Actor Rollins dies Appreciation: Baltimore native earned acclaim for dramatic film, stage performances.

December 10, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

In yesterday's appreciation of actor Howard E. Rollins Jr., an incorrect name was given for the MPT-produced black soap opera he appeared in during the early 1970s. The series was titled "Our Street."

The Sun regrets the error.

Howard E. Rollins Jr., the Baltimore-born actor who burst onto the movie scene with an Oscar nomination for his first film, was at his best when he was pushed. And when he was pushed, he excelled.

Rollins, probably best known for his work on the TV series "In the Heat of the Night," died Sunday morning in New York of complications from lymphoma, said his agent, Roseanne Gates. He was 46.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

While his TV work was competent, it never matched the quality of his earlier films. He turned in riveting performances in a pair of early-'80s classics: "Ragtime" (which earned him the Oscar nomination) and "A Soldier's Story."

Even if he never made it to that first tier of actors, the men and women around whom blockbusters are built, his film legacy remains a proud one.

"Howard was very careful about the roles he chose," said Everett L. Marshburn, director of regional productions for Maryland Public Television, who met Rollins when the actor was a struggling neophyte on Baltimore stages in the early '70s. "He always wanted to do things that expressed the human side of the characters he was portraying, to show that black people had more than one dimension to them.

"A lot of people will fail to understand this, but Howard was part of that bridge between Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington. There weren't a lot of people on that bridge, but because of people like him, we have the Denzel Washingtons and the Wesley Snipes."

"He was a wonderful actor," his sister, Hattie Fields, said from her Northwest Baltimore home yesterday. "We just loved him, and we miss him."

Howard Rollins Jr. grew up in a rowhouse on East North Avenue. His father was a steelworker, his mother a domestic. In 1967, while a student at Northern High School, he tagged along with a friend who was trying out for a role in the Spotlighters Theatre's production of "Of Mice and Men." He had never considered acting, he told an interviewer in 1981, even as a hobby, much less as a career.

But the director, Steve Yeager, saw something in the 16-year-old far more impressive than anything the friend hinted at in his tryout.

"I saw him sitting there and asked him, 'Have you ever done any theater, have you ever had any public speaking class?' " Yeager, an independent filmmaker, recalled yesterday from his Baltimore office. "I just told him, 'Here's the script, look over the lines, I want you to read for this part.' The friend wasn't very good, but two or three days later, I called Howard back and told him he had the part."

He may have had the part, but having the confidence to perform in front of people was another matter.

"On opening night, he was so nervous," Yeager recalled, "the stage manager came around to me and said: 'Howard won't go on.' He was cowering in the corner. When I heard his cue, I literally shoved him on stage."

"Something happened," Rollins would later recall. "I had never done anything in my life like that, that called on such personal attitudes and required such a personal commitment to the work. I realized after that first time in front of that audience that this was something that excited me because there was so much that could be left to chance. It was so challenging."

From there, his progress was steady, if hardly meteoric: roles in a handful of Spotlighters productions and five years on the MPT-produced "Our Town," a black soap opera that was eventually carried on PBS stations nationwide. He moved to New York in 1974, beginning his Broadway career with "We Interrupt This Program," a play about a group of terrorists who take over a Broadway theater. The show flopped, but Rollins' career advanced.

That career peaked in 1981 with "Ragtime" and in 1984 with "A Soldier's Story." In the former, as Coalhouse Walker Jr., a piano player who sparks a near-riot in turn-of-the-century New York simply by demanding respect, Rollins held his own against the great James Cagney.

Rollins never managed to scale those heights again. His television credits included solid performances as Andrew Young in "King" and Medgar Evers in "For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story." In 1988, he was cast as Det. Virgil Tibbs in "In the Heat of the Night," where he was second-billed to Carroll O'Connor's Sheriff Gillespie. In 1991, Yeager made a movie about the demise of Baltimore's famous Block. Rollins played the land-hungry developer anxious to bulldoze the entire street.

He also continued working in plays, including "Othello" at Canada's Stratford Festival in 1987 and "I'm Not Rappaport" opposite Paul Scofield in London's West End.

But misfortune dogged him as his career entered the '90s. In 1988, pleading guilty to charges of cocaine possession, driving while intoxicated and speeding, he was fined $4,275 by a Louisiana judge and ordered to make an anti-drug video. In 1992, he was sentenced to two days in jail, fined $1,000 and had his license revoked for driving under the influence of a tranquilizer. In 1994, he served three months in a Georgia prison for driving under the influence of cocaine and driving with a suspended license. By that time, he had been replaced on "In the Heat of the Night" by Carl Weathers.

One of Rollins' last appearances on screen -- a celebration of Kwanzaa titled "Harambee!" -- is to be broadcast at 9 p.m. Dec. 26 on MPT, Channels 22 and 67.

In addition to his sister, Rollins is survived by his mother, Ruth. A private funeral is planned.

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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