At some point, certain television shows become signifiers of your age. It just kind of happens. Today’s “Breaking Bad” becomes tomorrow’s “Murder She Wrote” or “Lawrence Welk Show”: a thing to be enjoyed ironically, if at all, and most probably relegated to the realm of laughably uncool by mere virtue of its remaining viewer demographic.
Case in point: “In the Heat of the Night”. No, not the classic, brilliant movie of that name. I mean the television show which maybe you didn’t know about beyond it being the last thing of note which Carroll O’Connor (of Archie Bunker fame) did before his death.
Go on. Search for it in Twitter. “Matlock”. “In the Heat of the Night”. Lots of mentions of grandparents. You might catch me mentioning it on Twitter, too, possibly in reference to the disappointment the handful of new followers I’ve gotten when I’ve written something online feel when they find out I mostly just retweet people talking about the show.
But ITHOTN (I’m using shorthand from now) is in my head* and has been since it was still new and fresh. I dearly, unironically love the show in all its low-budget, actor recycling, shot on location in Covington, Georgia, splendor. It’s like a cultural security blanket for me, coming on, still, at 11am and noon, seven days a week, on WGN America. I’ve seen every episode more times than I can count (though I’ve still only seen the David Koresh inspired TV movie starring Peter Fonda once) and I keep tuning in any time I’m able. In the weeks since WGN has started airing ITHOTN on Sundays, I’ve even been known to commit the sacrilege of watching it instead of football.
The framework is basically the same as the movie and novel which inspired it. The small Southern town of Sparta, Mississippi, sees its first African-American detective arrive in the police force when Virgil Tibbs, Sparta native but Philadelphia PD trained, comes to town. He gets along uneasily, at best, with his co-workers, particularly the cantankerous chief, Bill Gillespie. The television series evolves the movie’s premise to follow numerous cases over the careers of Tibbs and Gillespie. And so the show goes, tackling all manner of murders, thefts, and assaults in the small town of Sparta.
It’s a tough sell to my friends. It is, after all, a pretty standard cop show on its surface and cop shows have been a dime a dozen since the first television was switched on. But it wasn’t just another cop show. ITHOTN was an often supremely well-acted, morally challenging, and surprisingly political show which broke a lot more ground than is remembered. It ran for eight seasons, something which never ceases to amaze people only tangentially familiar with the show. It was also a show troubled with creative clashes, egos, and drug abuse which saw two of its stars dead almost as soon as the show went off the air and essentially left Carroll O’Connor emotionally broken in his later years.
There is a tendency amongst people of Generation X to view the 1990s as a time which was much closer in time to 2013 than it is in reality. Contributing to this is a quasi-arrestment of some of the most popular aesthetics. Cars today look remarkably similar to those in the mid-90s. Houses are built in much the same style. The same logos rule the supermarkets. White guys are still channeling Eddie Vedder when they start singing. If you squint your eyes, you really can see 1994.
But it’s not 1994 and ITHOTN, from the very first season, reminds you that the world we live in now is much different than the one just past. The notion of working class African-Americans anchoring a drama simply didn’t exist when the show debuted in 1987, nor did it exist when the show went off the air in 1995. Comedies, yes, and there was a proliferation of such shows in those years, though there wasn’t much working class about “The Cosby Show” and the term lost all meaning when you saw the house a policeman could buy in “Family Matters”. Perhaps not so weirdly, given the Reagan era backlash to such things, the late 1960s through mid 1970s were far more fertile ground for black actors in television drama; ITHOTN regular Denise Nicholas was a link to these older shows, having played a major part in “Room 222” in the early 1970s.
ITHOTN was different. If Carroll O’Connor’s Bill Gillespie was the glue which held the series together, Howard Rollins’ Virgil Tibbs was the engine which drove it forward. Rollins was an Oscar nominated actor coming in, a man who had shown formidable acting chops without ever really finding a steady groove. For all that Carroll O’Connor was the bankable star in NBC’s eyes, the quality of each individual episode hinged largely on Rollins’ involvement (or lack thereof; more on that shortly). This became even truer when Virgil’s family life began to play more of a role in the series’ plotlines. The relationship between Virgil and his wife, Althea (played by Anne-Marie Johnson), was given a prominent role right from the start, one which only expanded as the series progressed. This relationship and its portrayal as steady and, above all, normal is itself worth remarking upon, still; America has a sometimes fraught relationship with depictions of African-American romantic relationships even today. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was shocking in 1992, not by a long shot, but it was certainly not a prevalent thing in TV dramas at the time. So long as Rollins was focused and invested in the show, which was most (but not all) of the time. ITHOTN as a whole was very good.
