In the Heat of the Night is an American drama television series based on the 1967 film and the 1965 novel of the same title. It starred Carroll O'Connor as police chief William Gillespie, and Howard Rollins as police detective Virgil Tibbs. It was broadcast on NBC from 1988 until 1992, then on CBS until May 1995. Its executive producers were Fred Silverman, Juanita Bartlett and Carroll O'Connor.

Premise

In the premiere episode, Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs has returned to his fictional home town of Sparta, Mississippi, for his mother's funeral. By virtue of his relationship with William Gillespie, the white police chief, fostered during a previous murder investigation in which he assisted, Tibbs is persuaded to remain in Sparta as chief of detectives. Gillespie wants him to be part of his effort to help overcome the local squad's reputation of being racist and underskilled. Although the team suffers friction over Tibbs' dissatisfaction with the department's limited resources and racial attitudes and Gillespie is annoyed at the detective's condescending suspicions about his home town, the two men prove highly effective in enforcing the law.

Tibbs takes a leave of absence, moving to Jackson, Mississippi, to complete his law degree on a compressed schedule. Upon his return to Sparta, he and his wife Althea have separated, and they later divorce. She moves back to Philadelphia with their twins to be near her parents. Through the hard work of Harriet Delong, Tibbs is able to retire and keep his city pension, although he was two months shy of the qualifying period. He begins practicing law when he accepts a position in Ben Taylor's law office. Rollins' final appearance on the series was February 2, 1994.

Meanwhile, the Sparta city council dismisses Gillespie. The council selects Hampton Forbes (Carl Weathers) to take Gillespie's place as police chief. Forbes is the town's first African American to serve in that position. Gillespie finds a new post of equivalent authority as county sheriff. The two senior police officials find that they get along in excellent fashion, in both professional and personal spheres.

Themes

The show dealt with a variety of issues, including racism, police brutality, hate crimes, drug abuse, alcoholism, rape, AIDS, misogyny, incest, child abuse, anti-Semitism, prostitution, government corruption, domestic violence, gambling, mental disorders, dysfunctional families, suicide, poverty, homophobia, and drunk driving.

Season-by-season overview

First season

The first season of the show was filmed in Hammond, Louisiana. This locale was selected by executive producer Juanita Bartlett to represent the small southern town of Sparta, Mississippi. Actually, the producers had difficulty finding filming locations that were usable, because other, more modern structures were close enough to be picked up in the images.[2] Eight episodes were filmed—the two-hour pilot movie and six regular one-hour episodes. The series premiered on March 6, 1988, with the season finale airing May 3, 1988.

Many conflicts arose between Juanita Bartlett and series star Carroll O'Connor over the writing of the series. At first, she allowed him to consult on the series per his contract. After the pilot, however, she ordered scripts from her writers. O'Connor described these as "recycled material from other crime shows". He was disappointed in the writing, feeling that the writers were taking big-city stories and imposing them on a small town. He believed that the key to this show's success was to express its small-town locale and characters through the stories.[3] Scripts would be given to him marked FINAL: NO REWRITES, but O'Connor often rewrote scripts anyway. This angered the production staff members, which felt they were burning up fax machines with the changes.[3] O'Connor described Bartlett as a very arrogant person.[2]

In the early episodes, there was an emphasis on grisly murders or other crimes, rather than the lives of the New South-era characters, for which the series later became known. Story lines included the pride of Sparta County getting her head bashed in, a man and his wife's distant cousin having an affair, the affair of a black man who was attempting to buy Sparta's newspaper, and a rich white woman ending up dead in the local newspaper plant after an argument between the woman and her husband. In the two-part episode "Blind Spot", a rich businessman and ex-friend of Tibbs, who stole a scholarship from him in high school, has promised to bring prosperity back to Sparta. But he is caught in a game of murder and drug dealing, using one of Sparta's richest mansions as his home base. The season closes with Scooter going with his uncle, Althea, and Virgil to discuss the possibility of having children.

Anne Marie Johnson, who played Althea, summed up what it was like to film the show in the little town of Hammond. She said, "My high school was bigger than this town".

Second season

Season two began airing in December 1988 due to a writers strike. The series had a new look and a new set of executive producers. On-location shooting was moved from Louisiana to Covington, Georgia. The season premiere was aired as a two-hour TV-movie, "Don't Look Back"; the plot revolved around a copycat murder of one that Gillespie had investigated 20 years earlier. It introduced two new regular characters—Joanne St. John (played by Lois Nettleton), the chief's sometime girlfriend and owner of the local diner, "The Magnolia Cafe"; and Officer Wilson Sweet (played by Geoffrey Thorne), fresh out of the Police Academy. This episode also introduced the first of several new recurring characters, including Doctor (or, "Doc") Robb, the county coroner (played by veteran actor Dan Biggers). The episode "The Creek" saw the introduction of the first new police character and the second prominent Georgia performer to claim a regular role on the series, "Officer Randy Goode" (1988–1993) played by Randall Franks, who was cast following the show's move to Covington, Georgia.

