Howard Rollins had never seen the ''In the Heat of the Night'' film before he starred in the series
Even though the series premiered in the 1980s, Rollins had never seen the 1967 film it was based on.
By the time In the Heat of the Night was adapted into a television series, it had some enormous shoes to fill. The 1967 film was critically celebrated and won several awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture.
Luckily, seasoned actors Carroll O'Connor and Howard Rollins were prepared to take on the respective roles of Bill Gillespie and Virgil Tibbs, which meant that the series was in good hands right from the pilot episode. Still, while audiences were familiar with the actors, the pressure from living up to the expectations of the In the Heat of the Night film was undoubtedly looming.
Luckily, Rollins himself was able to relieve some of that pressure from himself, having never seen the critically acclaimed film that had been adapted into the series he was now starring in.
During an interview with the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, Rollins confessed, "I didn't see the original. I mean, I didn't know in 1967 that I'd be doing this, did I?"
At the time, Rollins himself was known for his role in the film Ragtime, where he played Coalhouse Walker Jr. However, Rollins had also been cast in a starring role in A Soldier's Story, a film directed by Norman Jewison, who was also responsible for directing 1967's In the Heat of the Night. Despite the connection, Rollins didn't see any pressing need to study the film in preparation for his role, as he felt that the Virgil Tibbs of film and the Virgil Tibbs of television were two different men.
He explained, "I play Tibbs as a Philadelphia man, a man who, on coming back to the South, decides that he has missed some aspects of home."
Still, with a flourishing film career and society's less-than-ideal view of television at the time, there were comments that Rollins' decision to star in the series was a bit of a career downgrade.
The actor was quick to dispel those rumors and reasoned, "I was provoked to do this situation for two reasons. One was working with Carroll O'Connor...the other was, that I was interested in something that would help me advance my career...For example, if someone's interested in me for something else, they've got to get me during the hiatus. This alleviates a lot of headaches."