Rolle was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (1991).
Famous for her gruff voice and gap-toothed smile, talented and outspoken African-American actress Esther Rolle made her mark on television as Florida Evans on "Maude" (CBS, 1972-78) and then her own series, "Good Times" (CBS, 1974-79). Like many black actors and actresses of her generation, Rolle often played domestics, but she made the characters more interesting and dignified than was the norm. A staunch advocate for improving the depiction of African-American characters, Rolle demonstrated her convictions by walking off "Good Times" at the height of its popularity when she felt that the series had failed in those regards. She was also a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company and ranked among its most distinguished alumni. Rolle initially attracted the attention of "Maude" producer Norman Lear via her laudable performances in Broadway productions like "An Evening of One Acts" (1969), "Rosalee Pritchett" (1971) and "Don't Play Us Cheap" (1972). She also went on to do fine work in movies, though rarely in the sort of intriguing lead roles offered to her on stage and television. Both "Maude" and "Good Times" confirmed that Rolle was a wonderful comedic talent even when working with variable material, but she was also an excellent dramatic actress, as evidenced by her impressive résumé of stage credits and Emmy Award-winning turn in the TV movie "Summer of My German Soldier" (NBC, 1978). An actress of great power and range who did not suffer fools gladly, Rolle was an inspiration to actors of any color or creed.
The tenth in an astonishing 18 children family, Esther Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, FL on Nov. 8, 1920 to Bahamian immigrant parents. Her father was a Baptist minister and the sizeable family resided on a vegetable farm. Rolle attended Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, and along with some of her fellow siblings, performed in a drama group that toured throughout Florida. She later moved to New York City, where she took drama courses at George Washington Carver School and studied acting at the New School for Social Research. Rolle also worked as a dancer for Shogola Oloba's Asadata Dafora troupe and was later a member of another company called Calypso Carousel. Following a marriage of five years, which found her mostly being an unhappy housewife, Rolle returned to acting in such productions as Jean Genet's "The Blacks" and the two-part, off-Broadway effort "Happy Ending/Day of Absence" (1965-67) alongside such talented performers as Robert Hooks, Adolph Caesar and Frances Foster. She also made her film debut with a small role in the acclaimed drama "Nothing But a Man" (1964), served as a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967, and appeared on the popular daytime soap opera "One Life to Live" (ABC, 1968-2012).
The network television gig gave her the widest exposure up to that point, but Rolle's most challenging and satisfying work was being done on stage in productions like "An Evening of One Acts" (1969), "Man Better Man" (1969), "Akokawe" (1970), "Rosalee Pritchett" (1971) and the musical fantasy "Don't Play Us Cheap" (1972) from trailblazing writer-director Melvin Van Peebles. The actress' persuasive and dynamic stage acting caught the attention of TV producer Norman Lear, who hired her for his new sitcom "Maude" (CBS, 1972-78). Serving as housekeeper for star Bea Arthur, Rolle's feisty Florida Evans quickly became of the show's highlights and it was decided to spin the character off into her own series. However, before Rolle agreed to be a part of "Good Times" (CBS, 1974-79), she insisted that the character's family have a father figure to help work against the stereotype that African-American men frequently deserted their families. While Rolle remained much liked in the role, the breakout star on the program turned out to be young Jimmie Walker, whose catch phrase "Dyn-o-mite!" became a favorite among teenagers of the time. However, that success caused a change in approach by the writers and producers that Rolle felt cheapened the series and its objectives. In particular, she took issue with Walker's character, stating that because he was illiterate and unemployed, he set a bad example for African-American youth. Following the lead of her similarly disillusioned co-star John Amos, who quit in 1976, Rolle left the show following the conclusion of the 1976-77 season. She was ultimately coaxed back after a one-year absence when the producers promised to make Walker's character a bit more intelligent and ambitious, but her return did not help declining ratings and the sitcom only lasted another year.
While "Good Times" was ultimately a disappointing experience for her, Rolle was now firmly established on the small screen and a number of good parts came her way. She won an Emmy Award for her performance in the made-for-television feature "Summer of My German Soldier" (NBC, 1978) and also impressed in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (CBS, 1979), based on Maya Angelou's book of that name, and an "American Playhouse" (PBS, 1982- ) adaptation of "A Raisin in the Sun," which she had previously performed in on stage. Also known as "Momma the Detective," "See China and Die" (NBC, 1981) was a combination TV feature/series pilot that cast Rolle as a detective story-loving maid who gets caught up in a real life mystery. Rolle made the character memorable and the premise had definite possibilities for a weekly series, but no additional installments were produced. The actress kept busy, however, with guest spots on the likes of "Flamingo Road" (NBC, 1981-82) and "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986). Rolle also made a belated encore trip to the Great White Way in "Horowitz and Mrs. Washington" (1980), but a return to sitcoms with "Singer & Sons" (CBS, 1990) proved short-lived when the show was cancelled after four episodes.
She also graced movie screens again with parts in the early Denzel Washington vehicle "The Mighty Quinn" (1989) and as loyal housekeeper Idella in the Oscar-winning Best Picture "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989). Additional parts followed in "House of Cards" (1993), "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995) and "My Fellow Americans" (1996), but Rolle did her best work in John Singleton's earnest and effective racial drama "Rosewood" (1997). Television assignments also came in the form of guest spots on "Touched by an Angel" (CBS, 1994-2003) and "Poltergeist: The Legacy" (Showtime, 1996-99). Unfortunately, Rolle's health took a turn for the worse in the late 1990s. Already suffering from diabetes, she soon required kidney dialysis and passed away on Nov. 17, 1998, less than a week and a half after her 78th birthday. The actress' final film, the independently-produced drama "Train Ride," was not released until 2004.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Made off-Broadway debut in "The Blacks"
Landed early film role in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
Was founding member of Negro Ensemble Company
Made London stage debut in "God Is a (Guess What?)"
Cast as regular on "One Life to Live" (ABC)
Created role of Florida Evans on "Maude" (ABC)
Reprised Florida Evans with starring role on "Good Times" (CBS)
Won Emmy for work in TV movie debut "Summer of My German Soldier" (NBC)
Played Maya Angelou's grandmother in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"
Played the Nurse in "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet"
Played loyal housekeeper Idella in award-winning feature "Driving Miss Daisy"
Returned to series TV on NBC sitcom "Singer and Sons"
Played minor role in "How to Make an American Quilt"
Final mainstream feature appearance, "Down in the Delta"
Rolle was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (1991).