winning drama, “Being Mary Jane.”
It is Roundtree’s connection to Minnesota, and in particular one of the state’s most accomplished artists Gordon Parks, that many, including Park’s great niece, Robin Hickman-Winfield, are remembering today.
Parks, who passed away in 2006, was again memorialized in 2012, the year that would have marked his 100th birthday. Hickman-Winfield made sure that the local tribute had to include a screening of “Shaft,” which was arranged for the St. Anthony Main Theater.
“I called Richard and asked him to be a part of the celebration,” she remembers. “This was the first time we’d ever spoken. But he would later tell me that he knew almost instantly that he’d soon be making a trip to Minnesota. And he often said, ‘I’d do anything for Gordon.’”
Hickman-Winfield could have never imagined the indelible impact that Roundtree’s visit that autumn would leave on the both of them. One of the first things he asked when she picked him up at the airport was, “Robin, isn’t this where the Mall of America is?” And, when she responded affirmatively, he followed with, “Can we go?”
During their side trip, they encountered two women visiting from Africa. “They were simply mesmerized,” laughs Hickman-Winfield. “These women couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They actually remembered him from “Shaft in Africa” (1973).
Still, it was watching Roundtree walk in her great uncle’s footsteps that she remembers most. “Richard wanted to see and experience everything he possibly could that had to do with Uncle Gordon,” says Hickman-Winfield.
That included visits to his former home, one of his favorite stores (Heimie’s Haberdashery), and the site where Parks took his very first fashion photographs. Roundtree even stayed at the St. Paul Hotel, where Parks once worked as a waiter, and of course, Hickman-Winfield took him by Gordon Parks High School.
“The students were just in awe of Richard,” she recalls. “And he had the chance to see a young man play the piano, as he said, ‘Just like Gordon used to.’ It brought him to tears.”
The tears would also flow when Roundtree spoke before the special screening of “Shaft,” and at other centennial-related events including a gathering at the Minnesota History Center. “He was truly moved by the experience.”
“But he had so much fun too,” says Hickman-Winfield. “He just wanted to spend time with everyone he met. I’m telling you, Richard just wanted to hang. We spent time at Rudolph’s, the St. Paul Grille. He just loved it. Richard was not only cool and grace personified. He was equally gracious to everyone he met.”
Over the last decade, Roundtree and Hickman-Winfield kept in touch, most recently catching up this past spring. “Every time we spoke, he wanted to talk about his trip to Minnesota. Richard was such an extraordinary human being. And he and Uncle Gordon meant so much to one another.”
Roundtree, who was already slated to be honored at the 2024 Gordon Parks Foundation Awards next May, fondly referred to Parks as an “elegant, old-school gentleman. A mentor. And a friend.”
In Billboard magazine, Patrick McMinn, Roundtree’s manager since 1987, said, “Working with Gordon was a high point in Richard’s career. He often spoke about the lasting influence Gordon had on him. Not only as an actor, but as a man.”
Roundtree is survived by four daughters, a son, and his grandchildren.