Plots in this season included a prominent citizen being murdered due to sexual abuse and incest in his family; Virgil's ex-partner and Althea's ex-lover (Michael Warren from Hill Street Blues) coming to visit for a reunion that no one would ever forget; Chief Gillespie's having to face his own bigoted past when he arrests a close friend (played by Ed Ames) (who is also the sheriff of the neighboring county) for committing a racially motivated murder; Bubba's getting caught up in a murderous love triangle; Althea's niece "Nicole" visiting, and with new friend "Bobby Skinner" (Bubba's nephew) stumbling upon criminal malfeasance in the episode "City Mouse Country Mouse". Mary Crosby and Judith Chapman stir up trouble when the sisters are implicated in their father's murder. It is truly a sibling rivalry with a murderous twist. A bitter strike leads to murder, but not all is as it seems when a new manager takes over Thail River Mill and drives the union to strike after only three months—it is snowing in Sparta and "Mississippi is Burning".

During the filming of the episode "Walkout", Carroll O'Connor began to experience fatigue. After being checked by the set doctor, it was discovered that he needed sextuple heart bypass surgery, due to years of heavy smoking. During the last four episodes of the season, Joe Don Baker was brought in as Tom Dugan, a replacement for Chief Gillespie, who was said to be away at a police training conference at Quantico. Dugan was appointed acting chief by Councilwoman White, but he was actually working undercover for the FBI in an attempt to stop the assassination of a civil rights preacher. The season finale titled "Missing" has the chief being kidnapped by two men in pig masks. Carroll O'Connor wanted the chief to be undergoing heart surgery in the story line, but the husband and wife producers came up with this story line instead. It was the final straw in a long line of complaints, and these producers were fired at the end of the season. Carroll O'Connor took over as executive producer for season three.[2]

Note: When Jeri Taylor and her husband decided to do the show, she was quoted as saying, "I was one of those in the '60's that was out marching for civil rights," and "I was one of those who thought the major work had all been done. When we (Taylor and her husband, Moessinger) decided to do the show, we took research trips to the South, and we saw that there had been an enormous amount of change. We came back with a renewed vigor but also with the realization that there is still a lot more to be done. There is still deeply entrenched racism. And addressing that became a much larger element in our thinking about the show."

"What makes race relations a constant in our show is the two lead characters—one is white and one is black," Moessinger said. "Whether they are angry at each other, whether they're happy or sad, we're showing the interaction of two men who are trying to do the best in life. If we never put one race issue into it, if we never said one word about it, the message is there because it's showing how people ought to interrelate, how they ought to work together, how they ought to get along."[4]

Third season

In the third season, Carroll O'Connor took complete control of the show, after firing husband and wife executive producing team David Moessinger and Jeri Taylor.

The third season saw a number of changes to the show. The character of Joanne St. John was eliminated to make room for councilwoman Harriet Delong. Althea grappled with the effects and aftermath of rape, after she was attacked and raped by the music teacher at Sparta High School. We learned that Parker was a Vietnam veteran. Dee Shaw joined the cast as officer Dee Sheppard.

In plot lines, Parker almost crosses the line between police ethics and love when he falls for Kate Morell and her daughter J.C.; a former boxer that used to run for the mob tries to blackmail them. The chief tries unsuccessfully to save him, telling Althea, "The FBI wants to buy what King Baylor knows before the mob kills him and the mob wants him dead before the FBI can buy him. It's that simple". Althea's reply is "Chief, I believe that is the coldest thing I have ever heard you say". There is a murder at a nursing home, and a race riot almost erupts when a white cab driver who got a black girl pregnant in The Bottoms is found dead with $1,500 missing. Gillespie and Tibbs take opposite sides in the case, creating some tense drama. Althea's girlfriend from high school visits from Philadelphia and quickly takes an interest in Officer Sweet, but things end tragically. The chief must save a young girl from being tried as an adult after she is charged with killing her parents and hiding their bodies.

In "First Girl", Gillespie hires Christine Rankin, Sparta PD's first female black officer. Her life is tragically cut short, making room for her replacement, Luanne Corbin, played by Crystal R. Fox. Luanne would remain a prominent character throughout the rest of the series, although Crystal Fox was listed in the ending credits as a guest star until season seven where she finally appeared in the opening credits.

