In the Heat of the Night is a television series based on the motion picture, In the Heat of the Night, that ran from 1988 to 1995. It starred Carroll O'Connor as William Gillespie and Howard Rollins as Virgil Tibbs. Tibbs had traveled to the Sparta area for his mother's funeral. He was persuaded to remain by the city government, who had felt the need to make the city's police department more diverse.
The series originally ran on NBC for five seasons, premiering in March 1988 and running there until it was dropped from the NBC lineup in the spring of 1992. CBS then picked it up for three more seasons, with the series coming to an end in May 1995.
William "Bill" Champlin of the band Chicago sings the opening theme song.
Other episodes this season involved a prominent citizen being murdered due to sexual abuse in his family, Virgil’s ex-partner and Althea’s ex-lover coming back to Sparta who turned out to be a killer, Chief Gillespie having to arrest the fellow sheriff of the neighboring county for committing murder in his jail, Bubba getting caught up in a love triangle, Althea’s niece visiting from Philadelphia, Virgil and Althea going to an all white church, Joann being a former prostitute out of necessity, the arrest of council woman White’s son, Chief Gillespie witnessing an execution, a plant strike that leads to murder, and Bubba being accused of rape.
During the last four episodes of the season Joe Don Baker had to fill in for series star Carroll O’Connor due to open heart surgery. The chief was said to be at a police conference for a month. It seems that his replacement Tom Dugan was a spy working for the government in an attempt to stop the assassination of a civil rights preacher. The second season ended in a cliff hanger when Chief Gillespie returns to the force only to be kidnapped by two men wearing pig masks. It is now up to Virgil, Bubba, and the gang to bring the chief back alive and figure the out the reason behind the kidnapping!
Other topics this season include the murder of a prostitute, a teacher accused of molesting a child, who commits suicide due to inflammation of the story from the press, a women with an intellectual disability getting pregnant and burying her child, the introduction of Bobbie Johnson, after his brothers are killed in a drug shootout, a scam involving another one of Virgil’s friends, a bounty hunter, and a serial rapist stalking Sparta.
Perhaps the two most important stories of the season involve Virgil losing his Aunt Ruda and any chance of bringing his family closer after her son is arrested, ends up shooting himself, and goes to jail. Ruda blames Virgil for the whole affair and nothing he says can convince her otherwise! “There ain’t no family….not for me… not no more”
The other story involves the conviction of Harriet Delong’s ex-husband Vic for plotting to rob his former employer in a revenge scheme. Three men, on a misty Sunday morning, shoot a security guard at the Lambry plant and steal a bundle of money waiting to be paid out on Monday morning. Harriet’s son also gets involved when he tries to assist his father and almost loses his life. The case brings Bill and Harriet closer together, while it drives a wedge between Harriet and Eugene. As the relationship between Harriet and Bill begins to evolve all of Sparta is wondering how a relationship like that could exist and be accepted in the south. Harriet’s ex-husband eventually gets the death penalty for his crime which leaves Harriet and her son at odds and resentful of each other for not understanding where the other is coming from in terms of loyalty to Vic and her relationship with Bill.
The season closes with Althea almost having a break down over the stress of Virgil’s job on the police force after he is almost killed by a stray bullet and does not tell her about it. On top of that, she is also worried that her children will grow up without their father and begs him to try something different. Chief Gillespie burns up the wires and gets Virgil on his way to going to law school and Althea apologizes for not being more understanding as she, Virgil, and Chief Gillespie share a glass of wine together!
Also, Bubba gets involved with yet another baby, a teacher is stalked by an obsessed taxidermist, a game of high stakes poker leads to murder, Bubba gets reunited with Pat Day, Bill and Harriet share their first public kiss, and sweet solves the forty year old murder mystery involving his grandfather and a 1948 Packard.
Other episodes include Sheriff McCombs deputy growing marijuana, Darnell’s daughter being kidnapped, a wife who kills her husband for beating her, a doctor who kills his wife and his mistress to keep them from talking to each other, a real estate developer being killed in an insurance scam, the return of Emily Trundel, and one of the best episodes of the series “Family Reunion” in which, an insurance investigator is on the trail of stolen money and is murdered. Roy Paxton is reunited with his estranged family in an attempt to recover the money that the matriarch has run off with and it ends up in Sparta.
In the final two-part episode of the season, which was originally advertised as the series finale, Gillespie and Tibbs are brought up on charges when they help an escaped road gang prisoner of McCombs and he is offered sanctuary in a local monastery. After he escapes McComb feels betrayed by Gillespie and Tibbs for not upholding their sworn duty. The gang corners the escaped prisoner but he runs the road block and deputy Ferrell shoots him. Gillespie and Tibbs are put on administrative leave.
Judge Simms presides over the case. After hearing both sides the jury is not able to reach a verdict and Gillespie and Tibbs were freed.
