Richard Roundtree attends the premiere of
Richard Roundtree attends the premiere of "Shaft" on June 10, 2019, in New York Image Credit: AP

American actor Richard Roundtree, heralded as "the first Black action hero" for his starring role in the iconic 1971 hit "Shaft," died Tuesday at 81, US media reported.

Hollywood publication Deadline said that the actor, known for opening doors for other Black artists in the industry, died with his family at his bedside, "after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer."

"Shaft," in which Roundtree played the eponymous private eye John Shaft, sparked a series of sequels and a TV spinoffs.

Five decades later, Roundtree was still acting, appearing in the television romance drama "Cherish the Day" and film comedy "Moving On" just last year. "Richard's work and career served as a turning point for African American leading men in film," his manager Patrick McMinn said in a statement to Variety. "The impact he had on the industry cannot be overstated."

Roundtree's major debut, "Shaft" was hailed as a founding classic in the "Blaxploitation" genre the 1970s were known for - which boosters say tackled race relations while critics blast the style for trafficking in stereotypes.

Richard Roundtree, one of the stars of
Richard Roundtree, one of the stars of "Big Bamboo," is seen during filming in New York, March 9, 1972. Roundtree, the trailblazing Black actor who starred as the ultra-smooth private detective “Shaft” in several films beginning in the early 1970s, has died. Image Credit: AP

Either way, the genre was critical to pushing Hollywood to finally cast Black Americans in starring roles. "I used to look at it as a double-edged sword. But I've had so many people from all over the country - and all over the world actually - come up and say what that film meant to them back in '71," Roundtree told broadcaster NPR in 2019. "It's heavy."

"The other side of it is I got typecast for quite some time, and then I've gone out of my way to establish a different side of my acting," he said.

He was largely successful in that endeavor, with "his trailblazing career (changing) the face of entertainment around the globe," his agency told Deadline.

"His enduring legacy will be felt for generations to come. Our hearts are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time."