In The Heat Of The Night-Classic TV Show series
Heat of the Night film poster
This classic television police show, as well as the movie, is about the people of the Southern United States toward the end of the 20th Century. I found it interesting in its portrayal of the transition from the “old South” to the “new South.” This old TV show is also one of the classic television series.
Perhaps I have little right to in this regard since I have spent very little time in the South and am a product of Northern attitudes. Thus I have to take the show somewhat at face value, but I think it helps me to better understand the Southern culture.
Believable characters supported by good actors helps to give this series a feel of realism. Carroll O’Connor especially impressed me because I think the part is so very different from his role as Archie Bunker. Archie was a man stuck in his world and yet sort of lovable. Gillespie on the other hand is a strong, wise authority figure, with some flaws.
The first season of the show that ran 1988 until 1995, had no particular thematic cohesion being a somewhat conventional crime show of the time. Eventually, although the show dealt with most of the problems of police work--murder, rape, robbery and other crimes it also became a study in the lives of the characters.
The film from 1968 was the story of an African-American police detective from Philadelphia getting involved in a murder investigation when he is visiting his hometown of Sparta, Mississippi --(although there is a real Sparta, that is not the setting.) It was, in fact filmed in Sparta, Illinois. There were two sequels to the original movie They Call Me Mr. Tibbs in 1970 and The Organization in 1970
In the films Sidney Poitier played the part of Virgil Tibbs. Rod Steiger played police chief Bill Gillespie, who is strongly prejudiced and arrests Tibbs for a murder. In the TV series Carroll O’Connor plays Gillespie and Howard Rollins plays Tibbs. Eventually the two learn to respect each other and work together. Although racism is a major theme here, I think another is the themes often seen in American folklore and Westerns of city vs. rural or highly trained professional policeman vs. common sense rural policeman. The later contrast is less important as the series continues.
The TV series was filmed in various locations. One of the things I like about the series is that the characters, such as Bubba Skinner, played by Alan Autry, manage to break away from the stereotypes. My first impression of the character is that he was a redneck--possibly the name implies that. Yet Bubba, although tough, shows genuine empathy and concern in the stories. Between Tibbs and Gillespie we find both men tend to see a stereotype in the other until, working together, they learn to know each other on a different level. Hugh O’Connor, I think, plays a somewhat “boy next door” young cop. Sadly the actor committed suicide and the show ended after that. He was the adopted son of Carroll O’Connor who died in June of 2001. Howard Rollins died in December 1996.
© 2010 Don A. Hoglund