In the two-part episode, "Citizen Trundel", written by O'Connor, Cynthia Deming, and William J. Royce, Harriet DeLong's sister Natalie is murdered by her secret lover, multimillionaire V.J Trundel. The situation causes Harriet a tremendous amount of grief, not only because of Natalie's murder, but because Gillespie and Tibbs are not able to implicate Trundel in the crime, much less charge him for it. In Part Two, it is shown that Norman Luft and Jessica Franks, two of Trundel's most trusted employees, facilitated not only Natalie's murder but the murder of the man they hired to kill her. Jessica is arrested, and Luft is apprehended attempting to leave Sparta by private plane with Trundel. Gillespie confronts Trundel with the knowledge that even though he has escaped a murder charge, he will still have to live with the burden of having his lover and the mother of his son, Eric Delong, murdered and having to live with the risk that Eric would one day confront him over it. Unable to bear the weight of his guilt, Trundel commits suicide by crashing the plane only minutes after taking off. This episode was of special significance to series costar Denise Nicholas. Ten years before, her real-life sister had been murdered and the culprit had never been caught. When Carroll O'Connor approached Denise about the story line, she had to write him a note explaining the situation. He offered to have her not appear in the episode but she chose to do so to bring closure for her and her family. Only Carroll O'Connor and director Leo Penn knew the truth during filming. This is the first episode in which we see Bill and Harriet's relationship begin to gel.[3]

Howard Rollins' drug and alcohol problems

During the second half of season 3, Howard Rollins took six weeks off when he entered a drug and alcohol rehab program to battle his addiction issues.[6] The episodes he missed included King's Ransom, Triangle, Hello in There, December Days, and An Angry Woman. MGM worked around his rehab schedule. Episodes were not necessarily aired in the order they were filmed, which explains why Tibbs was present one week and not the next. To explain his absence, he was said to be in New Orleans working for the FBI. He considered committing suicide shortly before Christmas 1989, prompting his stay in rehab.[6] Carroll O'Connor threatened to sue a tabloid which published a story saying that MGM and Carroll had fired Rollins for being absent from the set due to his problems.[6] Denise Nicholas, who played Harriet Delong, said "Carroll set the standard for loyalty. If he liked you, he really liked you and would be there for you" [TV Guide, July 2001].

Fourth season

Cynthia Deming and William J. Royce were made story editor(s).

The season begins with a two-hour movie titled "Brotherly Love" and the birth of Virgil and Althea's twins. William and Sarah Tibbs were welcomed into the world on September 18, 1990. While Althea is waiting to go into labor, Tibbs' friend from the Philadelphia Police Force is murdered, and Tibbs heads up to the "big city" to clear his friend's name, only to be framed for murder himself. It is now up to Chief Gillespie to find out the truth, clear Virgil's name, and make it home in time for the twins' birth. Other stories include a mild-mannered teacher being accused of child molestation, only to commit suicide due to inflammation from the press. In "Family Matters", Virgil's cousin is a suspect in a string of robberies. Virgil promises his Aunt Ruta that he wants to be a family again and that Ty will not get hurt. When the boy ends up shooting himself while fighting with Virgil for the gun used in the robberies, Ruta cuts herself off from the rest of the family. There is a Christmas clip show, a show about a bounty hunter, and a story line in which the Sparta P.D. has to save a wrongly convicted man from death row, among many other story lines.

Harriet DeLong's ex-husband Vic returns to Sparta plotting to rob his former employer in a revenge scheme. On a misty Sunday morning, three men 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 Eugene 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. Eugene reminds his mother that "Aunt Natalie was killed by a white man", while Bill brushes off Eugene's fool notions about him and his mama for now. Virgil, on the other hand, is not buying it and can see the relationship between Bill and Harriet developing quite nicely.

The season closes with Althea close to a breakdown over the stress of Virgil's job on the police force after he is almost killed by a stray bullet which he does not tell her about. She is worried that her children will grow up without their father. She begs him to try something different. Chief Gillespie burns up the wires to get Virgil on his way to law school, and Althea apologizes for not being more understanding as she, Virgil, and Chief Gillespie share a glass of wine together.

Fifth season

The fifth season begins with the revelation that Chief Gillespie has a daughter by the name of Lana Farren, played by Christine Elise (formerly of Beverly Hills, 90210). The chief is now good friends with her mother, Georgia Farren, played by legendary actress Stella Stevens. Georgia Farren asks Bill to help her put some of her affairs in order and to keep all of her "boyfriends" as well as her ex-husband away from her assets, which she intends to leave to Lana. Bill immediately puts Ted Marcus on the case to assist Lana in obtaining the property meant to be given to her by her mother. In the meantime, Georgia returns to Gulfport and is murdered. The chief takes this very personally and sets out to find her killer, Ken Farren, who evidently learns that Bill Gillespie is Lana's real father. At the end of the episode, Lana finds out that Bill is her real father but does not want to have anything to do with him because of his nonexistence in her life for 20 years. This hurts Bill deeply, and he has a hard time dealing with it. Note: The character of Lana will not be seen again until the season six episode "Random's Child".

Other story lines include a taxidermist who is obsessed with a schoolteacher, a game of high-stakes poker that ends in murder, Bubba's finding out that Sheriff McComb's deputy is growing pot on the side, Sweet's finding out the truth about the murder of his grandfather in 1948 (a story based on the life of Medgar Evers), and a humorous episode in which a family reunion goes awry after the father returns to collect the money he stole in a bank robbery 15 years before, only to find out that the mother has remarried and spent a good portion of the money. Once the money is located, the insurance company wants it back, but Bill and Virgil keep the money as evidence—requiring the insurance company to sue the police department to recover the funds. In "Moseley's Lot", one brother wants the other dead after he drags two thugs from New Orleans home to Sparta. A once-promising family business is destroyed over drugs, money, and jealousy.

