Updated date:

A tribute to actor, Howard Rollins.

Howard Rollins as Detective Virgil Tibbs.


Howard E. Rollins Jr.

Growing up as a young child, I was always intrigued by police and cop related shows. Remember that show "CHiPs"? You know the one that Erik Estrada co-starred in? Yea that was one of my favorites. Another show I enjoyed watching during my teenage years was, "In the Heat of the Night". This was the show that starred the late Carroll O'Connor as Sparta Police Chief, Bill Gillespie. It also co-starred another great actor named Howard Rollins. Howard Rollins played the role of Chief of Detectives, Virgil Tibbs. If you've ever seen the pilot of In the Heat of the Night, you'll probably remember his famous words, "You'll call me Mister Tibbs". Most people probably remember Sidney Poitier as Detective Tibbs in the movie version of "In the Heat of Night". However, that was before my time. As a youth, I didn't really appreciate how talented of an actor that Howard Rollins was. After watching Ragtime and episodes of In the Heat of Night now, I have a much greater appreciation for how talented this man was as an actor. I'm going to discuss Rollins in this article, and give a tribute to him for his excellent acting abilities. I hope you enjoy.

Still of Detective Virgil Tibbs from "In the Heat of the Night" opening credits.


Biography and filmography.

Howard Ellinsworth Rollins was born in Baltimore, Maryland on October 15, 1950. Rollins left college early to appear on the CBS soap opera "Our Street". Rollins would move to New York in 1974, and appeared on Broadway. He also appeared in several television films, most notably "Roots: The Next Generations". Rollins gained a lot of recognition for his performance in the motion picture "Ragtime", which was released in 1981. His role in Ragtime led to him being nominated for for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Rollins went on to appear in the soap opera "Another World", and was nominated for a Daytime Emmy in 1982. He would later star in "A Solder's Story" in 1984, which lead to him being cast as Detective Virgil Tibbs in the series, "In the Heat of the Night".

Although Howard Rollins was a very gifted actor, he struggled with both legal and drug issues. These issues were the crust of why Rollins was eventually fired from In the Heat of the Night. Following his time on In the Heat of the Night, Rollins went on to appear in several television shows. His final acting role came in 1996 when he appeared in the television movie "Harambee". Howard Rollins died on December 8, 1996 at the age of 46. The cause of his death was due to complications from lymphoma. Rollins had been diagnosed with the disease six weeks prior to his death.

Howard Rollins as Coalhouse Walker in "Ragtime".


How this personal tribute came about.

Writing this article came to me a couple of nights ago. "In the Heat of the Night" airs daily on the WGN network. I DVR the episodes daily, and I normally watch some of them at nighttime before going to sleep. A few nights ago, I watched an episode of the show titled, "Virgil Tibbs Attorney at Law". This particular episode had Rollins returning to the show as a special guest star after being fired from the series. In this episode, Tibbs was obviously disturbed and saddened by something. It turns out that Tibb's marriage had failed upon his return to Sparta, which was the cause of great sadness to him. There was a scene with Tibbs and his Aunt Etta(played by actress Tonea Stewart), where she breaks down in tears saying that she was worried about him. It appeared to me that those tears went beyond just acting. Although Tibbs' Aunt Etta cried for him, it appears that the actress Tonea Stewart was crying for Howard Rollins the man, not the actor. I could very well be wrong about this, but that's what I gathered from that scene. It was truly a heartfelt scene, and was one of many that Howard Rollins was featured in during his time on In the Heat of the Night.

Final thoughts.

I hadn't known about the movie "Ragtime" until a few months ago. One day, me and my godmother's husband were discussing Howard Rollins, and he informed me about Rollins being in this particular movie. I decided to watch the film and just like his terrific acting on "In the Heat of the Night", I was just as impressed by Rollins in this film. It's always somewhat sad watching actors on television who have passed on. However, the good thing that comes from television and cinema is that we can always watch and admire their talents over and over again. Howard Rollins was truly a gifted and talented individual. I honestly felt like he was the best actor on In the Heat of the Night. That's the show that I will remember his most for, but he was amazing in "Ragtime" as well. Rest in peace Howard E. Rollins Jr. Thanks for reading.




Peace on March 24, 2020:

Thank you for letting me know what happened to Virgil. Recently started watching the program again due to the lock down and noticed he wasn't being featured. So sad to hear he had those issues, he will be dearly missed!

Nicky V. on January 14, 2018:

Great actor , I had no idea of his passing. He was fantastic on in the heat of the night. May he Rip

Bradrick H. (author) from Texas on December 27, 2013:

@Bebe Landcaster, Thank you for stopping through and sharing that information. It's very much appreciated.

