Claim to fame: American actress (Maude, Good Times)
DOB: November 8, 1920
Date of death: November 17, 1998
Diabetes Type: unknown
Best known for her role as Florida Evans, the gentle, hardworking matriarch and wise-cracking, sassy domestic on the hit shows Good Times and Maude, Esther Rolle was an Emmy-award-winning actress, singer, and dancer. A powerful presence on both stage and screen, Rolle is remembered for her social activism and positive influence on television, often challenging racial stereotypes in the media and calling attention to social inequality.
Born in Pompano Beach, Florida, Rolle was one of eighteen children born to Bahamian immigrants Jonathan and Elizabeth Rolle. As a young woman, she moved extensively, attending Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, Florida until she transferred to Blanche Ely High School, from which she graduated. Rolle originally attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia until she moved to New York City and attended Hunter College. Rolle transferred to The New School, and, finally, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
In New York City, Rolle pursued a career in acting, joining the Negro Ensemble Company. She also joined Shogola Obola, an African-American dance troupe of which she would later become the director and rename the Federal Theater African Dance Troupe. A capable actress, Rolle required little time to establish herself. In 1964, she appeared in her first film, Nothing but a Man, as well as her first Broadway play, James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie. The following year, she appeared in another James Baldwin play, The Amen Corner.
As a stage actor, Rolle tackled daunting roles that required a strong presence and a degree of ferocity. As Lady Macbeth in a 1977 off-Broadway stage production, Rolle released all inhibitions, tapping into raw, earthy emotion and showing the world that behind a sweet exterior, a volcano of genius was quietly brewing, waiting to explode in a sea of unbridled passion and fury. The shocking zeal that burst from such an unassuming figure brought Rolle great applause, and helped her land roles in which she could push the boundaries of her art.
Rolle went on to win roles portraying strong female leads such as Lena Younger, the matriarch in the 1987 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. In film, her presence was no less perceptible. Even when she was not the lead, her portrayal never failed to garner her tremendous commendation and praise. Rolle appeared in Driving Miss Daisy, My Fellow Americans, and a 1979 TV movie version of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She received outstanding admiration and esteem from critics, fellow actors, and audiences for each of these performances.
Rolle’s true success, however, came in television. In 1974, Rolle received the NAACP Image Award for Best Actress in a Comedy. A year later, she was nominated for the Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy Golden Globe Award for her role in Good Times. A woman of principle, Rolle left the show shortly after receiving recognition for her portrayal of Florida Evens, stating that she disagreed with the direction the show had taken, and that she no longer believed the characters were a good influence. Arguing that the characters promoted negative stereotypes of blacks and further empowered the inherent racism within the media, Rolle let her contract expire, and left to pursue other opportunities.
In 1979, Rolle won an Emmy Award for her role in the TV movie Summer of My German Soldier, based on the novel by Bette Greene. The film was well-received, and Rolle’s portrayal of Ruth, a strong, independent black woman working as a housekeeper for a white family, was celebrated as one of the film’s best roles. It was, however, her appearance in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that Rolle was most proud of. In 1989, she reprised the role of Lena Younger in a television version of A Raisin in the Sun, cementing her ownership of that character.
Rolle made a number of guest appearances on television shows and commercials—even ones as seemingly random as The Incredible Hulk. She appeared on episodes of Murder She Wrote, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and even The New Odd Couple. However, by the late 1980s, Rolle had made the transition back to stage acting, with the occasional film or television appearance.
In 1990, Rolle received the NAACP’s Civil Rights Leadership Award for her positive representation of blacks in the media, and her work in destroying the negative stereotypes that plagued American culture. Rolle was the first woman ever to receive the award, and she used the fame she generated to deliver her message of activism and change.
Sadly, on November 17, 1998, after a lifelong battle with diabetes and kidney complications, Esther Rolle died. The actress, who celebrated her seventy-eighth birthday less than a week prior to her death, was brought to Brotman Memorial Hospital in Culver City, California, where she was pronounced dead. The official cause of her death was not made public. Surrounded by family, friends, costars, and admirers, her body was transported to Pompano Beach, Florida.