Season 5 sees the return of Virgil's Aunt Ruta in "Ruta's Awakening". Ruta is the only witness to a struggle that ends in the death of a young robbery suspect. Her prejudice against the police and against Virgil clouds her memory of the incident. But after visiting her son Tyrell in prison, whereupon he tells her that the shooting that left him hospitalized was not Virgil's fault, her memory of the incident returns, and the episode ends with Virgil and Ruta happily reconciled.

In "Sanctuary" and "The Law on Trial", Sheriff McComb has Gillespie and Tibbs brought up on charges after an escaped prisoner is given sanctuary in a monastery and the two don't arrest him when he refuses to give himself up. Althea fears that if Virgil is convicted, it will be the end of his career as a cop and will hinder his chances of being an attorney. Judge Simms presides over the case. The jury is not able to reach a verdict, and Gillespie and Tibbs are freed. Ted Marcus represents Gillespie and Tibbs in the trial, and Father DiMarco represents himself at trial. Father DiMarco's heartfelt summation to the jury contributes to the case being dismissed.

The conflict between Sheriff McComb and Chief Gillespie lingers on through several more episodes, and that conflict affects every crossover dealing with subsequent interactions between McComb's deputies and Gillespie's officers. It isn't until the arrival of Chief Hampton Forbes (Carl Weathers) that we see Sheriff McComb and Chief Gillespie as friends again.

The episode and the season end with Althea and Virgil celebrating Virgil's being able to attend law school while remaining on the payroll of the Sparta Police Department. Bill and Harriet spend the night together.

Sixth season

At the beginning of Season 6, In the Heat of the Night moved from NBC to CBS. Originally, CBS opted to pick up the series for only a set of six two-hour movies. However, it was eventually picked up for a full 22-episode order.

The first two episodes of the season see the affair between Gillespie and DeLong intensify, only to be interrupted by a crack war involving Eugene Glendon. Eugene is Harriet DeLong's son from her marriage to Vic Glendon, a convict who came back to Sparta to rob the mill and former workplace of his employer where a cop was murdered during the attempt to apprehend the robbers. Vic Glendon is later convicted and sent to death row at Parchman Prison.

Althea Tibbs witnesses the suicide of one of her students, Garth Watkins (played by Walton Goggins), causing her to suffer a near mental breakdown. Garth's girlfriend has long broken up with him and taken to older, married men, but Garth is still obsessed with her. Garth steals the boots and gun of his girlfriend's stepfather and travels to Pervis Lake and sits in wait for Megan Fowler (the girlfriend) and Lyle Ridley (the older married man) and fatally shoots Lyle while he and Megan are chasing each other outside the cabin that belongs to Lyle Ridley and his wife. Parker and Dee suffer the dreaded task of traveling to the Ridley residence to tell Mrs. Ridley that her husband was shot at their lake home and that he was with a 17-year-old girl.

Other highlights this season included the return of Luanne's brother (played by Designing Women's Meshach Taylor), a faded country music singer (played by Robert Goulet) who ends up committing murder; Bubba's being stalked by an obsessed admirer; Sweet's being falsely accused of accepting a bribe; and a two-part episode directed by Larry Hagman involving the white supremacy that still exists in the new South. In a two-part episode written by O'Connor and Cynthia Deming, titled "Even Nice People" and "Lake Winahatchie", the mob, led by their real estate connection Lewis Alvin Epp, tries to force Lana off her farmland, first by trying to buy it and then by torching it so that they can build the "Sparta South Development".

Howard Rollins' firing

Rollins was fired due to health reasons plus three outstanding warrants in Rockdale County and the city of Covington, GA.[7] He was replaced for season seven by Carl Weathers. Filming began on April 28, 1993. Rollins had not been seen on the set since January 1993, when season six wrapped. Despite numerous attempts by the media to contact Rollins, who was believed to be living in New York City, only series star Carroll O'Connor was in contact with Rollins during this period. It was hoped that Rollins would get his legal and personal issues resolved and return to the series full time, both to practice law and to assist the Sparta P.D. with cases, but this was not the case.

After season 6, Anne-Marie Johnson and Geoffrey Thorne left the series. Rollins would return occasionally as a guest star, while Johnson took a starring role on Fox's In Living Color. Thorne left to pursue a career as a novelist and screenwriter. Thorne's character simply vanished from the series without any explanation.