Of note, a sub-plot in this episode sees Councilman Waters and Alvin Epp teaming up to keep Gillespie and Tibbs off the police force because Gillespie vehemently objects to them overtaking Sparta’s south side. This plot is explored further in the season six two part episode “Even Nice People and Lake Winahatchie”.
The episode and season end with Althea and Virgil celebrating and Bill and Harriet spending the night in each others company thus moving their relationship to the next level.
Also of interest this season, Bill Gillespie’s daughter returns for a three episode stint to resolve the case started in A Women Much Admired. She is testifying against the New Orleans thugs that her mama was involved with before her death. The case finally comes to a conclusion as the mob lead by their main Sparta connection Lewis Alvin Epp orders Lana’s farm house burnt down after she refuses to be bought out giving them access to Sparta’s south side.
Other highlights this season included the return of Luanne’s brother, a faded country music singer who ends up committing murder, Bubba being stalked by an obsessed admirer, Sweet being falsely accused of accepting a bribe, and a two part episode involving the “white supremacy” that still exists in the new south.
The season comes to a close when Eugene works hard to get his father’s death sentence stayed by the state of Mississippi only to have his efforts stopped by a mad man who ran the prison pastor off the road. Harriet also makes a critical decision at this point: to not let Eugene influence her relationship with Bill anymore. He may disapprove but as she tells him “one of these days you are going to walk away from me and I am just going to tell you to keep on going”.
After the season, both Howard Rollins and Anne-Marie Johnson, who had played a huge part of the series, left the series. Rollins was dropped because of drug issues (although he would return occasionally), while Johnson took a starring role on Fox’s In Living Color. At the same time, Geoffrey Thorne also left the series with no explanation and his character was never really written out of the show.
Colmer’s celebration is short lived however, when Gillespie is soon appointed as the Sheriff of Newman County because Nathan McComb suffers a heart attack and is too ill to continue his duties.
Hampton Forbes, meanwhile, is getting to know his new town and his new officers whom are not happy that Gillespie is gone. The last official thing that Gillespie does on his way out the door is to give each of his officers a promotion.
The character of Virgil Tibbs was written out of the show due to the fact that Howard Rollins had continuing drug problems and was dropped from the show. He is often talked about but only seen in three episodes the entire season credited as a special guest star. Lonnie Jamison takes over the role of Chief of Detectives in Virgil’s absence.
Notable episodes this season include the daughter of a friend of Bubba’s contracting AIDS form someone who knowingly gave it to her, the personal storylines involving Luann which include her singing nights in a sexy blues club and helping take care of an abandoned baby – whom she falls in love with. It is later revealed that she can’t have children of her own and she decides to sign up to be a full-time foster parent. Other episodes include Parker being accused of police brutality, Bubba trying to help his nephew deal with recovering from drugs, a deeper look at Lonnie’s life off the police force which is controlled by his cantankerous Aunt Cora, and Harriet Delong taking a bigger part in the story lines. Series co-star Denise Nicholas wrote four episodes this season.
Perhaps the most amusing episode of the season involved the return of Maybelle Chesboro the ex-madam. She has returned to operate a legal phone sex business. All is going well until one of her employees tries to blackmail one of Holly Colmer’s friends and ends up getting shot. Maybelle decides to hang it up for good but not before visiting Bill and attempting to get romantic one last time.
While some wished the series were renewed for another full season it was beginning to wind down and with it came what has been a long time coming – the marriage of Bill Gillespie and Harriet Delong. However, some in Sparta were not happy about the event and death almost does the couple part when a sniper mistakes Gillespie for Sheriff McComb.
The wedding goes off without a hitch and in the final two-part episode of the season Bill and Harriet prepare to celebrate their honeymoon only to be interrupted when a cult invades Sparta with deadly results.
The series wraps up during the 8th season with four two hour made for television movies.
