Happy 101st Birthday Esther Rolle

Today is the 101st birthday of the actor Esther Rolle. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.

NAME: Esther Rolle
DATE OF BIRTH: 8-Nov-1920
PLACE OF BIRTH: Pompano Beach, FL
DATE OF DEATH: 17-Nov-1998
CAUSE OF DEATH: Diabetes complications
REMAINS: Buried, Westview Cemetery, Pompano Beach, FL
EMMY 1979 for Summer of My German Soldier

BEST KNOWN FOR: American actress best known for her role as Florida Evans on the sitcom Maude and its spin-off series Good Times.

Esther Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, Florida. She was the tenth of 18 children (children who included siblings and fellow actresses Estelle Evans and Rosanna Carter). Rolle graduated from Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Florida. She initially studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, before moving to New York City. While in New York, she attended Hunter College before transferring to The New School and then Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. For many years, Rolle worked in a traditional day job in New York City’s garment district.

Rolle was a member of Asadata Dafora’s dance troupe, Shogolo Oloba. She became the troupe’s director in 1960. Rolle’s earliest roles were on the stage; her New York stage debut was in the 1962 play The Blacks. She was often cast in plays produced by Robert Hooks and the Negro Ensemble Company. She also appeared in productions of The Crucible and Blues for Mr. Charlie. Rolle’s most prominent early role was as Miss Maybell in the 1973 Melvin Van Peebles play, Don’t Play Us Cheap. In 1977, Rolle portrayed Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles’ Haitian-influenced version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the Henry Street New Federal Theater in Manhattan.

Rolle is best known for her television role as Florida Evans, the character she played on two 1970s sitcoms. The character was introduced as Maude Findlay’s housekeeper on Maude, and was spun off in the show’s second season into Good Times, a show about Florida’s family. Rolle was nominated in 1975 for the Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy Golden Globe Award for her role in Good Times. Rolle was 19 years older than the actor (John Amos) who played her husband James Evans. The James Evans character was only added after Esther Rolle fought hard for a father figure and husband to be added to the show. Rolle had fought for the father character on the show, more relevant themes and scripts and was unhappy when the success of Jimmie Walker’s character, J.J. Evans, which she believed took the show in a frivolous direction. John Amos agreed with Rolle about Walker’s character and was fired from the show after the third season ended. Later on, in a stand-off with Good Times producer Norman Lear, Rolle also quit when her contract ended. Although the show continued without her for the fifth season, she returned for the show’s final season. In 1979 she won an Emmy for her role in Summer of My German Soldier, a made-for-television movie.

Among her guest star roles was one on The Incredible Hulk in an episode entitled “Behind the Wheel” where she played a taxicab business owner. n the 1990s, Rolle was a surprise guest on RuPaul’s VH-1 talk show. Her Maude co-star Bea Arthur was the guest, and Rolle was brought out to surprise Arthur. The two had not seen each other in years, Arthur said, and embraced warmly. Rolle also appeared in a series of psychic hotline TV commercials in the 1990s. “Tell them Esther sent you,” was her trademark line.

Rolle released an album of music titled The Garden of My Mind in 1975. Rolle’s first screen appearance is a small, uncredited role in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and she later appeared in Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree (1969). Her sister, actress Estelle Evans, appeared in both films as well. Esther Rolle appeared early in her career in the film Nothing But a Man (1964). After Good Times ended, she appeared in a number of made-for-television movies and films, including Driving Miss Daisy and My Fellow Americans. A memorable role was that of Aunt Sarah in the film Rosewood (1997). She had a major role in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings based on Maya Angelou’s memoir of the same name, and has the distinction of having won the first Emmy Award for the category Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie, in 1979, for her work in the television movie Summer of My German Soldier. She is also credited for her role in the film The Mighty Quinn (1989), starring Denzel Washington and Sheryl Lee Ralph, and featuring Robert Townsend. Her last film, Train Ride, was released in 2000 despite being filmed in 1998.

Rolle’s only marriage was to Oscar Robinson. The two were married from 1955 to 1975. They had no children.

Rolle died on November 17, 1998, in Culver City, California, from complications of diabetes, nine days after her 78th birthday. A devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rolle requested that her funeral be held at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. She is buried in Westview Community Cemetery in Pompano Beach, Florida. The cemetery is an historically-black burial ground, created in 1952, a time when the laws and customs of Florida did not permit white persons and black persons to be buried in the same cemetery.

Rolle’s family donated over 100 items of hers to the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The collection includes gowns, a black Raggedy Andy doll she endorsed, a recording of poems recited by Rolle, and awards such as the 1974 NAACP Eighth Image Award for Best Actress In A Series and her 1979 Emmy for her role in Summer of My German Soldier.

Flamingo Road Julia (1982)
Good Times Florida Evans (1974-79)
Maude Florida Evans (1972-74)
One Life to Live Sadie Gray (1971)

Down in the Delta (5-Aug-1998) · Annie
Rosewood (21-Feb-1997) · Aunt Sarah
My Fellow Americans (20-Dec-1996) · Rita
How to Make an American Quilt (6-Oct-1995) · Aunt Pauline
Scarlett (13-Nov-1994)
To Dance with the White Dog (5-Dec-1993)
House of Cards (25-Jun-1993)
Driving Miss Daisy (13-Dec-1989) · Idella
The Mighty Quinn (16-Feb-1989) · Ubu Pearl
A Raisin in the Sun (1-Feb-1989) · Lena Younger
P.K. and the Kid (Jan-1987)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (28-Apr-1979)
Summer of My German Soldier (30-Oct-1978)
Cleopatra Jones (Jul-1973) · Mrs. Johnson
Don't Play Us Cheap (1973) · Miss Maybell
Who Says I Can't Ride a Rainbow! (18-Nov-1971)
Nothing But a Man (19-Sep-1964)

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