Rollins, Howard E. Jr. 1950–1996
Howard E. Rollins, Jr. 1950–1996
For much of the television viewing audience, Howard Rollins will best be remembered for his believable portrayal of Detective Virgil Tibbs, in the very popular television series“In the Heat of the Night.” Rollins played Tibbs for five seasons until his cocaine and alcohol addiction forced the show’s producer to replace him. To his colleagues in the business, Rollins was an extraordinarily gifted performer who felt deeply the emotions of the parts he played. Anne-Marie Johnson, who played Rollins’s wife on the show told People magazine about the scene that Rollins played where he had to inform a mother that he had shot and killed her son. Johnson said, “Something in the scene really touched Howard. He just broke down.” She said of Rollins in the same interview, “Howard was such a sensitive artist. He was a tortured soul.”
In his early years, Rollins vaguely considered becoming a teacher. At 17, a friend convinced him to attend a casting call at a local Baltimore theater where he won a role in Of Mice and Men. Rollins surprised himself with the talent he displayed. Of that experience Rollins told the New York Times in 1981, “Things made sense to me for the first time in my life.” Rollins studied theater at Towson State College and in 1974 moved to New York City to try and get his career off the ground in earnest.
When Rollins reached New York he did off-Broadway and then moved into supporting roles in television dramas and mini-series such as “King” in 1978 and “Roots: The Next Generation” in 1979. When Rollins tried out for Ragtime, the movie for which he was later nominated for an Academy Award and two Golden Globes, he beat out 200 other actors for the leading role including O.J. Simpson. When he found out that he got the part, Rollins told People magazine that he just fell down on the floor and cried because he was so happy.
Ragtime set in 1930s New York found Coalhouse Walker Jr. (played by Rollins) winning fame and fortune as a jazz player. Some white men didn’t like the success Walker was enjoying. They assaulted him. When the justice system failed Walker, he took matters into his own hands and became a vigilante.
At a Glance…
Born Howard Ellsworth Rollins, Jr., October 17, 1950 in Baltimore, MD, died December 8, 1996 in New York; the youngest of four children born to Howard E. Rollins, Sr. (steelworker) and Ruth R. Rollins (domestic worker); Education: Student at Townson State College, MD.
Career: Actor, off-Broadway, film, and TV, including Another World, 1964; King, 1978; My Old Man, 1979; Roots: The Next Generation, 1979; Ragtime, 1981; The Neighborhood, 1982; For Us, the Living: The Medgar Evers Story, 1983; A Soldier’s Story, 1984; The House of Cod, 1984; He’s Fired, She’s Hired, 1984; A Doctor’s Story, 1984; Wildside, 1985; Johnnie Mae Gibson: FBI, 1986; The Children of Times Square, 1986; Co-narrator of Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, 1987; In the Heat of the Night, 1988-93; On the Block, 1990; With Murder in Mind 1992; New York Undercover, 1994; Drunks and Chimbuko in Harambee, 1995.
Awards: nominated for an Academy Award in 1982 for Best Supporting Actor in Ragtime (1981); nominated for Golden Globe for Best New Star of the Year and Best Supporting Actor for Ragtime (1981); Nominated for an Emmy for his role in Another World
Success eluded Rollins after Ragtime and he did not get another strong role until he played Captain Richard Davenport in A Soldier’s Story in 1984. A Soldier’s Story was an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning stage production called A Soldier’s Play. The movie’s director, Norman Jewison, told People magazine that Rollins had a “quiet elegance and dignity” about him. The critics said that while Rollins gave an adequate performance in A Soldier’s Story, he tried hard to be a new Sidney Poitier but lacked Poitier’s effortless power.
Rollins’s life and career took a positive turn when he won the part of Detective Virgil Tibbs in the television series “In the Heat of the Night” in 1987. He was proud of the fact that he beat out Wesley Snipes for the part. The role was originally played by Sidney Poitier in the film of the same name.