|Carroll O'Connor||Played the lead role of William O. "Bill" Gillespie. Gillespie was a crusty but honorable small town police chief. At first resentful of Virgil Tibbs, he would later become very close to Virgil and the rest of the Tibbs family. For the first six seasons he was the chief of the Sparta Police Department until he was fired at the beginning of the 7th season. He would then become interim Sheriff after the previous Sheriff became too ill to continue his duties. Gillespie was married at one time to Anna, who became pregnant - both she and their son would die in childbirth. He also had an older daughter, Lana, by Georgia Farren. Gillespie eventually fell in love with Harriett DeLong.|
|Howard Rollins||Starred in the lead role of Virgil Tibbs. An African-American, he had grown up in Sparta but later moved north and became a police detective. He would later return to Sparta after being offered a job as chief of detectives with the city police department. At first Tibbs and Gillespie butted heads, but would soon become close friends - Gillespie even became a godfather to Virgil and Althea's twins. Even though some city council members wanted to make him chief, Tibbs firmly rebuffed their offers, preferring to work with Gillespie. After continued legal problems, Rollins was dropped from the series in 1993, and Tibbs was written out of the series as having left the community following his graduation from law school. Tibbs would return as a guest star several times during the 7th season in his new role as an attorney before Rollins was permanently barred from the county where the series was filmed after another arrest.|
|Alan Autry||Played "Bubba" Skinner. Skinner was something of a redneck. He was also a sort of ladies man around town. He eventually became close friends with the Tibbs family. Skinner was from a large family. Eventually he rose to the rank of Captain.|
|Anne-Marie Johnson||Starred as Virgil's wife Althea Tibbs. She starred in that role for six seasons. Althea's life in Sparta was very rough, having been raped at the beginning of the third season, and suffering a mental breakdown later after witnessing the suicide of one of her students. Althea did not reappear for the seventh season, and her character was written out as Althea had divorced Virgil and moved back to Pennsylvania. In reality, Johnson left the show for a role on the Fox Television sketch comedy show In Living Color.|
|Lois Nettleton||Played Joanne St. John from 1988 to 1989. She was the owner of the Magnolia Cafe, a popular eatery in Sparta (as seen in the show's opening). After it was revealed that Joanne was once a prostitute, she eventually left Sparta.|
|David Hart||Played Parker Williams. Parker generally sat behind the dispatcher's desk, although he would also be assigned to patrol duty. Parker was a Vietnam veteran.|
|Geoffrey A. Thorne||Joined the cast as Wilson Sweet in 1988. Aside from Tibbs, Sweet was one of the first African Americans to join the force.|
|Hugh O'Connor||Played the role of Lonnie Jamison, an officer on the Sparta police force. O'Connor was the adopted son of Carroll O'Connor. O'Connor had gotten his son this role as a way of keeping Hugh close to him, and in the hopes of keeping him away from drugs.|
|Carl Weathers||Joined the cast in the final season as Hampton Forbes. He was picked to lead the department after the controversial firing of Bill Gillespie. Forbes was the first African-American chief of the department. Forbes became friends with Gillespie, and would often work closely with him when Gillespie became sheriff. Weathers was a replacement for Howard Rollins, who had been dropped from the series after continued legal problems.|
|Crystal R. Fox||Played Luanne Corbin. After the first African American woman to join the force died in the line of duty on her first day on the job, Corbin was recruited to take her place.|
|Denise Nicholas||Played Sparta Counselwoman Harriet DeLong. Harriet's relationship with Chief Gillespie was deeply adversarial in the beginning, due to his somewhat racist personality and the two clashed often when she first appeared on the show. But over the course of the series, Harriet saw Gillespie's softer, more caring side and began to think more fondly of him. By the time Denise Nicholas became a series regular, Harriet and Gillespie were becoming a couple, much to the disapproval of her son, Eugene. Harriet's sister was the mistress of conniving businessman, V.J. Trundle, who later murdered her. They had a son named Eric from their illicit affair and Harriet eventually gained custody of him after Trundle committed suicide by deliberately crashing his private airplane after a confrontation about the murder with Gillespie.|
|Jen Harper||Dr. Day|
|Thom Gossom Jr.||Ted Marcus|
|Fran Bennett||Ruda Gibson|
|Karen Carlson||Sarah Hallisey|
|Rugg Williams||Eugene Glendon|
|Christine Elise||Lana Gillespie - Gillespie's daughter.|
|Bob Penny||Alvin Epp|
|Scott Brian Higgs||Randy Calhoun|
|Afemo Omilami||Jimmy Dawes|
|Joe Don Baker||Captain Tom Dugan - A retired police captain, Dugan appeared on the last four episodes of the second season. Baker was brought in as a stand-in for Carroll O'Connor while O'Connor was recovering from open heart surgery. Dugan was placed in the department by the FBI to uncover a plot by white supremacists to assassinate a civil rights leader. Dugan was murdered by these same white supremacists at the end of the second season. His nephew, who had become involved with these people, later agreed to help the police.|
|Ron Culbreth||Sheriff Nathan McComb - the former county sheriff. Culbreth appeared on nine episodes as Sheriff McComb. In the 7th season, McComb became too ill to continue his duties, and Gillespie was appointed as acting sheriff in his place. Prior to his appearances as McComb, Culbreth also appeared on the episode Missing in another guest role.|
|Maureen Dowdell||Tracy Boggs|
|Pat Hingle||Roy Eversole - Parker Williams' father. Hot tempered, Eversole had a great deal of difficulty maintaining steady employment. Eversole was once a murder suspect after getting into a heated argument with a former employer, who was subsequently found dead a short time later.|
Four of the actors who played main characters in the series have since died. Hugh O'Connor, who had played Jamison, committed suicide on March 28, 1995, after having had problems with drugs for many years. He was then followed by Howard Rollins on December 8, 1996, who had died of complications from lymphoma. On June 21, 2001, Carroll O'Connor, who had been suffering from diabetes, died after having had a heart attack. Finally, on January 18, 2008, Lois Nettleton, who played Joann St. John died at age 80 of lung cancer after years of heavy smoking.
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