Seventh season

Season 7 began with Bill Gillespie being forced out of office and former Memphis, Tennessee Police Department Inspector Hampton Forbes hired as the new police chief. After nearly three decades on the Sparta police force, Gillespie does not receive a new contract from the city council because of his open relationship with Harriet DeLong. However, Gillespie is soon appointed as the acting Sheriff of Newton County when Nathan McComb suffers a heart attack and is too ill to continue his duties. Bill's first case as Sheriff is to solve the murder of one of the richest families in Sparta—the Barons. Wade Hatton, played by Stacy Keach, is a lawyer from New Orleans who has returned to his native Sparta to revisit his childhood memories and romance Sarah Hallisey. The prime suspect in the case is a 16-year-old black youth, played by Wayne Brady with an intellectual disability. Gillespie eventually solves the case with the help of Hatton, Hallisey, and Judge Cully—much to the dissatisfaction of District Attorney Darnell, who feels the prisoner is being treated in a privileged status due to his disability. Meanwhile, Chief Forbes is escorted on a driving tour of Sparta by Bubba Skinner and Officer Covey. Forbes gets to see both the finest street in town, along which Bubba indicates that he has solved many major crimes, as well as "The Bottoms". Chief Forbes soon realizes that Sparta is no different from Memphis, and he and Gillespie will need to work together to keep the town safe from the criminal elements. Howard Rollins returns in his new capacity as attorney Virgil Tibbs and assists on three of the Sparta PD's cases after having moved into Ben Taylor's law office.

Other cases involve a friend of Bubba Skinner's being given the AIDS virus from a lover who knew he had it, a nine-year-old little girl being killed because of a drunk driver (Hagman-directed), a young inter-racial couple being stalked by a white supremacist (Brent Lunay), first seen in the episode "Odessa", written by Denise Nicholas. Other cases include Parker's being accused of police brutality, and the return of Daddy Roy and Miz Rhoda. Both Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller make special guest appearances in two separate episodes. Gillespie must once again confront his racist past when a new synagogue moves into Sparta and the Rabbi detests Gillespie for being an anti-Semite back in the 1960s. This both angers and shocks Harriet. Lana Gillespie also makes one final appearance as Bill's daughter in the Hagman-directed episode "A Love Lost", in which he must protect her from a former boyfriend who is involved in a gun running scheme with someone in Sparta.

In the episode "Ches and the Grand Lady", Bobby Short reprises his role as the blues musician from "Sweet, Sweet Blues". The episode also guest stars Jean Simmons as the dying grand dame of Sparta who also happens to be Ches's old flame and the overbearing great-aunt of Lonnie Jamison. Another episode involves the return of Maybelle Chesboro (played by Elizabeth Ashley), the ex-madam. She has returned to operate a legal phone sex business. One of her employees tries to blackmail one of Holly Colmer's friends and ends up getting shot. Chesboro decides to give up working in the business for good, but not before visiting Gillespie and attempting to get romantic with him.

Finally, in "Dangerous Engagement", Gillespie and DeLong tie the knot at the same sanctuary involved in the sanctuary case from season five. Father DiMarco has since died, but the new Monk agrees to marry them. Chief Forbes serves as best man. In the meantime, a newspaper misprint makes Gillespie the target of an escaped killer from Texas whose father Sheriff McComb sent to death row. His son is now seeking revenge.

The season and the TV series wraps up with the two-hour movie of the week, "Give Me Your Life", starring Peter Fonda as Appfel. The story (by O'Connor and written by Cynthia Deming & William J Royce) is loosely based on the real-life drama unfolding in Waco, Texas with David Koresh and his followers.

TV movies

Four made-for-television movies were produced during the 1994-95 season. Once released on DVD, these movies combined were considered to be the eighth season of the show. The movies were:

  • A Matter of Justice
  • Who was Geli Bendl? (directed by Larry Hagman)
  • By Duty Bound
  • Grow Old Along with Me

Series co-star Hugh O'Connor committed suicide two months before the fourth film aired. When the film was broadcast in its original, two-hour format, a black screen was added in between the intro tag and the opening title; it read "In memory of Hugh O'Connor: 1962–1995".

Writing staff

  • Carroll O'Connor (1989–95) as Matt Harris
  • Mark Rodgers (1989–90)
  • David Moessinger (1988–89)
  • Jeri Taylor (1988–89)
  • Edward Deblasio (1989–90)
  • Nancy Bond (1988–90)
  • William J Royce (1989–94)
  • Cynthia Deming (1990–94)
  • Robert Bielak (1990–91)
  • Mitch Schneider (1990–94)
  • Joe Gannon (1991–94)
  • Denise Nicholas (1992–95)
  • Terri Erwin (1989–91)
  • Bill Taub (1991)

