MORE THAN MANY ACTORS, Howard Rollins felt deeply the emotions he portrayed. For actress Anne-Marie Johnson, that was never more clear than on a day in 1992 on the Covington, Ga., set of the TV series In the Heat of the Night. The scene called for Rollins, as Det. Virgil Tibbs, to inform a mother that he had killed her son. The cameras rolled, but Rollins suddenly began to weep. "Something in the scene really touched Howard. He just broke down," recalls Johnson, who played his wife. "Howard was such a sensitive artist. He was a tortured soul."
Indeed, Rollins's sporadic but at times transcendent career was a patchwork of triumph and pain. In 1981 the actor, who died last week in New York City at 46 of a bacterial infection that was, his agent said, a complication of lymphoma, had earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor in his first feature film, playing pianist-turned-terrorist Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime. Yet he went on to perform in only one other major movie. In 1987, Rollins won his widest audience as the stoic, soft-spoken Tibbs but lost the role six years later during a widely reported struggle with drugs. "I've worked with many talented actors but never one more gifted," says Rollins's friend and Heat costar Carroll O'Connor, whose son Hugh killed himself in 1995 after years of drug use. "Howard was a source of constantly surprising inventiveness."
That talent took Rollins himself by surprise. At 17, the Baltimore native—the youngest of four children of Ruth Rollins, a domestic, and Howard Sr., a steelworker—had vague plans to teach when a friend persuaded him to attend a casting call at a local theater. He won a role in Of Mice and Men and found, he told The New York Times in 1981, that "things made sense to me for the first time in my life."
After studying theater at Maryland's Towson State College, he moved to New York City in 1974, working his way from Off-Broadway parts to supporting roles in such TV dramas as the miniseries King (1978) and Roots: The Next Generation (1979). In 1980, Rollins beat out more than 200 others—including O.J. Simpson—for Ragtime. When he learned he'd gotten the part, Rollins was so overjoyed, he told PEOPLE in 1982, "I just fell on the floor crying."
Yet success was a mixed blessing. Roles as strong as the one he'd had in Ragtime were rare, and it wasn't until 1984 that he landed another, as Capt. Richard Davenport in A Soldier's Story. "He had a quiet elegance and dignity," says the film's director, Norman Jewison. "But he felt there weren't many opportunities for black actors of his caliber."
Things looked up in 1987 when Rollins was chosen over Wesley Snipes and others to play Tibbs, the role originated by Sidney Poitier in the 1967 film But soon, Rollins complained to friends, he found the work formulaic and felt lonely and uneasy in the South. "Once you left the set you heard certain words and were treated a certain way day in and day out," says Johnson. "It was difficult for us, being African-Americans."
Rollins indulged in drugs and alcohol. In 1988, while filming Heat in Louisiana, he was arrested for possession of crack. During a rehab attempt in 1990, he told TV Guide of his problem, saying, "I have a thing inside, a need or craving, that I am constantly dealing with."
Soon it overwhelmed him again. He began to arrive late on the set, or not at all. In 1992 and '93 he was arrested three times in Georgia for driving under the influence. After the last incident, he served three months in jail in 1994. By then, Carl Weathers had replaced him on Heat.
Upon his release, Rollins retreated to the Manhattan studio apartment where he had lived by himself since the early '80s. Months passed before he found work again, playing a fiery Harlem minister on a 1995 episode of New York Undercover. "We were apprehensive about hiring him," says producer Don Kurt. "But he was a treat to work with. He'd turned his life around."
Then, six weeks ago, sources say, Rollins was told he had cancer. The diagnosis came as he was rebuilding his career. This month he'll be seen as a recovering addict on the PBS drama Harambee! and he plays a similar role in the film Drunks, opening in January, with Richard Lewis and Faye Dunaway. In Drunks he delivers a soliloquy on the way drugs ravaged his life. "He was astonishing," says Lewis. "That Howard got in touch with those feelings is pretty heroic. I'm glad he had the opportunity to do it. On the other hand," he adds, "it sucks. We lost a wonderful guy."
LYNDON STAMBLER, CHAMP CLARK and JEFFREY WELLS in Los Angeles and ROCHELLE JONES in Washington
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