Esther Rolle Biography

Actress, Theater Actress, Film Actor/Film Actress, Film Actress, Television Actress(c. 1920–1998)
A stage, film and TV actress, Esther Rolle is best remembered as Florida Evans -- a character she played on two comedy series, Maude and Good Times.

Synopsis

One of Esther Rolle's first major acting parts was in the 1962 off-Broadway production of The Blacks. More New York stage roles followed. In the early 1970s, she starred in the Broadway musical, Don’t Play Us Cheap. Around this time, she landed the role of Florida Evans on Normal Lear's comedy series Maude. Audiences loved her character so much that Lear produced Good Times especially for her.

Early Life

Actress Esther Rolle was born on November 8, 1922, in Pompano Beach, Florida. A stage, film and television actress, Rolle is best remembered as Florida Evans, a sharp but caring housekeeper -- a character she played on two comedy series: Maude and Good Times. One of 18 children, she was the daughter of Bahamian immigrants. Rolle was a student at several colleges, including Hunter College in New York City.

Early Career

Early in her career, Esther Rolle was a member of the Shogola Obola Dance Company. One of her first major acting parts was in the 1962 off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's The Blacks. More New York stage roles followed, and she became a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company. In the early 1970s, she had a starring part in Melvin Van Peebles' Broadway musical, Don't Play Us Cheap, which was turned into a film in 1973. Around this time, she landed the role of Florida Evans, the wisecracking maid on Maude, a comedy series created by Norman Lear that starred Bea Arthur in the title role. Audiences loved her character so much that Lear produced a new show for Rolle entitled Good Times.

(Esther Rolle, who starred in the television comedy series 'Maude' and 'Good Times’. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

(Esther Rolle, who starred in the television comedy series 'Maude' and 'Good Times’. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

'Good Times'

Good Times premiered in February 1974, and soon became a hit. In the series, Florida Evans lived with her family in one of Chicago's high-rise housing projects. John Amos played her husband, and both Amos and Rolle wanted the show to present strong positive role models for the African American community. While the show had some promising moments in its early days, some felt that it perpetuated stereotypes about urban blacks. The show often focused the antics of the eldest son J.J., played by Jimmie Walker, who created the national catchphrase "Dyn-o-mite." Both of the actors playing the parents quit the show in frustration. Amos left in 1976 and Rolle left the following year. She was enticed back, however, for the 1978 - 1979 season with the promise of content changes. But it proved to be too little, too late. The show was canceled in 1979.

Later Roles

Oddly enough, it was Esther Rolle's performance as another maid that garnered her television's highest honor. She won the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special Emmy Award in 1979 for Summer of My German Soldier. Rolle returned to the stage in several productions, including a 1987 tour of A Raisin in the Sun. Two years later, she appeared in a television version of the play. Rolle also found film roles in such movies as Driving Miss Daisy (1990), How to Make an American Quilt (1995) and Down in the Delta (1998), which was directed by poet Maya Angelou.

Esther Rolle died on November 17, 1998, in Los Angeles, California.

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