‘In the Heat of the Night’: The Rumor That Carroll O’Connor Had Howard Rollins Fired Amid Reports of His Substance Abuse

In the Heat of the Night the television series, adapted from the acclaimed film starring Sidney Poitier, ran for many years on television. However, one of its main stars battled a drug and alcohol addiction that eventually led him to no longer be on the show.

in the Heat of the Night
Howard E. Rollins Jr. as Chief of Detectives/Attorney Virgil Tibbs, Anne-Marie Johnson as Althea Tibbs, Carroll O’Conner as Chief/Sherriff William “Bill” O. Gillespie on ‘In the Heat of the Night’ | NBCU Photo Bank

Howard Rollins battled drug and alcohol abuse

Rollins had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and it eventually led to his dismissal from the show in 1994. Years before he was finally written out, they were several reports that he could be departing the show after he was hospitalized. A National Enquirer report said that he had been fired in 1989, but the show’s brass, including co-star and executive producer Carroll O’Connor, denied it. The rumor was that O’Connor fired Rollins. According. to reports, O’Connor was deeply upset by the rumors.

“The whole thing is a lie,” said Jim Mahoney, speaking for O’Connor in a 1989 interview with the New York Daily News. “Carroll wants him Rollins back. And we’re all concerned about his well-being. Carroll is outraged about the story. I’ve never seen him this upset. There’s absolutely no truth to it, and we’re talking to our lawyers about a possible libel suit.”

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Rollins was reportedly in the hospital for chest pains and was released a few days after being admitted. “Carroll has not fired Howard,” said David Gerber, chairman of MGM/UA Television Group, told the New York Daily News at the time. “He had a talk with him last week and told him that it’s all up to him about whether to return to the show or not. He told Howard that if he feels up to it, he can come back anytime, under doctor’s supervision.”

During his time on the show overall, he was arrested four times for drug and alcohol offenses. He also spent one month in jail for reckless driving and a DUI. Because of all of this, he was written out of the show in the sixth season. Despite this, he returned to the show to make several guest appearances in the seventh season.

Anne-Marie Johnson spoke Howard Rollins’ praises several years back

Though Rollins had his issues in real-life, the person who worked the closest with him on-screen only sung his praises. In an interview less than 10 years ago with In the Heat of the Night Fan Club, Johnson called her former co-star a “dynamic talent.”

‘We’d never met each other before our first scene,’ she explained. “I’ll never forget that day. It was hot and humid and we were shooting in Hammond LA. It was an exterior shot of Virgil and Althea walking up the steps of his childhood church, attending Virgil’s mother’s funeral. I walked up to Howard, introduced myself, we hugged, he teased me (I don’t remember what the tease was) and that was that.

According to Johnson, their chemistry came organically. “We were married,’ she said. “Our chemistry was just that; simple, organic chemistry. We really loved working together. He was such a dynamic talent. Really incredible. We spent more time laughing and kidding each other all those years than anything else. We had such heavy scenes to do every week, we had to lighten the atmosphere… not only for ourselves, but for our crew.”

Reruns of In the Heat of the Night currently air on multiple networks in syndication.