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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 crime drama In the Heat of the Night.
Rollins was the youngest of four children born to Ruth and Howard Ellsworth Rollins Sr. in Baltimore, Maryland. His mother was a domestic worker while his father was a steelworker. Rollins Sr. died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1980. Upon his high school graduation, Rollins studied theater at Towson University.
In 1970, Rollins left college early to play the role of "Slick" in the PBS soap opera Our Street. In 1974, he moved to New York City where he went on to appear in the Broadway productions of We Interrupt This Program..., in 1975, The Mighty Gents in 1978, and G. R. Point in 1979. He also appeared in the miniseries King and Roots: The Next Generations.
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 an 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 let go from the series at the end of Season 7 and replaced by Carl Weathers. Rollins, however, would return for several guest appearances throughout the eighth (and final) season of the show in 1994-1995.
After being let go from In the Heat of the Night, Rollins got sober and worked on rebuilding his career and reputation. In 1995, he appeared in a guest role on New York Undercover, followed by a role in the theatrical 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!.
In 1988, Rollins was arrested and pled guilty to cocaine possession in Louisiana. In 1992 and 1993, he was arrested on three separate occasions for driving under the influence. In 1994, he served a month in jail for reckless driving and driving under the influence. Because of continued legal problems, Rollins was ultimately dropped from In the Heat of the Night. After attending drug rehab, he returned to In the Heat of the Night as a guest star.
On December 8, 1996, Rollins died at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City of complications from lymphoma. He had been diagnosed with the disease approximately six weeks earlier. His funeral was held on December 13 in Baltimore.
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.
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