Obituaries: Esther Rolle

Stephen Bourne
Tuesday 24 November 1998 01:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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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.

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