Esther Rolle was an American actress known for her performances on CBS Television’s sitcoms.
Esther Elizabeth Rolle was born on November 8, 1920 in Pompano Beach, Florida, to Jonathan and Elizabeth Rolle. Elizabeth gave birth to eighteen children, three of whom went on to become actresses. Rolle first attended the Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, Florida, and then, when her family moved to Pompano Beach; Rolle Graduated from Blanche Ely High School.
Rolle initially studied at the Spelman College in Atlanta, however, she soon moved to the Hunter College in New York City, where she worked various jobs at the New York City Garment district to support her college education. Rolle was also a member of the highly prestigious Zeta Phi Beta sorority.
Rolle’s career in acting was aided in part by her performances for the Asadata Dafora’s dance troupe, which was named Shogolo Oloba. In 1960, Rolle became the director of that troupe, which was later renamed as ‘The Federal Theatre African Dance Troupe’. In New York, Rolle first performed in 1962 for a play called The Blacks.
Rolle then consistently performed for the Negro Ensemble Company under the highly prolific producer, Robert Hooks. Rolle then appeared for The Crucible and Blues for Mr. Charlie, which were both relatively successful. By far, Rolle’s most famous stage plays were her portrayals of Miss Maybell and Lady Macbeth for the 1973 Melvin Van Peebles play, Don't Play Us Cheap, and the 1977 Orson Welles Macbeth interpretation respectively.
Rolle’s first screen appearance was for an un-credited role for Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. Rolle then appeared in Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree alongside her sister, Estelle Evans, in 1969.
Rolle shot to prominence once she started acting for the incredibly famous sitcom, Maude, in 1972. Rolle played ‘Florida Evans’; an open minded, ‘no-nonsense’ housekeeper to the lead character of the show. The role of ‘Florida Evans’ was so popular that Rolle was granted a spin-off series in 1974 titled Good Times in which she played the lead role. In 1975, Rolle was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performances in Good Times. In 1979, Rolle also acted for the direct to television movie, Summer of My German Soldier, for which she won an Emmy.
After Good Times, Rolle mostly acted for direct to television movies. She acted for Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 and for Peter Segal’s My Fellow Americans. One of her more famous roles was for Fielder Cook’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which was based on Maya Angelou’s memoir. She also acted for John Singleton’s Rosewood in 1997. All in all, she acted for fifteen stage plays from 1965 to 1989, and twenty two separate television roles from 1964 to 1998.
Rolle also released a music album in 1975 which was titled The Garden of My Mind.
Esther Rolle died on November 17, 1998 in Culver City, California due to complications from diabetes. Her funeral was held as the Bethel African Methodist Church at her hometown in Pompano Beach, Florida.
November 8, 1920
November 17, 1998
- Prior to her acting career, she was employed as a worker in New York City's garment district.
- She appeared in the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy.
- She didn't start acting until she was age 39.
- Didn't have a successful acting career until she was 51; when she had a recurring role on Maude (1972). Since her character proved to be so popular, producer Norman Lear decided to have her in her own sitcom, starring on Good Times (1974), which Maude (1972) spun-off.
- Left Good Times (1974) after the 1976-1977 season due to her displeasure with the what she saw as the character of J.J. being a bad role model for young blacks. She returned at the beginning of the 1978-1979 season after the producers guaranteed that they would make J.J. a more respectable character.
- Became the first woman to receive the NAACP Chairman's Civil Rights Leadership Award for helping raise the image of blacks.