In the spring of 1988, the TV adaptation of In the Heat of the Night premiered on NBC. This exciting, high-tension series starred Harold Rollins and Carrol O’Conner in the roles originally played by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. The show was great, filled with well-fleshed characters and an intriguing storyline. It ran for five seasons on NBC and three additional ones on CBS.
The show followed bigoted police chief Bill Gillespie and detective Virgil Tibbs as they grapple with hard-hitting topics each week in the fictional city of Sparta, Mississippi. The conflicts on the show included racism, sexual assault, violence, and political corruption.
Let’s see what went on behind the scenes and where the stars are today.
The Show Started Out as a Novel
In 1965, John Ball, a 54-year-old columnist and music critic, decided to write the “whodunit” story – In the Heat of the Night. This was Ball’s first book, which certainly makes the Edgar Award he received from the Mystery Writers of America way more impressive.
John Ball would go on to work on six more Tibbs novels, plus another four short stories. The author’s final book was titled Singapore, which was published a year before the series began. The American writer passed away on October 15, 1988.
The Film Adaptation Won Best Picture in 1967
Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant decided to take on Ball’s novel and adapt it for the screen. He tweaked some of the details, changing the story’s setting to Sparta and shifting Tibbs from the Pasadena P.D. to Philadelphia instead.
As for the characters, Rod Steiger joined the cast as Gillespie and Sidney Poitier starred in the role of Tibbs, with Norman Jewison directing the whole spectacle. At the time of the film, Poitier became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field. Steiger took home an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance, one of five awards that the film earned, including Best Picture.
Tibbs Returned for Two Follow Up Films
In 1970, Sidney Poitier agreed to play Tibbs again in a follow-up film. They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! got its title from one of Virgil’s most iconic lines in the first film. This time around, Tibbs is a San Francisco police officer with a wife (played by Barbara McNair), a son (played by George Spell), and a daughter (played by Wanda Spell).
Gillespie (Rod Steiger) doesn’t appear in the second movie, nor are the actions of ITHOTN discussed. A year later, Tibbs was back at it in The Organization, a drug trafficking movie featuring Poitier’s last appearance as Tibbs. Neither movie matched the success of the first one, and both heavily overlooked the issue of race (contrary to In the Heat of the Night).
The TV Show Wasn’t a Reboot; It Was a Sequel
20 years after the movie came out, Tibbs and Gillespie came back in the TV adaptation of In the Heat of the Night, a show produced by Fred Silverman Productions and MGM for NBC. In the show’s first episode, Virgil and his wife arrive at Sparta in order to attend the funeral of Virgil’s mom.
“When Virgil came back to Philadelphia after his last visit, he could hardly talk about anything else,” Althea, Gillespie’s wife, says to him. Virgil notes that it’s been “a couple of years,” and that their somewhat uneasy interaction highlights the cautious relationship built between Gillespie and Tibbs. The show pretty much ignores the film sequels, but they do mention Virgil’s twins, who were born in the movies and are born in the show’s fourth season.
O.J. Simpson Was Nearly Cast as Tibbs
While talking with the Academy of TV Arts and Sciences, actor Hugh O’Connor revealed that he had auditioned five prospective actors for the role of Tibbs. Weirdly enough, these celebrities included O.J. Simpson.
“Fred Silverman thought O.J. was pretty good, very good in fact,” O’Connor recalled, “and Brandon Tartikoff [head of NBC] was pleased with him too… But I wanted Howard from the start.” O.J. Simpson did end up on the show, but as a guest star in an episode from Season Two.
O’Connor Quit After Season One
Hugh O’Connor’s contract specified that he would be the story editor under the pseudonym Matt Harris. However, “they wouldn’t let me change anything,” he explained, “So, I told the studio, ‘I’m out. I don’t want to come back and don’t ask me. You’ve breached the contract.’”
It was only after the show’s executive producer, Juanita Bartlett, quit, that O’Connor returned. After clashes arose with her replacements, O’Connor was named executive producer for the show’s Season Three and onward. O’Conner is also responsible for writing the script for 27 episodes, as well as directing three of them.
