Howard Rollins

Howard Rollins
Rollins in Ragtime, 1981
Howard Ellsworth Rollins Jr.

(1950-10-17)October 17, 1950
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Died December 8, 1996(1996-12-08) (aged 46)
Resting place Woodlawn Cemetery, Baltimore
Nationality American
Alma mater Towson State University
Occupation Actor
Years active 1970–1996

Howard Ellsworth Rollins Jr. (October 17, 1950 – December 8, 1996) was an American stage, film and television actor. Howard Rollins was best known for his role as Andrew Young in 1978's King, George Haley in the 1979 miniseries Roots: The Next Generations, Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the 1981 film Ragtime, Captain Davenport in the 1984 film A Soldier's Story, and as Virgil Tibbs on the TV crime drama In the Heat of the Night . In the fall of 1996, Rollins was diagnosed with AIDS. Six weeks later, he died at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York at the age of 46, from complications from AIDS-related lymphoma. As was typical at the time, his publicist issued a statement claiming he suffered from lymphatic cancer, but it was later revealed by his family that Rollins had been diagnosed with AIDS. He was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in his native Baltimore.

Early life

Rollins was the youngest of four children born to Ruth and Howard Ellsworth Rollins Sr. in Baltimore, Maryland. His mother was a domestic worker, and father was a steelworker who died in 1980. After his high school graduation, Rollins studied theater at Towson University.[1][2]


In 1970, Rollins left college to play the role of "Slick" in the PBS soap opera Our Street. In 1974, he moved to New York City, where he appeared in the Broadway productions of We Interrupt This Program (1975), The Mighty Gents (1978), and G. R. Point (1979). He also appeared in the TV miniseries King and Roots: The Next Generations.[1]

In 1981, Rollins made his film debut in the Dino De Laurentiis/Miloš Forman motion picture Ragtime. His performance in the film earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, as well as Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture and New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture. The following year, he was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for his role on Another World. In 1984, Rollins starred in director Norman Jewison's film A Soldier's Story, which led to his role as Virgil Tibbs on In the Heat of the Night, the television series based on Jewison's acclaimed 1967 film of the same name.

In the Heat of the Night began airing on NBC in 1988. During the show's run, Rollins struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. He was arrested four times for drug- and alcohol-related crimes and spent one month in jail for reckless driving and driving under the influence. Due to his ongoing personal and legal issues, Rollins was dismissed from the series at the end of Season 6.[2] Rollins returned for several guest appearances in the seventh season of the show in 1993 – 1994.

After being fired from In the Heat of the Night, Rollins achieved sobriety and worked on rebuilding his career and reputation.[2] In 1995, he appeared in a guest role on New York Undercover, followed by a role in the film Drunks. In 1996, he appeared in a guest role on Remember WENN. His final acting role was in the 1996 PBS television movie Harambee!.

Personal life

Legal issues

In 1988, Rollins pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Louisiana. In 1992 and 1993, he was arrested on three occasions for driving under the influence. In 1994, he served a month in jail for reckless driving and driving under the influence. Because of his legal problems, Rollins was dropped from In the Heat of the Night.[3] After attending drug rehab, he returned to In the Heat of the Night as a guest star.[4]


On December 8, 1996, Rollins died at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center (now Mount Sinai West) in New York City from complications of lymphoma; he had been diagnosed only six weeks earlier.[5] His funeral was held on December 13 in Baltimore.[6][7]


On October 25, 2006, a wax statue of Rollins was unveiled at the Senator Theatre in Baltimore. The statue is now at Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum.[8]


Year Title Role Notes
1981 Ragtime Coalhouse Walker Jr. Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year - Actor
Nominated—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor (4th place)
1984 A Soldier's Story Captain Davenport
1984 The House of God Chuck Johnston
1990 On the Block Clay Beasley
1995 Drunks Joseph
Year Title Role Notes
1978 The Trial of the Moke Television movie
1978 King Andrew Young Miniseries
Credited as Howard Rollins
1979 Roots: The Next Generations George Haley Miniseries
1979 My Old Man Doctor Television movie
1981 Thornwell Carson Television movie
1982 The Neighborhood Allen Campbell Television movie
1982 The Member of the Wedding Honey Brown Television movie
1982 Another World Ed Harding Unknown episodes
Nominated - Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
1983 For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story Medgar Evers Television movie
Winner - NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series
1983 Moving Right Along Unknown episodes
1984 House of Dies Drear Walter Small Television movie
1984 A Doctor's Story Dr. Zack Williams Television movie
1984 He's Fired, She's Hired Raoul Television movie
1985 Wildside Bannister Sparks 6 episodes
1986 The Boy King Martin Luther King Sr. Television movie
1986 The Children of Times Square Otis Travis Television movie
1986 Johnnie Mae Gibson: FBI T.C. Russell Television movie
1988-1994 In the Heat of the Night Chief of Detectives Virgil Tibbs 121 episodes, credited as Howard Rollins
Winner - NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series, 1989
1992 With Murder in Mind Samuel Carver Television movie
1995 New York Undercover Reverend Hundley Episode: "The Smoking Section"
1996 Remember WENN George Smith Episode: "The Emperor Smith"
1996 Harambee! Chimbuko Television movie, (final film role)


  1. ^ a b Eady, Brenda (1984-10-01). "Howard Rollins' Stalled Career Marches on with a Soldier's Story". People. Retrieved 2008-06-06.
  2. ^ a b c Cerio, Gregory (December 23, 1996). "Requiem for Mister Tibbs". Retrieved January 30, 2013.
  3. ^ Blumenthal, Ralph (1996-12-10). "Howard Rollins Is Dead at 50 Star in TV's 'Heat of the Night'". New York Times. Retrieved June 6, 2008.
  4. ^ "Actor Howard Rollins, 46, succumbs in New York". Jet. December 23, 1996. Retrieved 2008-06-06.
  5. ^ "Howard Rollins, 46, Dies". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 12, 2020.
  6. ^ "'Heat of the Night' actor dies". The Robesonian. December 10, 1996. p. 5A. Retrieved January 30, 2013.
  7. ^ "Black Celebrities We've Lost to AIDS". BET. September 2008. p. 8. Retrieved December 29, 2018.
  8. ^ "Howard Rollins Unveiling at Senator Theater". National Great Blacks In Wax Museum. Retrieved October 8, 2007.

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