Cast

ActorRole
Carroll O'ConnorStarred in the lead role of William O. "Bill" Gillespie. Gillespie was a tough but honorable small city police chief. At first somewhat resentful of Virgil Tibbs, Gillespie would later become very close to Virgil and the rest of the Tibbs family. It should be noted that their relationship in the TV series is much less adversarial than it is in the film version. For the first six seasons he was the chief of the Sparta Police Department until he was fired by the city council at the beginning of the 7th season. He would then become interim County Sheriff after the previous Sheriff became too ill to continue his duties. Gillespie would become the permanent Sheriff by the end of the series. Chief Gillespie was a World War 2 Veteran and identified himself as serving with a colored man in the 227th Military Police (it is assumed the 227th was a colored unit and Gillespie was the commanding officer). Gillespie had a penchant for wearing high-powered sidearms such as the Colt Python and later a brushed chrome Desert Eagle. Gillespie was married at one time to Anna, his Italian war bride whom he brought home from his WWII service in Italy. Anna became pregnant - both she and their son would die in childbirth. He also had an older daughter Lana, played by Christine Elise. Gillespie eventually fell in love with Harriett DeLong. Throughout the series run, O'Connor was one of the actors to appear in every episode of the series on both networks (NBC) and (CBS), with the exception of four shows near the end of the 1988-89 season that he missed while recovering from open heart surgery.
Howard RollinsStarred in the lead role of Virgil Tibbs. Virgil had grown up in Sparta but later moved north and became a police detective in Philadelphia, PA. He would later return to Sparta after being offered a job as chief of detectives and the rank of Captain with the city police department. At first Tibbs and Gillespie butted heads, but would soon become close friends - Gillespie even became Godfather to Virgil and Althea's twins. Tibbs also initially clashed with Bubba early in the series, but after helping Bubba clear his name during a case where he was falsely accused of rape, they became good friends as well. 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 and becoming an attorney in private practice. Rollins would return as a guest star several times during the 7th season in his new profession, attorney at law.
Alan AutryPlayed Virgil Lawrence "Bubba" Skinner. At first Bubba was something of a redneck. Intimidating and physically powerful, he was never afraid to use force when needed, but despite his rough exterior, he was a good man deep down. He was also a sort of ladies' man around Sparta, as he always seemed to have a new girlfriend. He was known to turn female heads - including that of Althea Tibbs who refers to him as a "hunk." Bubba was deeply resentful of Virgil's presence on the police force at first, clashing with him on several occasions. He eventually became close friends with the Tibbs family, particularly after Virgil helped clear his name in a false allegation of rape. As the series progresses, Bubba is shown to be a brave and honorable man who is more complex and intelligent than people give him credit for. Through the course of the series, Bubba became more racially tolerant, referring to bigots and racists as "knotheads." Bubba was also from a large family, and was shown several times during the series to be an expert shot with a rifle. When the Sparta police needed a sniper (such as when Captain Tibbs's wife Althea was taken hostage in the episode ".......And then you die,") it was Skinner who took the shot with a scoped rifle kept in the trunk of his squad car. Bubba carried a Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver in his belt holster like most of the other Sparta police officers. In Season 1, Bubba's rank seemed to be patrolman but was never explicitly stated. By Season 2's premiere he was a Sergeant. Eventually he rose to the rank of Captain before Gillespie left the Sparta Police. In Season 5, it is revealed that Bubba's first and middle initials are V.L. Bubba also always wore "white socks" with his uniform. Bubba usually was the one who was asked to arrest the tougher suspects due to his large size and immense strength.
Anne-Marie JohnsonStarred as Virgil's wife, teacher and counselor Althea Tibbs. She starred in that role for six seasons. Althea's life in Sparta was difficult—she was raped at the beginning of the third season, and later suffered a mental breakdown after witnessing the suicide of one of her students. Althea did not reappear for the 7th season, and her character was written out as Althea had been separated from Virgil and moved back to Pennsylvania.