O’Connor Missed Season Two’s Finale Because He Was Sick
During the show’s second season, O’Connor was diagnosed with a life-threatening coronary artery blockage. He had to undergo sextuple bypass, a procedure which, unfortunately, forced him to miss four episodes of the show.
As a result, Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall) stepped in and acted as chief Tom Dugan. O’Connor wanted the series to provide an explanation for his disappearance, and he suggested they write in a heart attack for Gillespie; however, the show’s producers refused. Both producers, Jeri Taylor and David Moessinger were later dismissed. Even though he didn’t appear in all episodes of Season Two, O’Connor still won an Emmy for his performance.
The Show Survived Two Cancellations
In 1992, NBC decided not to renew ITHOTN. The show had been running for five seasons, and the network felt like it was enough. Straight away, though, CBS picked up on the show. The following year, Howard Rollins left and was replaced by Carl Weathers who played the new chief, Hamilton Forbes.
After Season Seven of the show, the series was canceled again, only to resurrect itself a while later for an eighth season of four movies! Even though there was no formal finale, the show ends with Gillespie tying the knot with girlfriend Harriet DeLong, played by Denise Nicholas.
One of the Stars From ITHOTN Lives in Sparta…Kind Of
After starring on the show as Corporal Dee Shepard on ITHOTN for five consecutive years, Dee Shaw purchased a property in Covington. The actress later built a home in which she lives today. “I call it ‘The House That Carroll Built,’” Dee Shaw said back in 2016.
Apart from Dee Shaw’s house, Covington has other ties with the show. The place hosts cast reunions as well as fun location tours. It also has an ITHOTN museum! The museum is located at the Newton County Visitors Bureau. It’s worth a visit.
In the Heat of the Night Hits the Stage
In 2010, an L.A. Theater Works Production hit the stage for the In the Heat of the Night’s play adaptation. They toured throughout the 2014-2015 season. Nowadays, the play continues to be produced throughout the nation.
Furthermore, a contemporary television reboot is in the making, courtesy of writer and producer Joe Robert Cole. Joe’s previous TV project was FX’s American Crime Story, a documentary- drama centering around O.J. Simpson (who nearly played Virgil Tibbs).
Actors Who Died – Burgess Meredith
Many of INHOFT’s actors are no longer with us.
Let’s start this list with screen legend Burgess Meredith, who made his mark as grumpy Judge Cully in the sixth season’s two-parter “Even Nice People” and “Lake Winahatchie.” He also popped up for a cameo in “Hatton’s Turn: Part 2” (Season Seven).
The role of Burgess was one of Meredith’s final TV roles before his passing in 1997 at the age of 89. Burgess had a long and prosperous career, beginning on Broadway as a rising star before heading to Hollywood to star in the film adaptation of the play Winterset in 1936.
A Fruitful, Decades-Long Career
Winterset kicked off Meredith’s decades-long career on the silver screen, earning him much praise for his work on movies such as “Of Mice and Men” and “The Story of G.I. Joe.” Meredith landed his most famous movie role later on in life, playing the rough and tough boxing trainer Mickey in the “Rocky” franchise.
As memorable as his career in film was, Meredith had even more impact as a TV actor, appearing steadily in “In the Heat of the Night” in the mid-1990s. Many of the star’s best roles remain popular, even decades after the initial release.
Before becoming a professional actor in the 1980s, Dan Biggers had an entirely different career. He was born in 1931, in Newton County, Georgia, and served for several years in the armed forces. Afterward, he embarked on a career in education.
He started his studies at the University of Georgia and later on at Berry College, where he was granted the title of Dean of Students. Biggers also worked as director of Oak Hill and the Martha Berry Museum for several years.
He Passed Away Following a Long Illness
During Biggers’ time as an educator, the star began to act in local theatre productions, and in 1982, he was cast for the TV movie “Maid in America.” This marked the beginning of his 25-year career on camera. He acted in several productions such as “Glory,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and his final role, “Elizabethtown.”
When the cast and crew of “In the Heat of the Night” relocated to Covington, Georgia for the show’s second season, Biggers joined them on set as medical examiner Dr. Frank Robb. He appeared in a total of 43 episodes. Ultimately, he died in 2011 at the age of 80 after suffering from a long and tiring illness.