The cast outside O’Connor and Rollins tended toward caricature of a particular trait rather than complexity. All of the actors tackled it with aplomb, however, and very few stood out as unambiguously terrible actors. There was Bubba, the musclebound tough guy cop, played by future evangelist and Fresno mayor, Alan Autry. His foil was lovable doofus Parker Williams. Luanne Corbin, the second (the first was shot in her first episode… just spoil it for yourself) African-American woman on the force, tough as nails and out to prove herself. And Wilson Sweet, a sort of younger, more innocent Virgil Tibbs, a personal favorite of mine until his departure.
But it was O’Connor who kept the show together through what was ultimately a very troubled production. There wouldn’t even have been a show without him. NBC offered the role coupled with heavy creative control to him, a chance which O’Connor was only too happy to seize upon. His Bill Gillespie was a man who evolved over time, a slow burn arc played out over the entirety of ITHOTN’s eight seasons which saw him shed his low-grade but pervasive racism in favor of tolerance and understanding of the racial complexities of the 1990s; this culminated in his marrying the African-American Harriet DeLong, played by the aforementioned Denise Nicholas, at the end of the series. O’Connor lends a sense of weary stoicism to the show; he’s a man who is both worn down and excited by the changes around him, the personification of white Sparta in all its grasping for a bridge between the Jim Crow past and multiracial, post-industrial future. He’s the man who is casually racist in that distinctly War Generation fashion but who kisses a black woman at the altar in the final shot of the series.
In watching interviews towards the end of his life, one gets a sense that O’Connor viewed his role as Bill Gillespie as a sort of apology for his career-making turn as Archie Bunker. Not that he disliked the role of Archie (he spoke with reverent love for “All in the Family” and his co-stars) but he seemed quite aware that too many people were laughing with Archie, rather than at him, for him to be fully comfortable. Rather than presenting a character who was racist and would never change, O’Connor seemed to want a character who changed late in his life to be more tolerant of those around him. This was, of course, in keeping with O’Connor’s actual politics; he was notoriously Great Society left, a union supporter and anti-racist.
The first season saw O’Connor disappointed with what he had signed onto. The show was mostly bog standard plots recycled from older cop dramas, not at all the issues oriented take on the genre O’Connor thought he was getting. He began grumbling and using his weight to squeeze the producer and writers out. The second season was better, with a very high quality episode tackling the death penalty, but still interspersed with odd schlock like a two part arc about a series of voodoo inspired murders. The last four episodes of the season coincided with O’Connor requiring heart surgery, leading him to miss those episodes. Since he was looking for new angles, preferably of a political slant, to work into the cop drama formula, he wanted to have Gillespie require heart surgery, too, as a meditation on aging and health. What he got instead was an arc which saw Joe Don Baker replace him while his character was kidnapped by a Neo-Nazi gang.
This was a bit of a breaking point for O’Connor, who finally forced out the writers and producers not in line with his vision of the show in season three. From then on, it was truly O’Connor’s show and the issues oriented programming he desired was fully in view. He took on heavy writing duties, leading the writing team in sculpting a show to his vision.
It’s been said that there’s a certain Very Special Episode quality to the series starting in the middle of season two, with almost every episode centered on exploring some social ill. Certainly the show ended up with some contrived situations from time to time in order to make a point, though I don’t think it was any more contrived than whatever “CSI” is running on a given night.
The thing is that these issues ITHOTN talked about were relevant and, at times, verboten at the time of the show’s original airing. I recognized Sparta, Mississippi, because I lived there. More precisely, I lived in Lexington, North Carolina, which was also Sparta. My town, like Sparta, was a just post-industrial slice of the South, a once thriving factory town, 30% or so African-American, on a slow decline as drugs came in and industry went out. The main commercial strip of Sparta looked like Lexington’s. Sparta’s city council acted like ours did, fully split between a creeping dread of what was coming and an insistence that things would be just fine if nobody changed too much. Sparta had the Bottoms; Lexington had the Cut. My town even had a 19th century courthouse, just like Sparta did, in the middle of town, dominating the surrounding shops and diners.
