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Late 'Shaft' Star Richard Roundtree Played Historic Openly Gay Character on 90's Sitcom 'Roc'

News & Opinion | TV & Film

Richard Roundtree, “Shaft” star and iconic pioneer of the “Blaxploitation” genre died Tuesday afternoon at the age of 81. According to Roundtree’s manager, Patrick McMinn, the actor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away at his residence.

The legendary actor was considered the first Black action hero beginning with his lead role in the Gordon Parks film Shaft (1971).

In the film, Roundtree plays private detective John Shaft, who is hired by a Harlem crime lord to find his kidnapped daughter. Due to the film’s commercial success, which notably saved MGM Studios from bankruptcy, Shaft forever shifted the Hollywood perception towards Black films and Black leads by proving both were worth investing in.

“Richard’s work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men in film…The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated” -Patrick McMinn

(Source: Celeste Sloman for The New York Times)
(Source: Warner Bros.)

In addition to his groundbreaking impact on film, Roundtree also pioneered on the small screen in the Fox comedy-drama Roc (1991 - 1994). The Black-led TV series focused on Baltimore garbage collector Roc Emerson and his wife Eleanor, a nurse. On the show, Roundtree plays Roc’s uncle Russell Emerson.

In the Season 1 episode, “Can’t Help Loving That Man”, which aired on October 20, 1991, Russell “comes out” as gay which was mostly met with confusion and disapproval among his family.

It is worth noting that 1991 was during the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic, which had a devastating impact on Black communities nationwide and generated mass stigma that connected gay men to HIV making this scene revolutionary at the time.

Additionally, considering the fact that Roundtree’s most notable work was tied to a traditional Black, masculine image, portraying an openly gay man in the early 90’s was virtually unprecedented.

Further in the episode, Russell not only comes out as gay but reveals he will be committing to his partner, Chris, who is shown to be a white man. The marriage/commitment ceremony ends up taking place in the home of the Emersons, culminating in the first same sex wedding on primetime national television. In the early 90’s, same-sex marriage was illegal and essentially unheard of with only 10-20% of Americans actually supporting it.

(Source: Fox Broadcasting Photo)

At the end of the episode, Roc says he’s not comfortable with his uncle as gay, but he’s learning to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” marking notable progress with the acceptance of Russell as a gay man.

After the airing of the episode, Russell appeared as a recurring character throughout the series which further delved into his life and relationship with his partner Chris.

This scene marked a historical turning point for the depiction of gay characters on TV as fully fleshed-out people with a life beyond just their sexuality. Programming such as Roc, especially in the late 80’s and early 90’s helped lay a foundation to come for the fight for acceptance and rights of LGBTQ+ people on screen and in reality.

Richard Roundtree’s prolific and influential impact on Black and queer culture will forever be remembered across generations to come.

Rest in Peace to such a pioneering talent.


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