Born July 9, 1942, in New Rochelle, NY, Roundtree attended college on a football scholarship but later gave up athletics to pursue an acting career. After touring as a model with the Ebony Fashion Fair, he joined the Negro Ensemble Company's acting workshop program in 1967. He made his film debut in 1970's What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, but was still an unknown when filmmaker Gordon Parks Sr. cast him as John Shaft.
The role shot Roundtree to instant fame, launching the Blaxploitation genre and proving so successful at the box office that it helped save MGM from the brink of bankruptcy. Thanks to the film's popularity –– as well as its two sequels, 1972's Shaft's Big Score! and the following year's Shaft in Africa, and even a short-lived television series –– Roundtree became an icon of ‘70s-era cool, and his image graced countless magazine covers. Outside of the Shaft franchise, he also appeared in films including the 1974 disaster epic Earthquake, 1975's Man Friday, and the blockbuster 1977 TV miniseries Roots.
By the end of the decade, however, the Blaxploitation movement was a thing of the past, and Roundtree's stardom waned; apart from the 1981 big-budget flop Inchon, he spent the 1980s appearing almost exclusively in TV roles or low-rent, direct-to-video features.
Still, he continued working steadily, and in 1995 appeared in David Fincher's smash thriller Seven. The following year he co-starred in the acclaimed Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored, and also teamed with fellow Blaxploitation vets Pam Grier and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson in Original Gangstas. In 1997, Roundtree returned to series television in 413 Hope St. He portrayed Booker T. Washington in the 1999 television movie Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.
Since 2000, Roundtree has appeared in the television series The Closer as Colonel D.B. Walter U.S.M.C. (retired), the father of a sniper, and in Heroes as Simone's terminally ill father, Charles Deveaux. Next, Roundtree appeared as Eddie's father-in-law in episodes of Lincoln Heights.
Most recently, Roundtree had a supporting role in the 2008 Speed Racer film as a racer-turned-commentator who is an icon and hero to Speed. He also appeared in the two-parter in Season 1 of the Second Generation of Knight Rider as the father of FBI Agent Carrie Ravai, and currently co-stars as the father of Being Mary Jane aired on BET since 2013.
July 9, 1942
- Joined the Negro Ensemble Company Acting Workshop in 1967.
- Played private detective John Shaft in Shaft (1971), Shaft's Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), and in the TV crime drama Shaft (1973-74).
- Sidney Poitier wanted the lead role in Shaft, but wouldn't screen-test for it, so director Gordon Parks selected Roundtree as his star.
- Provided the voice of the title character in the video game Akuji the Heartless.
- In 1993, was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer that required a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
- His father, a Pentecostal minister, would not go to see his films until the son talked him into viewing 1996's Once Upon a Time… When We Were Colored.
- While trying to keep his cancer a secret during filming of a 1998 episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, he convinced producers to let him wear a T-shirt in a scene as a topless bare-knuckle fighter, because otherwise it would expose the long surgical scar across his chest.
- Is a spokesman for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and a men's health-care initiative called Know Your Score.