Obituaries: Esther Rolle

THE AFRICAN-American actress Esther Rolle gained national recognition in the 1970s for her role as Florida Evans in two television sit-coms for CBS: first as the wise-cracking, militant domestic in Maude, and then its hit spin-off, Good Times, as the strong-willed but loving mother of a struggling black family in Chicago.

Born in Pompano Beach, Florida in 1922, Rolle was the 10th of 18 children, and her father was a farmer. An older sister, Estelle Evans, also an actress, memorably played Calpurnia in the film version of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

After graduating from high school, Rolle pursued an acting career by travelling to New York and becoming one of the early members of the Negro Ensemble Company, which in 1969 performed at the Aldwych, London in God is a (Guess What?) and Song of the Lusitanian Bogey. In the late 1950s she performed with Shogola Obola, an African-American dance troupe.

In 1964 she made her film debut in Nothing But a Man and her Broadway debut in James Baldwin's Blues for Mr Charlie. The following year she appeared in another Broadway play by Baldwin, The Amen Corner. Other important stage appearances included Lady Macbeth in an off-Broadway version of Macbeth (1977), and as the matriarch Lena Younger in a tour of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1987). Later film appearances included Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Her final film appearance will be in Down in the Delta, directed by Maya Angelou.

In 1971 Rolle started her television career with regular appearances in the daytime soap One Life to Live, and the following year she made her first appearance in Maude. Its spin-off, Good Times, was launched in 1974, and told the story of a struggling but loving family on Chicago's South Side. It made a star out of Jimmie Walker, who played the older son JJ, and his trademark saying "Dyn-O-Mite!" became a national catchphrase. Though the series was not shown in Britain, it was adapted by London Weekend Television in 1976 as The Fosters, starring Norman Beaton and Lenny Henry.

Off-screen, Esther Rolle criticised racist stereotypes on American television and even left the cast of Good Times because she felt the image presented by Jimmie Walker's buffoonish character was offensive to blacks. In an interview in Ebony the disenchanted actress explained:

I resent the imagery that says to black kids that you can make it by standing on the corner and saying "Dyn-O-Mite!" He's 18 and he doesn't work. He can't read or write. He doesn't think. The show didn't start out to be that. Little by little they have made JJ more stupid and enlarged the role. Negative images have been quietly slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child.

However, Rolle was persuaded to return to the cast of Good Times for the 1978-79 season with the promise that JJ would be a more respectable character. For Good Times, Esther received the 1974 NAACP Image Award for Best Actress in a Comedy.

NBC's Summer of My German Soldier (1978) was a made-for- television movie set in Georgia during one summer of the Second World War. It followed the bittersweet romance between a teenage Jewish girl (Kristy McNichol) and an escaped Nazi prisoner of war (Bruce Davison). Rolle's portrayal of Ruth, the proud and defiant domestic who protects the teenager, earned her an Emmy award as Best Supporting Actress.

She followed this with another memorable performance as the strong grandmother in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979). This was CBS's made-for-television movie version of Maya Angelou's eloquent memoir of her days as a gifted youngster growing up in the South during the Depression.

From the 1970s, Rolle made numerous guest appearances in top-rated television series including The Incredible Hulk (1979), Love Boat (1983) and Murder She Wrote (1985). In 1981 she played a leading role in NBC's Momma the Detective, a pilot for a crime drama series that never materialised; she was cast as a housekeeper with an uncanny knack for solving crimes. In 1989 she appeared in a television version of A Raisin in the Sun.

In 1990 she became the first woman to receive the NAACP's Civil Rights Leadership Award for her work improving the image of blacks.

Esther Rolle, actress: born Pompano Beach, Florida 8 November 1922; married (marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 18 November 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?