Bebe Landcaster on December 23, 2013:

There has been a fan club started on Facebook last year 2012. Now there is the official tribute "In the heat of the night" web site recognized by the industry. There is even a public blog you can post on. http://nightheat.weebly.com/

Bradrick H. (author) from Texas on April 01, 2013:

@Alecia Murphy, Thank you very much. You are correct, the entire cast from ITHOTN was great. Howard was easily one of the best actors on the show, and it honestly wasn't the same after he left. You should check out 'Ragtime' when you get a chance. He was terrific in that one also. Thanks again for your feedback.

Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on March 31, 2013:

Great tribute! I only knew him from In the Heat of the Night but he was such a talented actor. The whole show had an amazing cast. To think he took a role that Sydney Poitier made famous and made it is own is amazing.

Bradrick H. (author) from Texas on March 04, 2013:

@LauraD093, Thank you kindly ma'am. You know I've yet to see the movie version of 'In the Heat of the Night'. I've seen clips, but not the entire movie. I'm going to have to see it soon so I can compare Mr. Rollins and Mr. Poiter's portrayals of Virgil Tibbs. I still watch the show till this day, and I always get kinda sad when I think about Howard Rollins, Carroll O'Connor, and Hugh O'Connor no longer being with us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.

Laura Tykarski from Pittsburgh PA on March 04, 2013:

Beautiful tribute. I am a film buff and did see and loved the movie In the Heat of the Night but also thought as Tibbs Rollins performance was even more nuanced then Sydney Poitier's was in the film. I had no idea that he struggled with drug addition,I agree that so many great and creative people have been brought down by their personal struggles.

Bradrick H. (author) from Texas on March 03, 2013:

@LisaMarie724, Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Lisa Stover from Pittsburgh PA on March 03, 2013:

Great tribute and great hub!

In the Heat of the Night Fan Club on January 16, 2013:

Bradrick, I enjoyed reading this piece of yours on Howard Rollins. I never thought about how Aunt Etta's tears could have been for Howard. You know, it got me thinking that perhaps Virgil's tears at the table could have been over the same reason.


Bradrick H. (author) from Texas on November 13, 2012:

Hi Diane. "In the Heat of the Night" comes on daily on the WGN television network. You can also find Ragtime on Netflix. Thanks for reading and responding.

Diane on November 05, 2012:

I would love to see ragtime and In the heat of the night episodes. He as an exceptionally great actor.

Bradrick H. (author) from Texas on September 22, 2012:

Thank you so much Rhonda. I record every episode of "In the Heat of the Night" daily. Howard Rollins was certainly the man. Easily the best actor from the series. Thanks again for viewing, and commenting :)

Rhonda Humphreys from Michigan on September 19, 2012:

Great tribute to Howard Brad. Funny I just watched this the other day. And I would agree he was the best actor on the show. Voted up and beautiful

Bradrick H. (author) from Texas on July 09, 2012:

Hey there Robin. I watch the reruns daily. If you ever get the chance watch the movie "Ragtime". You will definitely be impressed with his performance in that film also. Thanks for viewing my friend :)

Bradrick H. (author) from Texas on July 09, 2012:

Yes he was very intense when he played Virgil Tibbs. Truly a great and underrated actor. Thank you so much for viewing eHealer. I appreciate it greatly.

Bradrick H. (author) from Texas on July 09, 2012:

Hey there briars2roses. Thanks for viewing. I found myself getting sad in that episode that I mentioned here where him and his aunt have the emotional discussion. It's sad watching someone, and you know they only had a few years left to live. He was definitely great as Virgil Tibbs, and I'm glad we have that show to remember him by. Thanks for your feedback.

Robin Lusk from Ontario Canada on July 07, 2012:

He was wonderful in "The Heat of the Night" and I still catch reruns now and again...I must admit I didn't see him in much else but agree he was a wonderful actor...Great tribute, Brad:) Voted up.

Deborah from Las Vegas on July 07, 2012:

Call him Mister Tibbs! I loved that man, he was so intense. Like a fire lived in his chest. I guess he lived as intensely as he appeared. Great tribute to Howard, he broke a lot stereotypes in film, he was a great actor. Great hub. Voted up.

briars2roses from Texas on July 06, 2012:

I loved him in the heat of the night. Breaks my heart that we lose so many of our good actors to drugs and alcohol. I don't remember him in many parts but he played that part perfectly.

Related Articles