This commanding black actor came to prominence as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Milos Forman's adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow novel "Ragtime" (1981), for which he earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. Rollins was also memorable in Norman Jewison's tightly-wound drama, "A Soldier's Story" (1984). But Rollins is perhaps best remembered for his television appearances.
On the small screen, the intense actor has portrayed a wide range of characters, ranging from the factual (Andrew Young in the 1978 NBC biographical miniseries "King" and George Haley in the 1979 ABC miniseries "Roots: The Next Generation") to fictional (Honey in "The Member of the Wedding" NBC, 1982). Rollins was a member of the cast of the NBC daytime drama "Another World" in the early 80s and segued to a primetime series with the short-lived Western "Wildside" (ABC, 1985), in which he played an demolitions expert. But he earned widespread recognition for his role as Virgil Tibbs (the Sidney Poitier role in the feature) in the TV series, "In the Heat of the Night" (NBC, 1988-92; CBS, 1992-93). Rollins has also made headlines with well-publicized battles with substance abuse and arrests for cocaine possession and driving under the influence. His recurring problems led to his dismissal from the series. Although Rollins underwent rehabilitation, his previous history made producers leery of hiring him and work offers were few. His last TV appearance was as a guest performer on "Remember WENN" (AMC, 1996). He died in December 1996 of complications from lymphoma.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Stage debut, "Of Mice and Men" in Baltimore, MD
Appeared as regular on PBS series "Our Street"
Broadway debut, "We Interrupt This Program"
Feature film debut, "The House of God"
Breakthrough film role, Coalhouse Walker, Jr in Milos Foreman's "Ragtime"
Starred in feature film "A Soldier's Story"
Primetime series debut as regular, "Wildside" (ABC)
Final feature role, "Drunks" (film had festival screens and was aired on Showtime before its theatrical release)
Final TV appearances, guest performance on "Remember WENN" (AMC) and on PBS Kwanzaa special "Harambee!"