“Heat” took place in the deep South. Its central characters were, Police Chief Bill Gillespie, portrayed by Carroll O’Connor of “All In The Family” fame, and detective Virgil Tibbs (Rollins), a transplanted Philadelphia police officer. Racial tensions often ran high in the South and were often portrayed in the series in the lives of its central characters.
However, Rollins found the work in “Heat” to be formulaic and often felt uneasy and isolated. He often said that when he would leave the set, certain words were used in reference to blacks and blacks were treated in a certain way all of the time in the South. He did not find the environment welcoming or friendly.
Rollins began to indulge in crack cocaine and alcohol. In 1988 while filming the television series in Louisiana, he was arrested for crack cocaine possession. He tried rehab in 1990, but soon his drug and drinking problems overwhelmed him. This affected his work. He arrived late on the set and sometimes did not show up at all. His problems continued as he was arrested three more times in Georgia during 1992 and 1993 for driving under the influence. His last arrest resulted in a 70-day jail sentence. Even at that time, while replaced in the cast, the show’s producer, Herb Adelman, said Rollins would be welcomed back after he worked out his problems. Rollins never returned to the television series.
In an August 1993 interview with Jet magazine, Rollins discussed his recent brushes with the law, “I now have found other ways to try to make my situation work. I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my life because they’ve brought me here and I’ve become a better actor based on those things.” After serving his sentence, Rollins returned to New York and isolated himself in his apartment where he lived alone since the early 1980s. He did not find work for months until he landed the role as a Harlem minister on a “New York Undercover” episode in 1995. The show’s producer, Don Kurt, told People magazine, “We were apprehensive about hiring him, but he was a treat to work with.” According to the producer, it appeared that he had turned his life around.
In 1995, Rollins played the part of a recovering alcoholic in Peter Cohn’s Drunks. While the show received less than mediocre reviews from the movie critics, Rollins was acknowledged as a talented actor. That same year, he also played the role of Chimbuko, an activist and former drug addict, in “Harambee,” a PBS special. “Harambee” dramatized the vulnerability that people share in a world where the fragile veneer separating people from violence can be shattered without warning, and where hopelessness and despair can quickly lead to violence in an attempt to control the environment. Of his performance in “Harambee,” director Fracaswell Hy-man said of Rollins in the Detroit News, “Howard has had his own trials and personal troubles.... He was a joy to work with. His sensitivity and talent is so strong that he works very hard.”
Rollins seemed to be getting his life and career back on track when in late October of 1996 he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. Within six weeks Rollins succumbed to the cancer and died at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York at the age of 46.
Upon hearing of Rollins’s death, Caroll O’Connor was quoted in Entertainment Weekly as saying, “My wife and I are deeply saddened by Howard’s death. He was a friend who we loved dearly.” O’Connor understood what Rollins was going through and made this statement in the Detroit News after Rollins was replaced in the cast of “Heat,” “Howard has a problem, but it’s a problem that l-in-3 Americans face. There isn’t a family that doesn’t face this in some way.” O’Connor knew of Rollins suffering first hand because O’Connor’s son, Hugh, who played a law officer on the show committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 33 after losing his 16-year battle with drugs.
Those closest to Rollins believe that he had turned the corner and that his career and life were moving in a positive direction. He was an impassioned often tormented individual who, at times, became emotionally embroiled in his parts. That, many feel, made Howard Rollins the extraordinary actor that he was and will be remembered for.
Daily Iowan, December 11, 1996.
Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1996.
Detroit News, December 10, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, December 20, 1996; April 17, 1997.
Jet, June 14, 1993; August 16, 1993; November 29, 1993; May 16, 1994; December 23, 1996.
New York Times, December 10, 1996.
New Republic, October 15, 1984.
People, March 29, 1982; December 23, 1996.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, Tenth edition, 1998/99, Gale Research, 1997.
—Paula M. Morin
"Rollins, Howard E. Jr. 1950–1996." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rollins-howard-e-jr-1950-1996
"Rollins, Howard E. Jr. 1950–1996." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rollins-howard-e-jr-1950-1996
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