The problems were the same, too. If ITHOTN spent a lot of time exploring issues like the crack epidemic or rape or the power disparity between the races it was because those things were real in Sparta and they were real in Lexington. We just didn’t talk about them. As with so many small towns, we pretended drugs and crime were things which happened in bigger, meaner places with names like Charlotte and Atlanta. ITHOTN wasn’t precisely real; the lines were too sharp, the focus too clear to be real. But because of those sharp lines and that clear focus, you could see your town thrown into relief. Carroll O’Connor was whip smart and knew what he was doing; the tales from the South in that transition period from Old to New, ignored by the culture industry as dull or uninteresting, had a vitality all their own. If his writing sometimes dipped into the average, his laser focus on bringing the politics of that Transitional South into the living rooms of America never flagged.
Unfortunately, everything else flagged, especially Howard Rollins. Rollins was a formidable actor but he was undeniably troubled. These troubles were compounded by his extreme unease with working in Hammond, Louisiana, in the first season. He was on record as saying that he was the target of racism there which, combined with the lack of escape in such a small, remote town, seemed to trigger an ever worsening spiral of drug abuse and wild behavior. He was also, by numerous accounts, gay but closeted, a social victim of those not as near as you think late 80s and early 90s. Cocaine was his supposed drug of choice, snorted or shot up, along with a lot of alcohol. Moving the show to Georgia in the second season didn’t seem to help; his behavior became tabloid fodder and the drugs kept getting him into trouble.
This showed up on screen. Virgil Tibbs, by any criteria a necessary counterweight and co-equal to Gillespie, began to miss episodes. It started out here and there. Virgil was off in Jackson. Sometimes he wasn’t mentioned at all, his duties picked up by one of the other cops. By the sixth season, he had missed chunks of time at a stretch or was limited to bit part status on certain episodes, snagging ten minutes of screen time before disappearing.
But it wasn’t just his absence which hurt the product; the actual performances when he was commanding the audience’s attention seemed to suffer, as well. Rollins was scintillating in the first two seasons; given sometimes shoddy material to work with, he often seemed bigger than the screen, combining the gravitas Poitier gave the role of Virgil Tibbs with a tenderness brought on by the family life which the series granted the character. From season five or so on, the good performances were more erratic. To a dedicated watcher of the series, he sometimes seems distracted or disinterested. Lines are delivered with wooden stiffness. And then, out of the blue, the same substandard performance turns into something great again. Sometimes the differences are subtle, sometimes not, but they’re omnipresent once the spiral began.
Rollins was eventually asked to leave the show. He was popped for reckless driving and was becoming a serious distraction on the set. Periodically, he would show up as Virgil Tibbs, defense attorney, but even that eventually stopped after the county where the series was shot banned him from returning. So it was that Virgil Tibbs, one of the iconic characters of mid-20th century American screen, simply disappeared from the television version of ITHOTN.
O’Connor decided to plug along, bringing in Carl Weathers as Chief Forbes, Sparta’s first black police chief. Gillespie retired, then unretired to become sheriff. Virgil was sent off to law school. Althea moved back to Philadelphia with their twins. Wilson Sweet disappeared without explanation (the actor, Geoffrey Thorne, left to become a novelist) and was never mentioned again. This latter disappearance, while ostensibly a secondary character, was extremely jarring to me. Sweet was a proto-Tibbs, as I said, but more ambitious. In season one, he states that he wants to become the first black police chief and the character has a certain earnestness as he goes about his work as a police officer. He disappeared, he was one of my favorite characters, and it felt weird.
Suddenly, it was a very different show. It wasn’t bad, exactly, but the center of power was muddied and odd. Forbes would generally take the lead on investigations, perhaps even having the majority of the screen time, but he was a peripheral character at almost all times. The real plot line in those late seasons was Gillespie’s interracial romance with Harriet Delong, not the police work. It created an odd dynamic which saw weird reasons concocted to get Gillespie and Forbes on the same screen at the same time. The boundaries of Sparta suddenly seemed completely arbitrary; places which were clearly within the city limits were suddenly in now Sheriff Gillespie’s jurisdiction, while spots obviously well out in the sticks were handled by Forbes. They called each other and traded responsibilities freely, all while the dramatic center of gravity was on something completely unrelated to the crime part of the show.
Serious dramatic actors, friends of O’Connor’s and usually late in their lives, started showing up. Burgess Meredith basically closed his career out on ITHOTN, while Peter Fonda and George C Scott showed up for guest slots. It was the sort of death rattle every show goes through, albeit with Oscars and impressive vaudeville resumes thrown in. The series was on its last legs, O’Connor knew it, and the plug was pulled in its eighth season in 1995.
