TV, stage and film actress Esther Rolle served as the first woman to receive the NAACP Chairman’s “Civil Rights Leadership Award” as a tribute to her efforts to raise the image of Blacks through her work.
Born in Pembroke Pines, Fla. before her family moved to Pompano Beach, Rolle was the 10th of 18 children of parents born in the Bahamas.
Best known for the role of Florida Evans on the 1970s sitcom “Good Times,” she attended Spelman College in Atlanta where she pledged Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., before relocating to New York City where she attended Hunter College and eventually enrolled at Yale University in New Haven.
Before “Good Times,” Rolle played the role of a maid for two seasons from 1972 to 1974 in the hit TV series “Maude.” During “Good Times,” which aired for five seasons from 1974 to 1977 and from 1978 to 1979, she was 19 years older than actor John Amos who played her husband James Evans.
For her role as Florida Evans, Rolle was nominated in 1976 for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress Television Series Musical or Comedy.
While her role as Florida depicted Rolle as a stern but loving mother, behind the scenes she held a very different persona — a strong-willed woman who did not compromise when it came to her beliefs and integrity as a human being and an actress.
It was long before her Hollywood calling and while growing up in Florida that Rolle developed her high level of self-respect, personal responsibility and drive that led her to an impressive career in the performing arts. During her years as an actress, she elevated to theatrical stage productions, mainstream television and remained a firm supporter of Black artistic endeavors.
To that end, in 1977 Rolle who played the role of Idella in the 1990 Oscar-winning movie, “Driving Miss Daisy,” walking away from the then still high-rated “Good Times” series because she felt the popular character J.J., played by Jimmie Walker, had been tailored into a buffoon.
“I told the producers, ‘I don’t agree to do a clown show for you to degrade young Black men,’” she said.
The network eventually persuaded her to return but it would only be for one more season.
Rolle said it was the kind of battle she’d fight again if she had to.
“I ruffled a lot of feathers,” she admitted. “And [because] I’m also selective – that makes you a troublemaker. But so be it. I laid a cornerstone for Black actors and that made me happy.”
In a 1990 interview with People magazine at her Los Angeles home, Rolle discussed why she refused to “sell out” to Hollywood.
“I’m glad to take on the role of a domestic,” she explained, “because many of your Black leaders, your educators, your professionals, came from domestic parents who made sacrifices to see that their children didn’t go through what they did.”
“I don’t play Hollywood maids, the hee-hee kind of people who are so in love with their madam’s children they have no time for their own,” she said.
Whether playing a servant or Lady Macbeth, as she did onstage, she consistently found herself in quality productions with meaty parts.
“I’m not so in love with material things that I’ll do anything for money. That allows me the luxury of doing things of value,” she said.
Then lighting up a cigarette in her two-story stucco house, Rolle softened, implying that she longed to tend her withered garden.
When worried or anxious, she also let on that she liked to turn to her pots and pans.
“Your mind flashes back to your childhood. You remember what Mama used to bake and you do that. Then you call some relatives over and you have a ball eating,” recalled Rolle who was married from 1955 to 1975 to Oscar Robinson.
Would she marry again?
“If I found somebody I could tolerate or who could tolerate me. But I don’t walk behind no man,” she said.
When Rolle died in November 1998 at age 78, she left an estate valued at $1.7 million which included $200,000 in cash, a home worth $400,000 and $1,072,000 in treasuries among other assets.