Esther Elizabeth Rolle
November 8, 1920
Pompano Beach, Florida, U.S.
|Died||November 17, 1998 (aged 78)|
Culver City, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Westview Community Cemetery, Pompano Beach, Florida|
|Known for||Florida Evans in Maude and Good Times|
(m. 1955; div. 1975)
|Relatives||Estelle Evans (sister)|
Rosanna Carter (sister)
|Awards||1979 Primetime Emmy Award: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special|
Summer of My German Soldier
Esther Elizabeth Rolle (November 8, 1920 – November 17, 1998) was an American actress. She is best known for her role as Florida Evans, on the CBS television sitcom Maude, for two seasons (1972–1974), and its spin-off series Good Times, for five seasons (1974–77, 1978–79), for which Rolle was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Television Series Musical or Comedy in 1976. In 1979, Rolle won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Special for the television film Summer of My German Soldier.
Esther Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, Florida to Bahamian immigrants Jonathan Rolle (1883–1953), a farmer, and Elizabeth Iris Rolle (née Dames; 1887–1947). Her parents were both born and raised in Nassau, New Providence, The Bahamas and moved to Florida some time after their marriage. 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 (later renamed the Federal Theater African Dance Troupe). 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 Melvin Van Peebles 1972 Broadway musical Don't Play Us Cheap, and its subsequent 1973 film adaptation.1 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 (named Henry on Maude) 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 with 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-starring roles was one on The Incredible Hulk in an episode entitled "Behind the Wheel", in which she played a taxicab business owner. In 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, at the age of 78. 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 a historically black burial ground created in 1952, a time when the laws and customs of Florida did not permit white people and black people 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, Florida. 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.
|1964||Nothing But a Man||Church woman|
|1967||Up the Down Staircase||Teacher||Uncredited|
|1970–1971||One Life to Live||Sadie Gray||Unknown episodes|
|1971||Who Says I Can't Ride a Rainbow!|
|1971||The Bold Ones: The Senator||Black Woman||Episode: "A Single Blow of a Sword"|
|1972–1974||Maude||Florida Evans||32 episodes|
|1973||Cleopatra Jones||Mrs. Johnson|
|1973||Don't Play Us Cheap||Miss Maybell|
|1974–1979||Good Times||Florida Evans||109 episodes|
Nominated–Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Television Series Musical or Comedy
|1978||Summer of My German Soldier||Ruth||TV movie|
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
|1979||I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings||Momma||TV movie|
|1979||The Incredible Hulk||Colleen Jensen||Episode: "Behind the Wheel"|
|1981||Darkroom||Grandmother / Old Woman||Episode: "Needlepoint"|
|1981||See China and Die||Momma Sykes||TV movie|
|1982||Flamingo Road||Julia||3 episodes|
|1983||The Love Boat||Judge Kramer||Episode: "I Like To Be In America"|
|1983||Fantasy Island||Mama||Episode: "Edward/The Extraordinary Miss Jones"|
|1984||Finder of Lost Loves||Nellie||Episode: "Goodbye, Sara"|
|1985||Murder, She Wrote||Margaret||Episode: "Reflections of the Mind"|
|1986||Ethnic Notions||Narrator||Documentary about the history of racial stereotypes|
|1987||P.K. and the Kid||Mim|
|1989||American Playhouse||Lena Younger||Episode: "A Raisin in the Sun"|
|1989||The Mighty Quinn||Ubu Pearl|
|1989||Driving Miss Daisy||Idella|
|1990||The Kid Who Loved Christmas||Mrs. Clayton, Adoption Agency Director||TV movie|
|1990||Singer & Sons||Sarah Patterson||4 episodes|
|1993||House of Cards||Adelle|
|1993||To Dance with the White Dog||Neelie||TV movie|
|1995||How to Make an American Quilt||Aunt Pauline|
|1996||My Fellow Americans||Rita|
|1996||General Hospital||Mourner||Unknown episodes|
|1997||Rosewood||Aunt Sarah||Nominated–Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture|
|1997||Touched by an Angel||Mary Harding||Episode: "Amazing Grace: Part 1"|
|1998||Poltergeist: The Legacy||Grandma Rose||Episode: "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"|
|1998||Down in the Delta||Annie Sinclair|
|2000||Train Ride||Dean of Students||Final film role|