Esther Rolle On How She Refused To Be A Sell-Out For A Paycheck
“I don’t play Hollywood maids, the hee-hee kind of people who are so in love with their madam’s children they have no time for their own.”Whether playing a servant—or Lady Macbeth, as she did onstage-she consistently found herself in quality productions with meaty parts. She scored raves for her performance of the rock-solid mother in A Raisin in the Sun on PBS last year and won an Emmy for the 1978 NBC movie Summer of My German Soldier. “A lot of people are stars,” says Miss Daisy co-star Morgan Freeman. “Esther’s a working actress. She is a strong person, straight ahead.” Says Rolle: “I’m not so in love with material things that I’ll do anything for money. That allows me the luxury of doing things of value.”
Lighting up a cigarette in the two-story stucco house that looks out over downtown L.A., the majestic, sometimes imperious Rolle softens. She [longed] to tend her withered garden. Married once but without children, Rolle has nevertheless played mother offstage: The 10th of 18 children who grew up on a 10-acre farm…she helped care for her younger siblings, a practice that continued into adulthood. “Everyone under me has lived with me at one time or another,” she says.
When worried or anxious, Rolle turns to her pots and pans. “Your mind flashes back to your childhood. You remember what Mama used to bake and you do that. Then you call some relatives over and you have a ball eating.” Would she [have] marry again? “If I found somebody I could tolerate—or who could tolerate me. But I don’t walk behind no man.”
Though she rolled with the clichés, eventually they became a burden. In 1977 Esther walked out of the still high-rated Good Times series because she felt the popular character J.J., played by Jimmy Walker, was tailored into a buffoon. “I told the producers, ‘I did not agree to do a clown show for you to degrade young black men,’ ” she says. CBS won her back, but only for one more season. Rolle says it’s the kind of battle she’ll fight again if she has to. “I ruffle a lot of feathers,”she admits. “And I’m also selective—that makes you a troublemaker. But so be it. I laid a cornerstone for Black actors, and that makes me happy.”
And there you have it folks: Esther was nobody’s push-over and we respect her for staying true to her beliefs. Job well done Ms. Rolle, continue to rest peacefully.
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