Rolle, Esther

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Rolle, Esther

November 8, 1920
November 18, 1998

Actress Esther Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, California, probably in 1920, the tenth of eighteen children of parents of Bahamian descent. After her family relocated to Florida, she finished Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, and attended Spelman College in Atlanta for one year before moving to New York City. There, while trying to break into theater, Rolle supported herself by working at a pocketbook factory. She was taking drama classes at George Washington Carver School in Harlem when she obtained a scholarship to study acting at New York's innovative New School for Social Research.

During this time, Rolle was introduced to African dance master Asadata Dafora and became a member of his dance troupe, Shogola Oloba. After many years with the troupe, she became its director in 1960. During her dancing career Rolle continued to pursue her interest in theater, and in 1962 she made her professional acting debut as Felicity in Jean Genet's The Blacks. Rolle worked in theater throughout the early 1960s, appearing in such productions as Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964), Amen Corner (1965), and Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence (1965). She made her film debut as Sister Sarah in 1964's Nothing But a Man, and in 1967 she became an original member of the Negro Ensemble Company.

Rolle continued to work steadily in the theater through the early 1970s. She was performing in Melvin Van Peebles's Don't Play Us Cheap (1972) when a casting director asked her to audition for the role of the maid on Maude, a Norman Lear television show being spun off from All in the Family. Rolle won the role and, that same year, with the understanding that her character, Florida Evans, would not be a typical maid, she proceeded to turn the limited role into a popular character. In 1974 the characters of Florida Evans and her husband were spun off into a new television series, Good Times.

Good Times depicted a lower-middle-class family living in a tenement on the South Side of Chicago as they struggled to survive economically in the face of layoffs and unemployment. Originally the show was praised for addressing the economic difficulties faced by many innercity blacks. However, Rolle and costar John Amos constantly struggled with producers over the role of the oldest son, played by Jimmie Walker, who was portrayed as a fast-talking, womanizing buffoon, and who increasingly became the central figure of the show. Rolle left the show in 1977 over these and other disputes, but returned in 1978. Good Times was canceled in 1979.

Rolle continued to act in other roles on television and in the theater through the late 1970s and 1980s. She won an Emmy for her performance as a housekeeper in the 1978 television movie Summer of My German Soldier and she was nominated for an Emmy for her role in a 1979 television adaptation of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. During the 1980s she appeared on such television shows as Flamingo Road (1982) and The Love Boat (1983, 1985). In 1989 she played a housekeeper in The Member of the Wedding at the Roundabout Theater, a role she had originated in Philadelphia four years earlier. Rolle played the matriarch in an American Playhouse remake of A Raisin in the Sun (1989) with Danny Glover as the errant son. That same year, she also played the maid, Idella, in the Academy Awardwinning film Driving Miss Daisy.

In 1987 Rolle was inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame, and in 1990 she became the first woman to win the NAACP chair's Civil Rights Leadership Award. For her achievements in film and television, Rolle was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1991. Rolle appeared in John Singleton's Rosewood (1995) and Maya Angelou's Down in the Delta (1998). Rolle died on November 18, 1998, of complications from diabetes.

See also Drama; Television


Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Films and Television. New York: Garland, 1988.

Helbing, Terry. "Esther Rolle: Invitation to the Wedding." Theater Week, April 39, 1989, pp. 1316.

kenya dilday (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005