In the Heat of the Night's Joanne St. John deserved more episodes

Why did Joanne St. John only stick around for one season? It’s complicated.

When the TV version of In the Heat of the Night premiered in 1988, the series — a serious drama based around a police chief and his mostly male fellow officers — seemed primarily geared toward men.

But then in the second season, the show got a little softer by introducing Joanne St. John, the owner of a diner called The Magnolia Café and eventual love interest of Chief Gillespie. Seemingly, the show was introducing characters for women in the audience to relate to.

Playing Joanne was a veteran actor named Lois Nettleton who rose to fame in the Fifties and Sixties working on Broadway with stars like Katharine Hepburn and Burt Reynolds and featuring in movies across from film icons like Jane Fonda and Frank Sinatra.

In 1967, at least one critic considered her "one of America’s excellent, serious, young actresses."

The Tony and Emmy-nominated actor also made a splash on TV during this time, with memorable appearances on Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone.

By the time she appeared on In the Heat of the Night, she’d also been cast to star in three short-lived series, Jerry Van Dyke’s doomed sitcom Accidental Family (1967), Norman Lear’s satirical All That Glitters (1977) and Harry Morgan’s post-M*A*S*H sitcom adaption of You Can’t Take It With You (1987).

For Nettleton, landing on In the Heat of the Night during its second season must’ve felt like finally finding her TV home in the arms of Carroll O’Connor.

She thought her character Joanne, along with the character of Althea Tibbs (Anne-Marie Johnson), added special female characters to the drama, and fans agreed.

"Anne-Marie and I are playing wonderful characters, and I'm glad to know the audience feels as we do about them," Nettleton told The Leader-Post in 1989.

For Nettleton, who had largely been typecast as the funny sitcom wife, Joanne St. John was a character with much more nuance.

"What I love about this series, and what makes me feel proud to be a part of it is that it deals so basically with human issues, social issues, with relationships between and among people," Nettleton said. "But it doesn’t preach. The show simply speaks to the human condition and how people deal with each other and relate to each other. And people will respond; they have to."

She continued, "This explains why, for example, they gave Joanne that [flawed] background. The whole point was to show that ‘let’s not be too quick to judge people by the way they appear to be.’ This lady who seems to be so helpful and such a really good friend, well, maybe she has something in her past."

For Nettleton, playing a character with a heart of gold, but a shady past gave her an opportunity to explore a new world of emotions onscreen. She came to love her character.

In the second season, Joanne appears in 22 episodes. In her final episode, "Missing Pig," she ends up getting shot and knocked unconscious. After this action-packed episode, she stopped appearing on the show.

According to this In the Heat of the Night FAQ, Nettleton wanted to continue doing the series, but producers felt the character of Joanne St. John had run its course and wrote her out, claiming that all "story possibilities for her character had been exhausted."

After leaving In the Heat of the Night, Nettleton spent the Nineties guest starring on hit series like Seinfeld and Full House. She also went back to Broadway.

In 2006, she retired from onscreen acting with a final appearance in a Hallmark holiday TV movie. Two years later, she passed away at the age of 80.

Although she won a Daytime Emmy for playing Susan B. Anthony, Joanne St. John is likely her best-remembered TV character.

To Nettleton, contrary to what producers thought, the possibilities of storylines for Joanne seemed endless.

"I think of Joanne as someone who is understanding and open to the possibilities in life," Nettleton said.

Watch In the Heat of the Night on MeTV!

Weekdays at 12 PM

*available in most MeTV markets
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Johnnycanucks 14 months ago
Joanne’s last episode was called “Missing” not “Missing Pig” as described in this article.
mcharris 21 months ago
I remember Ms. Nettleton's time on In the Heat of the Night. I always enjoyed her performances on other shows and films and was excited when she joined the show. It was frustrating when her character disappeared. Too bad the producers were so short sighted and uncreative that they cut the character. In addition to her many memorable performances, she also appeared on the Mary Tyler Moore Show as a television executive with a major crush on Lou Grant. Really fun episode.
OldmanOfVA 22 months ago
Joann was great. Working in the café and tending to all her patrons.
I think Parker should have been a stronger character. In my opinion he was portrayed as a simple and sometimes dimwitted cop. Gillespie always getting on him for doing or not doing something. He seemed to be the cop with all the problems such as his step-father, Roy. I like the entire cast. Bringing in Forbes and Gillespie got yo be Sheriff was a great move as well. I watch "In The Heat Of the Night" on several different stations. I never get tired of it. My wife on the other hand, comments every time it's on. I just laugh and keep on watching.
Sooner 22 months ago
Most often great shows end because of some genius producer. Lois was a really likable actress, and very capable. Her character seemed a perfect match for Carroll, both low-key and comfortable. She brought a real hub for the show to retreat to. Producers . . .
MrsPhilHarris 22 months ago
It’s interesting that this is the third story in about a month about an actress waxing poetic about her job on a show with mostly men, and how her character will grow, etc., etc., and then said actress is not back the next season. 🤔
Amalthea MrsPhilHarris 22 months ago
The good news was, the show still had Althea. The bad news was that Althea was a horrible character. I didn't pick up on it the first time I watched the show, but seeing subsequent repeats, I came to realize how whiny, bossy, and stuck-up Althea really was.
MrsPhilHarris Amalthea 22 months ago
That’s funny! I’ve not watched an episode yet.
mcharris Amalthea 21 months ago
I agree!
Runeshaper 22 months ago
Joanne St. John was EXCELLENT on In the Heat of the Night!
DethBiz 22 months ago
Lois Nettleton was a very underrated actress. Will always remember her in the Midnight Sun episode of the Twilight Zone.
KJExpress DethBiz 22 months ago
One of my favorite TZ episodes. I was so surprised by the ending the first time I saw it.
DethBiz KJExpress 22 months ago
Yes, one of mine too with one of those famous Twilight Zone twists.
mcharris DethBiz 21 months ago
Very soulful performance!
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?