Obituary: Howard E. Rollins Jnr

The actor Howard E. Rollins Jnr made his film debut in Milos Forman's Ragtime (1981) as Coalhouse Walker, the cool, sophisticated ragtime pianist who becomes head of a group of black revolutionaries. Variety praised his "staggeringly effective portrayal of conscience-wracked pride" and "intense screen magnetism that bodes instant stardom".

For a time it looked as if Rollins would become Sidney Poitier's successor. However, in spite of unanimous praise from the critics, and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (which he lost to John Gielgud in Arthur), Rollins made only one other film appearance. This was A Soldier's Story (1984), adapted by Charles Fuller from his stage play, and directed by Norman Jewison, who had made Sidney Poitier's In the Heat of the Night (1967). Rollins gave another memorable performance as the stylish, self-assured but intense Captain Richard Davenport, one of the first black officers in the US Army, who arrives in a racially segregated training camp in wartime Louisiana to investigate the murder of a black sergeant. But this time there was no Oscar recognition or any follow-up movie roles. Years passed before Hollywood felt ready to promote a serious black actor: Denzel Washington.

Rollins was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and upset his family when he dropped out of college to work full-time as an actor. He joined the cast of a television soap produced in Baltimore called Our Street, but his mother was not convinced he'd made the right choice. "Black folks just don't become movie stars," she told him. His father tried to persuade him to "get a good job".

Several years later he moved to New York, and gained valuable stage experience with the Player's Workshop. Television roles followed, including as the top US politician Andrew Young in the mini-series King (1978) about Martin Luther King, and as George Haley in Roots: the next generations (1979). He said that Ragtime transformed him overnight from a "no-name that nobody knew" to an Oscar-nominated Hollywood celebrity. In 1986, in an interview with Britain's leading black newspaper, the Voice, he reflected on his role as Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime: "He had been insulted and assaulted, so his efforts towards retribution were understandable. After he had exhausted all legal means, he was only left with the situation that if you don't understand, then I'll give you something to understand - and that is violence. The one parallel with my own life is fighting for what I want . . . in my case it's my career."

In the wake of his success in A Soldier's Story, there was talk of Rollins starring in a film about Nelson Mandela, as well as playing Othello with Al Pacino as Iago. Regrettably, neither project materialised. In 1986 Rollins came to London to appear opposite Paul Scofield in the West End production of I'm Not Rappaport and, in 1988, he took the lead in a television series based on Poitier's In the Heat of the Night. Sadly, he was written out of the series because of his addiction to drugs. Carl Weathers replaced him.

In the late 1980s, when asked about his infrequent film appearances, he explained: "I'm not turning down any work. I haven't been approached with anything substantial. I don't like to say it, but it can only be because I'm black. Why else wouldn't studios take advantage of an actor who's acknowledged as capable."

Stephen Bourne

Howard E. Rollins, actor: born Baltimore, Maryland 17 October 1950; died New York 8 December 1996.

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam