Esther Rolle

Esther Rolle

Rolle on the set of Good Times, 1974.
Born Esther Elizabeth Rolle[1]
(1920-11-08)November 8, 1920
Pompano Beach, Florida, U.S.
Died November 17, 1998(1998-11-17) (aged 78)
Culver City, California, U.S.
Cause of death Diabetes
Resting place Westview Community Cemetery, Pompano Beach, Florida
Nationality American
Education Blanche Ely High School
Spelman College (attended)
Occupation Actress
Years active 19641998
Spouse(s) Oscar Robinson (m.195575)
Children Sherley Mae Robinson (step-daughter) (b. 1936)
Parent(s) Jonathan Rolle
Elizabeth Rolle
Relatives Estelle Evans (sister)
Rosanna Carter (sister)
Awards 1979 Primetime Emmy Award: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special
(Summer of My German Soldier)

Esther Elizabeth Rolle (November 8, 1920 November 17, 1998) was an African-American actress. She is best known for her role as Florida Evans, on the CBS television sitcom Maude for two seasons (19721974) and its spin-off series Good Times for five seasons (1974–77, 1978–79).

Early life

Esther Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, Florida, to Bahamian immigrants Jonathan Rolle (18831953),[2] a farmer, and Elizabeth Iris Rolle (née Dames; 18931981).[3] Her parents were both born and raised in Nassau, New Providence, The Bahamas[4][5][6] and moved to Florida some time after their marriage. She was the tenth of 18 children (children who included siblings and fellow actresses Estelle Evans and Rosanna Carter).[7] Rolle graduated from Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Florida.[8] She initially studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, but she moved to New York City.[8] While in New York, she attended Hunter College. Rolle transferred to The New School and, finally, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut."[9] For many years, Rolle worked in a traditional day job in New York City's garment district.[10]


Rolle in the 1990's

Dance and theater

Rolle was a member of Asadata Dafora's dance troupe, Shogolo Oloba[7] (later renamed the Federal Theater African Dance Troupe). She became the troupe’s director in 1960.[8] Rolle's earliest roles were on the stage; her New York stage debut was in the 1962 play The Blacks. She was often cast in plays produced by Robert Hooks and the Negro Ensemble Company. She also appeared in productions of The Crucible and Blues for Mr. Charlie.[10] Rolle's most prominent early role was as Miss Maybell in the 1973 Melvin Van Peebles play, Don't Play Us Cheap.[11] In 1977, Rolle portrayed Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' Haitian-influenced version at the Henry Street New Federal Theater in Manhattan.


Rolle is best known for her television role as Florida Evans, the character she played on two 1970s sitcoms. The character was introduced as Maude Findlay's housekeeper on Maude, and was spun off in the show's second season into Good Times, a show about Florida's family. Rolle was nominated in 1975 for the Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy Golden Globe Award for her role in Good Times. Rolle was 19 years older than the actor (John Amos) who played her husband James Evans. The James Evans character was only added after Esther Rolle fought hard for a father figure and husband to be added to the show. Rolle had fought for the father character on the show, more relevant themes and scripts and was unhappy when the success of Jimmie Walker's character, J.J. Evans, took the show in a frivolous direction. John Amos agreed with Rolle about Walker's character and was fired from the show after the third season ended. Later on, in a stand-off with Good Times producer Norman Lear, Rolle also quit when her contract ended. Although the show continued without her for the fifth season, she returned for the show's final season. In 1979 she won an Emmy for her role in Summer of My German Soldier, a made-for-television movie.[12]

Among her guest star roles was one on The Incredible Hulk in an episode entitled "Behind the Wheel" where she played a taxicab business owner.[10] In the 1990s, Rolle was a surprise guest on RuPaul's VH-1 talk show. Her Maude co-star Bea Arthur was the guest, and Rolle was brought out to surprise Arthur. The two had not seen each other in years, Arthur said, and embraced warmly. Rolle also appeared in a series of psychic hotline TV commercials in the 1990s. "Tell them Esther sent you," was her trademark line.