A well-established actor in the business, Lois Nettleton starred as a Season Two regular on “In the Heat of the Night” as Joanne St. John, the owner of a local diner as well as the love interest for Carroll O’Connor’s Chief Gillespie.
After the uncovering of her scandalous past in the episode “AKA Kelly Kay,” Joanne ditches Sparta. Afterward, Lois Nettleton continued making sporadic appearances for the rest of the season. However, she didn’t return to the show for Season Three.
A Broadway Favorite
Lois got her start on the stages of Chicago. Then, she got accepted as a member of the Actor’s Studio in New York City. Lous made her debut on Broadway in 1949 after starring in the play “The Biggest Thief in the World.”
The new actress soon became playwright Tennessee Williams’ favorite, starring in the 1955 production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” as well as in the 1973 reboot of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” After the plays came the TV roles…
She Died of Lung Cancer
Lois guest-starred on television shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and “Route 66.” Following her run as Joanne St. John, she made appearances on “Seinfeld” and landed a recurring part on “Crossing Jordan.” Lois’ final credit was in 2006 in the Hallmark film “The Christmas Card.”
As for her personal life, Lois tied the knot with humorist Jean Shepherd, the author whose book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” served as the inspiration for “A Christmas Story.” In 2008, Lois Nettleton passed away after a tiring battle with lung cancer.
Dennis Lipscomb starred as Sparta’s mayor Jim Findlay in the first season of the show. INHOFT’s debut season was characterized by scripts that actor Carroll O’Connor believed were not up to par. When the show came back for Season Two, numerous characters were written out, including mayor Jim Findlay.
After taking acting classes at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Lipscomb appeared in 1980’s Union City, starring alongside Blondie’s leading lady, Debbie Harry. He steadily found work as an actor all throughout the ’80s, starring in Crossroads, A Soldier’s Story, and 1987’s scary movie Retribution. His final credit was on an episode of The Guardian. He died in 2014 at the age of 72.
Margaret “Maggie” Blye starred in four episodes of the show’s first season. She acted as “Gillespie’s Girlfriend.” When the show came back for Season Two, Gillespie was hot and heavy for Lois Nettleton’s Joanne St. John. Blye was no longer relevant.
The Texas-born actress got her start in showbiz after landing a minor role in “Summer and Smoke” (1960). By the late ’60s, she was crowned as an international sex symbol, appearing alongside stars like Paul Newman in “Hombre,” Michael Caine in “The Italian Job,” and Marcello Mastroianni in “Diamonds for Breakfast.”
She Died of Cancer
With the turn of the decade, Margaret Blye began focusing more on television, and her work as a TV actress proceeded into the 1980s as well. She guest starred on The Rockford Files, and in TV films including LBJ: The Early Years.
At one point in her career, Blye became known as a “scream queen,” courtesy of her role in The Entity (1982) and 2005’s horror-comedy flick The Gingerdead Man. Tragically, in 2016, Margaret Blye died of cancer at the age of 73.
Like his co-star Dan Biggers, Ed Grady burst into the acting world at a later stage in his life after working as a teacher. He was born in 1923, served in World War II, and studied both Theatre and English at the University of North Carolina.
After a short period, teaching in New York, he returned south and began teaching in Morganton and Keenan (North and South Carolina, respectively). He served as a teacher all through the 1970s.
His Film Debut Was a Low-Budget Horror Flick
After a lengthy career in education, Ed Grady turned his focus to acting. In 1979, he made his on-screen debut in the horror movie Wolfman. From that point on, for the next 25 years or so, Ed Grady starred in several productions such as A Simple Twist of Fate, The Notebook, and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
Ed Grady starred a total of four times on In the Heat of the Night during the show’s run. He appeared as Dr. Cameron in Seasons Four and Seven. He also starred as two unrelated characters in the show’s second and sixth seasons. In 2012, Grady passed away at the age of 89.
Ted Manson started acting in the 1950s as a student at Ohio State University. He went on to have a career in real estate, but eventually wrapped it up and moved his family to Atlanta, Georgia in order to get into showbiz. He started landing gigs in local film and television productions.
