Sometimes, it's not necessarily the plot of a television series that compels an audience to continue tuning in for more episodes, but rather, the actors and the care they put into their characters in an effort to bring that series to life.
In Carroll O'Connor's case, by the time he began his starring role in In the Heat of the Night, he was already a well-known commodity on the medium for the role in All in the Family. Granted, the role he was taking on, Chief Gillespie, was a far cry from Archie Bunker. In an article in The Los Angeles Times, O'Connor stated of Gillespie, "I prefer this character [over Archie]." However, the article also stated that in an earlier interview, O'Connor acknowledged the sheer success of Archie Bunker, an unmatchable level of fame that no other character he played would compare with. He said, "He [Archie] was the best character, the most fulfilling character, and I never thought it was going to develop that way. There's no role that can top that."
However, in addition to playing Bill Gillespie, O'Connor was also a writer and executive producer for In the Heat of the Night, allowing him to be at the forefront of the series, both on camera and off. It also meant that he was allowed more power than the typical actor on a series, and he utilized that to his advantage.
According to the article, the network made multiple attempts to fire Howard Rollins, who played Virgil Tibbs, due to his struggle with addiction issues during his time on the series. Anne-Marie Johnson, who played Rollins's on-screen wife, Althea, recognized that O'Connor was an important figure in the fight to keep Rollins in the series. She stated, "Carroll just would not allow that [firing Rollins] to happen. He loved Howard, and he was responsible for him staying on the show. He fought tooth and nail for Howard when others didn't. He knew there wouldn't have been a show without Carroll O'Connor and Howard Rollins."
It was a loyalty that rivaled familial love, and it was a grace that O'Connor extended to every member of the cast. Johnson stated, "Carroll wanted to emphasize that we all look upon him as a father figure, call him 'Pops.' He was always very accessible and created a family atmosphere. He always wanted to make you laugh."
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