Esther Elizabeth Rolle (November 8, 1920 - November 17, 1998) was an American actress. She is best known for her role as Florida Evans, a no-nonsense black housekeeper on the CBS television sitcom Maude for two seasons (1972-1974) and its spin-off series Good Times for five seasons (1974-1977, 1978-1979).
Esther Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, Florida, to Bahamian immigrants Jonathan Rolle (1883-1953), a farmer, and Elizabeth Iris Rolle (née Dames; 1893-1981). Esther's parents were both born and raised in Nassau, New Providence, The Bahamas and moved to Florida some time after their marriage. Esther was the tenth of 18 children (children who included siblings and fellow actresses Estelle Evans and Rosanna Carter). Rolle attended Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, Florida and graduated from Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach. She initially studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, but she moved to New York City. She attended Hunter College, The New School for Social Research, and Yale University. She was also a member of Zeta Phi Beta sorority. For many years, Rolle worked in a traditional day job in New York City's garment district.
Dance and theater:
Rolle was a member of Asadata Dafora's dance troupe, Shogolo Oloba (later renamed the Federal Theater African Dance Troupe). She became the troupe's director in 1960. Rolle's earliest roles were on the stage; her New York stage debut was in the 1962 play The Blacks. She was often cast in plays produced by Robert Hooks and the Negro Ensemble Company. She also appeared in productions of The Crucible and Blues for Mr. Charlie. Rolle's most prominent early role was as Miss Maybell in the 1973 Melvin Van Peebles play, Don't Play Us Cheap. In 1977, Rolle portrayed Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' Haitian-influenced version at the Henry Street New Federal Theater in Manhattan.
Rolle is best known for her television role as Florida Evans, the character she played on two 1970s sitcoms. The character was introduced as Maude Findlay's housekeeper on Maude, and was spun off in the show's second season into Good Times, a show about Florida's family. Rolle was nominated in 1975 for the Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy Golden Globe Award for her role in Good Times. Rolle herself was nineteen years older than her husband on the show John Amos.
Rolle fought for more relevant themes and scripts, and was unhappy that the success of Jimmie Walker's character, J.J. Evans, took the show in what she thought was a frivolous direction. As a result, actor John Amos, who played the role of the father, James Evans, Sr., and agreed with Rolle about Walker's character, left the show after the third season ended. Later on, in a stand-off with Good Times producer Norman Lear, Rolle also quit when her contract ended. Although the series continued without her for the fifth season, she returned for the show's final season. In 1979 she won an Emmy for her role in the TV movie Summer of My German Soldier (TV film).
Among her guest star roles was one on The Incredible Hulk in an episode entitled "Behind the Wheel" where she played a taxicab business owner. In the 1990s, Rolle was a surprise guest on RuPaul's VH-1 talk show. Her Maude co-star Bea Arthur was the guest, and Rolle was brought out to surprise Arthur. The two had not seen each other in years, Arthur said, and embraced warmly. Rolle also appeared in a series of psychic hotline TV commercials in the 1990s. "Tell them Esther sent you," was her trademark line.
Music and film:
Rolle released an album of music titled The Garden of My Mind in 1975. Rolle's first screen appearance is a small, uncredited role in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and she later appeared in Gordon Parks' The Learning Tree (1969). Her sister, actress Estelle Evans, appeared in both films as well. Esther Rolle appeared early in her career in the 1964 film, Nothing But a Man. After Good Times ended, she appeared in a number of made-for-television movies and films, including Driving Miss Daisy and My Fellow Americans. A memorable role was that of Aunt Sarah in the 1997 film Rosewood. She had a major role in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings based on Maya Angelou's memoir of the same name, and has the distinction of having won the first Emmy Award for the category Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie, in 1979, for her work in the television movie Summer of My German Soldier. Her last film, Train Ride was released in 2000 despite being filmed in 1998.
Personal life and death:
Rolle's only marriage was to Oscar Robinson. The two were married from 1955-1975. Esther did not have any children of her own but her husband had a daughter, Sherley Mae Robinson, (born 1936), with his first wife, the former Elizabeth Mae Robinson. After residing in Los Angeles, California, Rolle died on November 17, 1998 in Culver City, California, from complications of diabetes, 9 days after her 78th birthday. Her body was flown back to her hometown in Pompano Beach, Florida. A devout Methodist, Rolle requested her funeral be held at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The family requested that in lieu of flowers donations be sent to such organizations as the African American Chapter of the American Diabetes Association, The Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, Texas, The Jenesse Center in Los Angeles, and Marcus Garvey Elementary and Junior High School in Los Angeles.
Nothing But a Man
Up the Down Staircase
The Bold Ones: The Senator
Episode: "A Single Blow of a Sword"
Nominated-Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Television Series Musical or Comedy
Summer of My German Soldier
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Episode: "Edward/The Extraordinary Miss Jones"
Finder of Lost Loves
Episode: "Goodbye, Sara"
Murder, She Wrote
Episode: "Reflections of the Mind"
P.K. and the Kid
The Mighty Quinn
Driving Miss Daisy
House of Cards
How to Make an American Quilt
My Fellow Americans
Nominated-Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
Poltergeist: The Legacy
Episode: "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
Down in the Delta
Day of Absence (1965),
Happy Ending (1965),
The Amen Corner (1965),
Man Better Man (1969),
Ride a Black Horse (1971),
The Dream on Monkey Mountain (1971),
Rosalee Pritchett (1971),
Don't Play Us Cheap (1972),
A Ballet Behind the Bridge (1972),
Horowitz and Mrs. Washington (1980),
Nevis Mountain Dew (1980),
Dame Lorraine (1981),
A Raisin in the Sun (1989),
Member of the Wedding (1989)