A show which had more than its share of drama and drug use couldn’t go out quietly, however. Hugh O’Connor, Carroll O’Connor’s adoptive son, had a role on the show as Lonnie Jamison from the first episode. Minor at first, the role grew over the years. Hugh was never a terribly good actor but his character had a definite niche as the cool, kind of detached cop. Hugh’s limited range never came into conflict with the equally limited demands of the role. In fact, I daresay he became a little better than passable by the end, carrying the few Lonnie-centered story arcs reasonably well.
Unfortunately, just as with Howard Rollins, Hugh O’Connor had terrible drug problems. In fact, Carroll O’Connor gave him the part mostly as a way to keep him out of trouble (we’ll excuse this bit of nepotism given the severity of Hugh’s drug use). The story goes that Hugh O’Connor nearly died of cancer as a child but never really got over some of the pain associated with his illness and attendant surgeries. He picked up weed, then painkillers, and finally cocaine as a way to combat this.
Two months before the airing of the final episode of ITHOTN, Hugh O’Connor shot himself rather than go to rehab one more time.
Carroll O’Connor was devastated. I remember firsthand the interviews he gave with the news. Even in interviews years after the fact, the psychic wound his son’s suicide caused was apparent. I recall reading one in which Carroll O’Connor opened up an exotic car dealership because his son liked hot cars. It was a memorial to his son. An odd one, I think, but a memorial, nonetheless.
Howard Rollins, for his part, barely outlived the show. He died of lymphoma in 1996 in the midst of an attempted comeback. While I hate the tendency to compare exemplars in a given field to other worthies of the same racial background, it’s appropriate to do so here: Rollins had a Denzel Washington-esque quality to him in his best moments and, in an alternate universe where he was healthy and survived, I have no doubt that he would be considered Williams’ equal. When I watch ITHOTN, I invariably wonder what he would’ve gone on to do.
Carroll O’Connor survived until 2001. He died of heart problems stemming from diabetes. He showed up in small television roles here and there but it was obvious that declining health and, probably most of all, the death of his son prevented him from doing much more.
The quality of ITHOTN is, sadly, largely forgotten. It’s a show for old folks now, hokey, sentimental, overly earnest, too political in the most heavy-handed ways. It is definitely, admittedly, a time capsule, linked to a time and place which doesn’t really exist anymore; the Astoria of “All in the Family” feels closer than the Transitional South of ITHOTN.
For all that, and some of it is true, it’s a fundamentally brave show, written and produced at a time when our oh so modern America didn’t talk about certain things. If there was a crack epidemic, it was in Los Angeles or New York City, not towns of twenty thousand in the Bible Belt. The violence and treachery so often at the heart of American existence doesn’t disappear when you move to a small town; it simply morphs into a quieter, shrewder form. That’s not to condemn small town existence; I’m a product of a small town and, while I would never go back, there are things about it I miss. It’s simply no better than city life, just different.
ITHOTN tackled that strain of life in Southern towns with clarity, focus, and compassion. The racism in Sparta wasn’t a Jim Crow caricature, nor was it absent; it was systemic, pervasive, and mutable, ebbing and swelling as full-formed people grappled with their surroundings. When Althea Tibbs was raped, the show treated the crime and its aftermath maturely, focusing primarily on the recovery of rape survivors. Time and again, hot button issues form the basis of, to the ITHOTN novice, surprisingly well-rounded and profoundly non-cynical episodes.
The lingering popular impression of ITHOTN as “just another cop show” or, worse, “lame show for old people” does a terrible disservice to its quality. Perhaps even worse is that it’s not really remembered by most people at all; I have a friend who, after hearing me yap about it for so long, looked it up only to be in shock that it was on for nearly a decade. She’d never really heard of it before she met me.
The show deserves better. The best thing a curious prospective viewer could do if they’re home from work one day or lazing about on a weekend is to give it a watch. Do so with an open mind, recognizing that the techniques and style on display are part of the time it was shot and are part of the show’s charm, not a drawback. It’s not “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire”. It’s “In the Heat of the Night” and it’s perfectly wonderful all on its own.
*These facts are absolutely true: I figured out the murder rate for Sparta because that’s exactly the sort of thing I would do. I had it pegged at 48 per 100k residents. New Orleans is at 49 per 100k for comparison’s sake. My daughter knows the theme song by heart. I started a petition to force my wife to agree to a trip to Covington, GA, so we could visit locations from the show; it received about 100 signatures but she didn’t give in. My best friend from high school is stalking the guy who played Parker because he found out that he lives near Winston-Salem now and I think it’s a really good idea.
I may need help.