Lois NettletonPlayed 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 HartPlayed Parker Williams. He was a very perceptive character. He genuinely loved the people of Sparta whom he had sworn to serve and protect, and he often sensed when someone was hurting. Parker knew everybody in town and was able to get through to them because of his kindness. Parker generally sat behind the dispatcher's desk, handling the telephone and radio, although he also was assigned to patrol duty. In 1994, he rose to the rank of Senior Sergeant. Parker was a Vietnam veteran, as explained in the episode "My Name is Hank." As a comic relief, Parker always had a Mason jar of sweet tea on his desk, including when he was at the Tibbs's house for Christmas in the episode "Blessings." Parker can be seen holding his tea jar with a Christmas bow stuck on it.
Christian LeBlancPortrayed Junior Abernathy, a patrolman seen only during Season 1. Junior was a young and inexperienced policeman who often was chastised by Detective Tibbs or Chief Gillespie for not knowing proper police procedure. However, Junior often rose to the occasion to assist in arrests or at other incidents in Sparta.
Geoffrey ThorneJoined the cast as Wilson Sweet in 1988. Aside from Tibbs, Sweet was one of the first black men to join the force. His ambition was to rise in the ranks of the Sparta police force and become Sparta's first black Police Chief - a part which was eventually played by Carl Weathers. The character disappeared in Season 7 after Thorne left the show and was never mentioned again.
Hugh O'ConnorPlayed the role of Lonnie Jamison, an officer and senior investigator on the Sparta police force. Lonnie eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant and Acting Chief of Detectives. Lonnie was a very capable officer and took his job seriously. He usually had a serious and straightforward personality, with a dry humor that always fit the moment, and he was an amiable and friendly person overall. One of the many facets of Lonnie's character was fierce, never-give-up loyalty to his friends. A prime example of that loyalty occurred over several episodes as Lonnie's friendship with Harriet DeLong's son Eugene. Lonnie was Eugene's track team coach at Sparta High, and it was Lonnie Jamison who was able to get through to the young man when Eugene's father was being tried for murder, episode "No Other Road." Later, in "A Small War," when Eugene's friend was killed in a drive-by at a drug pusher's house, Lonnie tried to convince Eugene to talk about what he had witnessed. Eugene resisted, testing Lt. Jamison's patience, but when Eugene agreed to help the police identify the shooter, it was Lonnie who drove him up to Jackson. Actually, Lonnie let Eugene drive, and they took Jamison's Corvette. That scene was another example of Lonnie helping to get through to Eugene. Lonnie was a crack shot with a rifle and was often selected by Chief Gillespie to handle a situation requiring a long range rifle shot, as in episodes "My Name is Hank," "An Eye for An Eye," and "CrackDown." Along with Bubba, the Sparta Police had a very lethal sniper team.
Carl WeathersJoined the cast in the final season as Police Chief Hampton Forbes. He was picked to lead the department after the controversial firing of Bill Gillespie. Forbes was the first black chief of the department and a 20-year veteran of the Memphis, TN, police department, serving in one of the four police districts in the city of Memphis. He retired from the MPD to become the new Police Chief in Sparta. Forbes became friends with Gillespie and often worked closely with him when Gillespie became county sheriff.
Crystal R. FoxPlayed Luanne Corbin. After the first black woman to join the force, Officer Christine Rankin, died in the line of duty on her first day on the job, Corbin was recruited to take her place. Crystal was featured in the episode "Singin' the Blues," which gave her the opportunity to display her talent as a singer as well as a fine actress. Her beautiful singing voice was also featured in the episode "Odessa," where she sang the Gospel song "Jesus Savior, Pilot Me."
Denise NicholasPlayed Sparta City Council woman Harriet DeLong. Harriet's relationship with Chief Gillespie was deeply adversarial in the beginning, 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. In the two-part episode, "Citizen Trundel," Harriet's sister, Natalie was the mistress of conniving businessman, V.J. Trundel, who later had her murdered. They had a son named Eric from their illicit affair, and Harriet eventually gained custody of him after Trundel committed suicide by deliberately crashing his private airplane after a confrontation about the murder with Gillespie. Emily Trundel, V.J.'s estranged widow, attempted to gain custody of Eric in the following season, but only succeeded in gaining visitation rights, something Harriet deeply opposed.
Randall FranksPlayed Officer Randy Goode (1988–1993) Randy Goode began his work on the series as a partner to Wilson Sweet in "The Creek;" he soon began driving Chief Gillespie and Detective Tibbs around.
Harvey E. Lee Jr.Played Officer Ken Covey. (Joined the show in the sixth season.)
Mark JohnsonPlayed Officer Luke Everett. (Joined the show in the sixth season.)

