Friends say Gordon Parks, already an award-winning photographer, was the perfect pick to direct the movie Shaft—the 1970s classic about a cool private detective who sweeps clean the mean streets of Harlem. "Gordon was channeling himself through that character," says director John Singleton, who helmed a remake of Shaft in 2000. Adds Richard Roundtree, who starred in the original: "Gordon spoke very quietly but so totally dominated every situation."
His unforgettable career as both photojournalist and filmmaker came to an end March 7, when, at age 93, Parks succumbed to complications from high blood pressure and prostate cancer. "His death is a loss," says Roundtree, "but this man led an incredible life." The youngest of 15 children of a poor Kansas farmer, Parks had left home and school at age 15 after his mother's death and was working as a waiter on a train in 1937 when he spied a photo spread in a passenger's magazine and later decided to buy a camera. In time his images conquered Hollywood, the world of fashion and the pages of LIFE magazine, where, as a staff photographer for more than 20 years, he captured subjects as varied as a sick boy in the slums of Rio, civil rights leader Malcolm X and Ingrid Bergman. "I feel I missed a lot of things in my early life," Parks once told the Los Angeles Times. "And I've got to make up for it."
Among the stories Parks was able to tell with grace and beauty was his own: In 1966 he began publishing a series of memoirs, one of which he turned into The Learning Tree, the first Hollywood movie written, directed and scored by an African-American. In addition to directing four other feature films and writing several books, he wrote poetry and composed music. "He inspired me to really take seriously that there was nothing I could not accomplish creatively," says Singleton. Parks, who married three times and had four children, continued to tell stories, writing almost until the end. According to Muhammad Ali, whom Parks photographed for the cover of LIFE in 1970, "He was the best of the best."