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Howard Rollins: From Ragtime to In the Heat of the Night


A Star is born

Howard Ellsworth Rollins Jr. was an actor on stage, on television, and in film whose light burned out too quickly. He was born on October 17, 1950, in Baltimore, Maryland to Ruth and Howard Ellsworth Rollins Sr. He began his career at age 20 in 1970 as "Slick" in the PBS soap opera Our Street and continued onward and upward from this point. Rollins moved to New York City, in 1974 where he appeared in the Broadway productions of We Interrupt This Program (1975), The Mighty Gents (1978), and G.R. Point (1979). He was given roles of prominent people in history as he portrayed Andrew Young in the television film King in 1978 and George Haley in the 1979 miniseries Roots The Next Generation. He gained even more notoriety when he starred as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the 1981 film Ragtime, opposite Debbie Allen. This role was praised by critics and garnered Rollins the following Nominations—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor Motion Picture, Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year Actor, and New York Film Critic Award for Best Supporting Actor. Rollins received rave reviews for all of these performances and his star continued to rise.The best however was yet to come.


Coalhouse Walker Jr.

In Ragtime Coalhouse Walker Jr. was what in that day would have been an "upitty Nigra." He did not talk like the black men of his day and he wore expensive clothing and drove a fancy vehicle. One day he drives to New York in his Ford as he often did in the past. On this day, as he passes a firehouse he has passed many times before. This time, however, the firemen demand that Walker pay a toll. He refuses and tries to drive around a barrier they put in place..He asks two young black boys to watch his car while he asks the police for assistance. . His complaint is ignored and when he returns to the vehicle it has been vandalized and human feces are on the front seat. When he demands his car be cleaned Coalhouse is arrested and is later bailed out. In this role, Rollins character desires the same respect as white men, and his attempts to force the issue only bring him frustration.

Rollins in latter years

Rollins went on to portray Captain Davenport in the hit 1984 film A Soldier's Story. His signature character and final acting role came in 1996 as Virgil Tibbs on the critically acclaimed television crime drama In the Heat of the Night. Virgil was a complex character who was born and raised in Sparta and moved to Philadelphia and returned home. Virgil battled the racial stereotypes of a small southern town and was forced to confront his own prejudices regarding blacks and whites. In The Heat of the Night premiered on NBC in 1988 and that same year the actor pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Louisiana. In 1992 and 1993, he was arrested on three separate occasions for driving under the influence. In 1994, Rollins spent a month in jail for driving under the influence and reckless driving. . This led to Rollins being dropped from his hit NBC series. He went to drug rehab and returned as a guest star to In the Heat of the Night as a guest star

The final days of Howard Rollins

In the fall of 1996, Rollins was diagnosed with AIDS and died six weeks later, on December 8. He passed away at age 46 at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York from complications of lymphoma. The actor's neighbors and friends say he was a cross-dresser who enjoyed wearing women's clothing and frequented gay bars. While his on-screen wife Ann Marie Johnson said the cast of the show was like a family Rollins has been quoted as saying the atmosphere was hostile and the racism on the series hit close to home for Rollins who experienced similar treatment in real-time. It has been report/e//d that Rollins used crack cocaine and his behavior led to his being barred from the county where In the Heat of the Night was filmed..It has been said that Howard Rollins had the potential to be one of the greatest actors of his time. When you consider the talent he displayed in his roles without judging his personal life perhaps he already was.


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Coalhouse Walker Jr.

Howard Rollins final days

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Cheryl E Preston

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