Handsome Howard Rollins Goes from Ragtime to the Big Time—at Last

updated 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

I had lost other jobs either because I didn't have a name or I was 'too innately sophisticated,' in Hollywood terms," recalls Howard E. Rollins Jr., 31. After three auditions, two screen tests and five torturous weeks of waiting, he figured he'd lost another plum: the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the $32 million movie Ragtime. Then he walked into his agent's office, the secretary greeted him "Hello, Coalhouse," and Rollins reacted with everything but aplomb. "I just fell on the floor crying," he recalls, "then I started pounding on the secretary and accidentally ruined her blouse. Now I know what it means to feel like you're walking on air."

He's still floating: His performance as Walker, a proud dandy turned desperado by the bigotry around him, earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He's flattered even to be lumped with the likes of John Gielgud, who's favored to win the award for his portrayal of Arthur's vermouth-dry manservant, Hobson. "A nomination is icing," Rollins observes, "but the work is the cake, and one can eat cake without icing."

Although he banked some $40,000 for the part, the question remains whether Rollins will vault from Ragtime to riches—especially because he prides himself on being picky. He has already stiff-armed a proposal to star in a beefcake version of Charlie's Angels ("I don't jiggle, so that's out"), but is currently guesting as an anti-Establishment entrepreneur on the NBC daytimer Another World. "It's great," shrugs Rollins, who's appeared on soaps in the past. "I work two or three days a week, and it allows me not to have to grab at something else." The role he longs for now is the lead in the proposed movie of black novelist Toni Morrison's best-seller Tar Baby.

Born in Baltimore, the youngest of four children of a domestic, Ruth, and a steelworker, Howard Sr., Rollins studied French and drama at Baltimore's Towson State University, then dropped out to perform in the locally produced PBS soap, Our Street. He drove a city bus to earn the $300 that took him to New York in 1974. "To my parents, theater was a silly profession," says Howard, who gradually worked his way into off-Broadway and the TV dramas King and Roots II. "Two years after I had moved to New York, my father would still call and say, 'There's an opening at the Two Guys store for a cashier.' When I got Ragtime," Rollins continues, "I said, 'Lord, let this man see this film so that he will know his financial help was not in vain!' "

He remains dedicated. "My first love is my work," says Howard, who lives alone in a small Manhattan apartment. "I spend so much time pondering, it takes up a lot of my energies. I just like to turn on the stereo [jazz and blues] and read a book [James Baldwin is a favorite]." He cultivates a tight circle of friends and tones up with aerobic dancing. "It's very hard to come through in this business with some amount of sanity," says Rollins, who's determined to follow the counsel of his new Ragtime friend, co-star James Cagney. "He survived this madness," observes Howard. "Whenever I call him he just says, 'You gotta keep punchin', big fella.' "

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