March 7, 2016 — In the Heat of the Night, one of the top-rated and best-received television shows of the 1980s and 1990s, premiered on NBC 28 years ago (March 6). Starring Carroll O’Connor (All in the Family) and Harold Rollins (Ragtime), the immensely successful series was based on the eponymous 1965 novel (by John Ball) and 1967 film (starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier).
The premise: Virgil Tibbs (Harold Rollins), an African-American detective educated in Philadelphia, returns to his hometown of Sparta, Mississippi (a fictional town) for his mother’s funeral. While there he is persuaded to become the Chief of Detectives, and work alongside police chief William Gillespie (Carroll O’Connor). Tibbs, an intense and educated man, has to deal with the resentment and racism of the police force and the town and the residents.
Rollins, who experienced health and legal issues during his time on the show, would leave after season 6 (although he would make guest appearances in season 7). He would be replaced by Carl Weathers (Rocky) who would come in as Hampton Forbes, the new Police Chief; O’Connor would move into the position of County Sheriff.
Many celebrities — or people who would become celebrities — appeared on the show during its run. Denzel Washington, Peter Fonda, Walton Goggins, Frances Fisher, Wayne Brady, Iman, Bobby Short, Robert Goulet, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Simmons,Laurence Fishburne, George C. Scott. Mariska Hargitay, Fred Thompson, Stacy Keach, Kevin McCarthy and O.J. Simpson are among the recognizable faces who made appearances.
The show was among the earliest to deal with difficult issues. Aside from racism, it dealt with police brutality, AIDS, incest, Anti-Semitism, domestic violence, homophobia, hate crimes, rape and corruption, among many other current topics
The theme for the show was written by the legendary Quincy Jones; 3-time Academy Award-winners Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote the lyrics.
Order the groundbreaking In the Heat of the Night