Recurring cast

ActorRole
Maureen DowdellPlayed Nurse Tracey Boggs, Bubba's girlfriend. Also played Nurse Jill and Lydia Kinsey.
Thom Gossom Jr.Ted Marcus
Fran BennettVirgil's aunt Ruta Gibson
Karen CarlsonSarah Hallisey
Rugg WilliamsEugene Glendon
Wallace MerckColmer
Christine EliseLana Farren - Gillespie's daughter by Georgia Farren as the result of a long-ago love affair. They had no relationship while Lana was growing up.
Adair SimonEmily Trundel
Bob PennyAlvin Epp
Scott Brian HiggsRandy Calhoun
Wilbur FitzgeraldDist. Atty. Gerard Darnelle
Afemo OmilamiJimmy Dawes
Burgess MeredithJudge Cully
Stuart CulpepperJudge Henry Sims
Joe Don BakerCaptain Tom Dugan - A retired Mississippi Highway Patrol 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. Dugan's godson, who had become involved with these people, later agreed to help the police.
Ron CulbrethSheriff 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.
Pat HingleRoy Eversole - Parker Williams' step-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.
Tonea StewartVirgil's aunt Etta Kibby
Dee ShawOfficer Dee Shepard
Jen HarperDr. Day

Guest stars

During the series' 7½-season run, many familiar, unfamiliar, and longtime character actors and actresses have made guest appearances, and others were newcomers who went on to become well-known. Some of those appearing in The Heat of the Night episodes were: Ed Ames, Frances Fisher, Rod Masterson, Mel Stewart, Denzel Washington, Nana Visitor, Gail O'Grady, Peter Fonda, Don Galloway, Corbin Bernsen, Dana Barron, Marco St. John, Larry Black, Ted Lange, Mickey Jones, Mitchell Laurance, Laura Johnson, Jordan Vaughn, Martha Byrne, Walton Goggins, Maury Covington, Earl Holliman, Michael Beck, Randy Brooks, Wayne Brady, Art Evans, Nicolas Cowan, Lou Walker, Alan Arbus, Robert Goulet, Bobby Short, Iman, William Sadler, Michael Spound, Bill McKinney, Lisa Pelikan, Mark Rolston, Jennifer Bassey, Marc Macaulay, Jean Simmons, Thomas Jefferson Bird, Vanessa Bell Calloway, J.D. Hall, John Davis Chandler, George C. Scott, Joe Senaca, Stephen Root, Bruce Kirby, Lisa Rieffel, Marla Gibbs, Ernest Lee Thomas, Ken Marshall, Laurence Fishburne, Josh Lucas (as Joshua Lucas), Ted Manson, Mariska Hargitay, Jason Beghe, Meshach Taylor, Francesco Quinn, Jeffrey Buckner Ford, Gary Anthony Williams, Richard McKenzie, Fred Thompson, Craig Shoemaker, Stephen Nichols, Stacy Keach, Mitchell Anderson, James Best, Sonny Shroyer, Michael Warren, Byron Cherry, Whitman Mayo, Ken Curtis, Louise Fletcher, Victor French, among many others. Future Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman stars, Helene Udy, William Shockley and Chad Allen made guest appearances. Future Desperate Housewives star Doug Savant and veteran actor Kevin McCarthy also made their guest appearances on the two-part pilot episode, as well as O. J. Simpson, who made a cameo appearance.

Broadcast history and ratings

The series debuted as a midseason replacement for the short-lived NBC series J.J. Starbuck, premiering on March 6, 1988. The series ran on the network until May 19, 1992, then was shown on CBS until its finale after an eighth season, on May 16, 1995.

SeasonTimeRankRatingViewers
1987–88Tuesday at 9:00-10:00 PM on NBC1917.015,639,200
1988–891817.315,564,900
1989–901916.913,871,900
1990–912114.9 (tied with Major Dad)N/A
1991–92Tuesday at 9:00-10:00 PM on NBC (October 1, 1991 - January 7, 1992)
Tuesday at 8:00-9:00 PM on NBC (January 14 - May 19, 1992)
3013.1 (tied with The Golden Girls)N/A
1992–93Wednesday at 9:00-10:00 PM on CBS46N/A10,630,000
1993–94Thursday at 8:00-9:00 PM on CBS (September 16, 1993 - January 6, 1994)
Wednesday at 9:00-10:00 PM on CBS (January 12 - May 11, 1994)
N/AN/AN/A

DVD releases

On August 30, 2012, TGG Direct released the first season on DVD in Region 1 for the very first time. The eighth and final season was released on June 11, 2013.

On October 23, 2012, TGG Direct released an 8-disc best-of set entitled In the Heat of the Night - 24hr Television Marathon.[10]

TGG Direct released seasons 4 and 5 onto DVD on December 10, 2013. However, due to licensing issues, the following episodes are missing from the box set: Brotherly Love, Shine On Sparta Moon, Sweet, Sweet Blues, Sanctuary, Law On Trial.

TGG Direct released seasons 2 & 3 in a single boxed set onto DVD on March 11, 2014. However, due to clearance issues, the following episodes are excluded from Season 2 and Season 3 Season 2 Excluded Episodes: The Family Secret, The Hammer and the Glove, A Trip Upstate, Intruders, Sister Sister, Walkout Season 3 Excluded Episodes: Fairest of Them All, Crackdown, Anniversary, My Name is Hank, King's Ransom, A Loss of Innocence, Home is Where the Heart Is, Indiscretions, Citizen Trundel Part 1 and Part 2

TGG Direct also released seasons 6 and 7 in individual boxed sets onto DVD on March 11, 2014. However, due to clearance issues, the following episode is excluded from Season 6: Random's Child and the following episodes are excluded from Season 7: Singin' The Blues, Every Man's Family, Maybelle Returns, Ches and the Grand Lady, Dangerous Engagement.

Locations

The television series also took place in a fictionalized version of Sparta, Mississippi. While there is a real Sparta, the version of Sparta shown on television is very different from the real town. For example, the TV Sparta is situated along Interstate 20, while the real town is nowhere near any interstate. During the first season, Hammond, Louisiana was the site of the show's production. In the second season, the show was moved to Georgia, to an area east of Atlanta and it remained there for the rest of its run. The principal area of Sparta was in fact downtown Covington, Georgia. Rural scenes were filmed in a wide surrounding area, in the Georgia counties of Newton (where Covington is located), Rockdale, Walton, Morgan, and Jasper. Decatur in Dekalb County was used as a stand-in for an episode as the Mississippi Capital city of Jackson, and Atlanta itself was used in one episode, in which Bubba worked on a case there. In fact, during the series' run, many of the cast members had homes in the area and were often spotted in local restaurants and retail stores. The cast members would also go around to local schools to speak to students.

Soundtrack

The theme song, "In the Heat of the Night," was recorded by Quincy Jones, and is usually paired with "They Call Me Mr. Tibbs" on albums. Bill Champlin of the band Chicago sang the opening theme song for the television series.

Randall Franks and Alan Autry co-produced the cast CD "Christmas Time's A Comin'" for Sonlite and MGM/UA featuring the entire cast and a host of music stars and it was released Christmas 1991 and 1992 and was among the top holiday recordings of those years around the South and Midwest.