Ted Manson appeared four times on the show. The first time was in Season Two’s episode “Walkout” where he starred alongside O.J. Simpson. Just like his co-star Dan Biggers, Ted landed minor roles in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Elizabethtown.
He Died of Lung Cancer
After years of starring in minor roles, Manson got his big break in the 2000s after landing a pair of memorable roles in hit comedies. First, he landed the part of Colonel Murphy in the Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Afterward, Ted Manson landed the part of Will Ferrell’s weird father-in-law Chip, in the sports parody movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. In 2008, the actor died of lung cancer complications. Manson was 81 years old.
Before his three-episode stint on the show’s fourth season as Althea Tibbs’ father, Calvin Peterson, Milton “Mel” Stewart was already a well-known actor for his part on a different series (also by Carroll O’Conner).
He appeared in “All in the Family” as Henry Jefferson, the brother of George, Archie Bunker’s neighbor. Mel’s career kicked off in New York City in the mid-’50s. He made his Broadway debut in 1957 in the musical “Simply Heavenly.” Shortly after, he moved to California.
He Developed Alzheimer’s Disease
After moving to California, Mel landed gigs in films like The Landlord, Trick Baby, and 1990’s Bride of Re-Animator. But in truth, Mel got his real start in television. He found success in All in the Family, and later in recurring roles on Tabitha and Scarecrow and Mrs. King.
Mel Stewart’s final credit was in 1993 when he starred in the Whoopi Goldberg comedy Made in America. Sadly, in 2002, the beloved and well-respected actor died at the of age 72 from complications related to Alzheimer’s.
Fran Bennett had three appearances on the show as Virgil Tibbs’ Aunt Ruda. She starred in Seasons Four to Six. Fran’s on-screen career as an actress was a lengthy one, spanning eight decades from the 1950s all the way to 2020.
However, the star’s greatest impact was as a stage actress. She was also famous for her incredible work as a voice and movement teacher. She began as a young performer in New York City, where she studied to become a voice teacher.
From Diff’rent Strokes to the Bold and Beautiful
After a decade in Minneapolis as the movement and voice director at the Guthrie Theatre, Fran agreed to a teaching position at California’s Institute of Arts. In California, she reignited her on-camera career with roles on shows like Diff’rent Strokes and Roots: The Next Generation.
Bennett went on to balance her TV career with her teaching, guest-starring on shows like Quantum Leap and The Bold and Beautiful. She eventually retired from CalArts in 2014 but continued to act. Her final credit on TV was on the show All in the Family. She recently passed away in 2021 at the age of 84.
Hugh O’Connor was adopted by Carroll O’Connor and his wife Nancy. At the age of 16, he began struggling with drug addiction and checked into three different rehabilitation programs. Other than the TV film Brass (1985), Hugh’s only credit was the part of Lonnie Jamison on INHOTN.
Hugh’s character Lonnie was one of the few figures to appear in every episode of the show, beginning the series as a patrolman but ending it off as a lieutenant and Chief of Detectives in Sparta. Interestingly, Lonnie’s evolution went hand in hand with that of the actor playing him, with his role becoming bigger and bigger as the series progressed.
He Died of Suicide
In 1992, Hugh O’Connor tied the knot with his wife Angela. The following year, he was a proud father of their first baby boy, Sean. Tragically, though, fatherhood did little to tame his addiction, and his battle against drugs continued.
In 1995, Hugh O’Connor took his life. Carroll made headlines a while later after publicly naming and shaming Hugh’s drug dealer. He blamed the man for his son’s death. Later on, Carroll would support a law in California that allows the families of addicts to sue drug dealers for damages.
Howard Rollins had some big shoes to step into in the TV adaptation of In the Heat of the Night, starring in the iconic role of Virgil Tibbs, taking over for one of the most iconic actors in Hollywood history – Sidney Poitier.
Howard plays a sophisticated Philadelphia detective named Tibbs who is given the order to unofficially desegregate Mississippi’s police force. Howard certainly made the role his own, turning Tibbs into a less angry version of Poitier’s.