Music and film

Rolle released an album of music titled The Garden of My Mind in 1975.[13] Rolle's first screen appearance is a small, uncredited role in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and she later appeared in Gordon Parks' The Learning Tree (1969).[14] Her sister, actress Estelle Evans, appeared in both films as well.[14] Esther Rolle appeared early in her career in the 1964 film, Nothing But a Man. After Good Times ended, she appeared in a number of made-for-television movies and films, including Driving Miss Daisy and My Fellow Americans. A memorable role was that of Aunt Sarah in the 1997 film Rosewood. She had a major role in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings based on Maya Angelou's memoir of the same name, and has the distinction of having won the first Emmy Award for the category Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie, in 1979, for her work in the television movie Summer of My German Soldier. She is also credited for her role in the 1989 film, The Mighty Quinn, starring Denzel Washington and Cheryl Lee Ralph, and featuring Robert Townsend. Her last film, Train Ride was released in 2000 despite being filmed in 1998.

Personal life

Rolle's only marriage was to Oscar Robinson. The two were married from 19551975. They had no children, but Oscar Robinson had a daughter, Sherley Mae Robinson, (born 1936), by his first marriage.[15][16]


Rolle died on November 17, 1998 in Culver City, California,[7] from complications of diabetes, nine days after her 78th birthday. Her body was flown back to her hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida. A devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rolle requested that her funeral be held at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The family requested that any flower donations be sent to such organizations as the African American Chapter of the American Diabetes Association, The Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, Texas, The Jenesse Center in Los Angeles, and Marcus Garvey Elementary and Junior High School in Los Angeles.[17]


Year Title Role Notes
1964 Nothing But a Man Church woman
1967 Up the Down Staircase Teacher Uncredited
1971 The Bold Ones: The Senator Black Woman Episode: "A Single Blow of a Sword"
1971 One Life to Live Sadie Gray Temporary replacement for Lillian Hayman; unknown episodes
19721974 Maude Florida Evans 32 episodes
1973 Cleopatra Jones Mrs. Johnson
19741977, 19781979 Good Times Florida Evans 109 episodes
Nominated-Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Television Series Musical or Comedy
1978 Summer of My German Soldier Ruth Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie
1979 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Momma Television film
1981 Darkroom Grandmother/Old Woman Episode: "Needlepoint"
1981 See China and Die Mama
1982 Flamingo Road Julia 3 episodes
1983 Fantasy Island Mama Episode: "Edward/The Extraordinary Miss Jones"
1984 Finder of Lost Loves Nellie Episode: "Goodbye, Sara"
1985 Murder, She Wrote Margaret Episode: "Reflections of the Mind"
1986 Ethnic Notions Narrator Documentary about the history of racial stereotypes
1987 P.K. and the Kid Mim
1989 The Mighty Quinn Ubu Pearl
1989 Driving Miss Daisy Idella
1990 Singer & Sons Sarah Patterson 4 episodes
1993 House of Cards Adelle
1993 To Dance with the White Dog Neelie Television film
1994 Scarlett Mammy
1995 How to Make an American Quilt Aunt Pauline
1996 My Fellow Americans Rita
1997 Rosewood Aunt Sarah Nominated-Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
1998 Poltergeist: The Legacy Grandma Rose Episode: "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
1998 Down in the Delta Annie Sinclair

Stage work


  1. Esther Rolle Profile at
  2. Jonathan Rolle (1883-1953) Find A Grave Memorial
  3. Elizabeth Rolle profile,; accessed March 15, 2015.
  4. Geni - Elizabeth Rolle
  5. Jonathan Rolle (1883-1953) Find A Grave Memorial
  6. Jonathan Rolle profile,; accessed March 15, 2015.
  7. 1 2 3 Sterngold, James "Esther Rolle, 78, Who Played Feisty Maid and Matriarch", The New York Times, November 19, 1998.
  8. 1 2 3 Esther Rolle at the African American Registry
  9. Esther Rolle biography
  10. 1 2 3 Erickson, Hal. "Esther Rolle biography". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-04-28.
  11. Associated Press. "'Good Times' matriarch Esther Rolle dies at 78". CNN. Archived from the original on June 15, 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-28. Reprinted as Esther Rolle's Obituary From CNN at
  12. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. Ballantine Books. 2003. p. 1431. ISBN 0-345-45542-8.
  14. 1 2 Esther Rolle at the TCM Movie Database
  15. Oscar Robinson profile,; accessed March 15, 2015.
  16. Sherley Mae Robinson profile,; accessed March 15, 201.5
  17. "Esther Rolle Memorial Set for Saturday". Los Angeles Times. November 25, 1998.

External links

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