He Left the Show Due to Addiction
While Howard was a fantastic actor, his drug addiction led him to leave the show after the sixth season. The actor was born in Maryland and took acting lessons at Towson University before landing in New York in 1974.
A few years later, he starred in the biopic series centering around Martin Luther King, Jr. called King. He was also highly praised for his performance in Ragtime as well as the WWII movie, A Soldier’s Story, directed by ITHOFT’s screenwriter Norman Jewison.
Arrested for Possession
In 1988, Howard was arrested for possession of cocaine and was later arrested three times in the span of eight months on DUI charges. Eventually, Howard was written off the show and replaced by a new actor, Carl Weathers.
Howard ended up making a handful of guest appearances through the seventh season, but other than the movie Drunks and a few minor TV gigs, his career was basically done for. In 1966, the actor was diagnosed with lymphoma and died of complications just several weeks later.
For most stars in Hollywood, the lead character on a long-running, Emmy-winning drama based on a beloved movie would be the peak of their career. But for Carroll O’Connor, it was just the beginning. Born in 1924, O’Connor joined the Marines during WWII and later studied English at the University of Montana.
Carroll caught the acting bug after taking a trip to Ireland and enrolling at the University of Dublin. Throughout the 1960s, O’Connor guest-starred on shows such as Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey, as well as taking small gigs in movies like Point Break.
He Clashed With Producers
A little after In the Heat of the Night kicked off, O’Connor went head-to-head with producers regarding the show’s scripts. O’Connor was way more interested in showcasing the lives of the people of Sparta and the struggles they faced in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.
During the show’s second season, he officially became an executive producer as well as story editor. Thanks to his new role, he was able to craft the show into something more in line with his opinion. In 2001, at the age of 76, O’Connor died of a heart attack.
Anne-Marie Johnson (Althea Tibbs)
Althea Tibbs starred on the show as Virgil’s wife, as well as working as a teacher and counselor. The actress caught the acting bug after enrolling in UCLA to study theater and began being noticed in 1984 after landing the part of Lynn Williams on Hill Street Blues.
Most people likely remember her as Nadine on the spinoff, What’s Happening Now!! That role led her straight into her character, Althea Tibbs. She later appeared in the CBS show, JAG (1997), and more recently, in 2019’s NBC, The In Between. Nowadays, she’s in her 60s and is happily married to actor Martin Grey.
David Hart (Parker Williams)
In the show, officer Parker Williams, played by David Hart, is a sensitive man who cares very deeply for the folks of Sparta. The actor began his career in the early ’80s. INHOFT was his first recurring role, and despite his best efforts, he never managed to reach that level of success again.
The last time anyone saw him on screen was in 2011’s Western, Forgiven. Over the years, Hart has starred in several commercials for well-known companies like iHop, Coors Light, and Maxwell House Coffee. Nowadays, he’s living in Arlington Texas with his wife.
Geoffrey Thorne (Wilson Sweet)
On the show, Geoffrey Thornes played officer Wilson Sweet, the arrogant guy that came right out of the police academy. The actor kicked off his career in 1987 on Hill Street Blues. Even though INHOFT was the biggest role in his career, Thorne would go on to work solidly until the turn of the century.
Thorne’s final gig was in 2000 when he starred on the show Bull. During that time, he decided to retire from acting and pick up a pen instead. He became a screenwriter for the show Law 7 Order: Criminal Intent. One of his more exciting writing projects happened a while ago in 2017 after he was chosen by Marvel to serve as the head writer for Avengers: Black Panther’s Quest. Nowadays, he’s in his 50s and is serving as the co-executive producer of Ghost, a spinoff of the show Power.
Alan Autry (Bubba Skinner)
Captain Bubba Skinner, despite being intimidating, was a good fellow, a tough guy with a heart of gold who often called racists “knotheads.” The actor who played him, Alan Autry got his start in acting after years of playing as a quarterback for the Packs.
After being cut from the team, he packed up his bags and traveled to Hollywood where he landed a role in The Dukes of Hazzard. Afterward, he became Bubba. His final credit was in the 2017 action movie Victory by Submission. Nowadays, he’s in his 60s and serves as the CEO of the Autry Entertainment Group.