Esther Rolle (born Esther Elizabeth Rolle, November 8, 1920-November 18, 1998) was an African-American Actress. She was best known to TV audiences as Family matriarch Florida Evans on the CBS sitcom Maude (1972-1974) and it's spinoff series Good Times (1974-1977, 1978-1979). She once appeared as a panelist on Match Game in the mid-1970s.
Born in Pompano Beach, Florida, to Bahamian immigrants Jonathan Rolle (1883–1953), a farmer, and Elizabeth Iris Rolle (1893–1981). Her parents were both born and raised in Nassau, New Providence, The Bahamas and moved to Florida some time after their marriage. Rolle was the tenth of 18 children, who included siblings and fellow actresses Estelle Evans and Rosanna Carter. She attended Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, Florida and graduated from Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach. Esther initially studied at Spelman College in Atlanta but soon she moved to New York City and while in New York, she attended Hunter College. Rolle then transferred to The New School and, finally, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. For many years, she worked in a traditional day job in New York City's garment district.
Rolle was a member of Asadata Dafora's dance troupe, Shogolo Oloba (later renamed the Federal Theater African Dance Troupe). In 1960, she became the troupe’s director. 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. Rolle's most prominent early role was as Miss Maybell in the 1973 Melvin Van Peebles play, Don't Play Us Cheap. In 1977, she portrayed Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' Haitian-influenced version at the Henry Street New Federal Theater in Manhattan.
After a long stint on the stage, Rolle then made the move to the small screen. Her most notable work to TV audiences is family matriarch Florida Evans on two 1970s sitcoms. The character was first introduced as Maude Findlay's housekeeper on the CBS sitcom Maude and soon spun off in the show's second season into Good Times, a show created about Florida and her family and best friend and neighbor Willona Woods living in the projects of Chicago. In 1975, Esther was nominated in for the Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of Florida on Good Times. Rolle was 19 years older than her co-star John Amos, who played her husband James Evans (his character was named Henry Evans on Maude, appeared only 3 times). The character of James Evans Sr. was only added after Rolle fought hard for a father figure and husband to be added to the show.
In addition to fighting for the father and husband character on the show, Rolle also fought for more relevant themes and scripts but was unhappy when the increasing success of Jimmie Walker's character, James "J.J." Evans Jr., took the show in what she thought was a frivolous direction. John Amos also fought for the same thing that Rolle wanted and agreed with her about Walker's character and as a result, he was fired from the show after the third season ended (his character James Evans Sr. was killed off in the beginning of the fourth season). 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 agreed to return for the show's sixth and final season (Good Times ended it's run on August 1, 1979).
After Good Times ended, Esther went on to appear in a number of guest starring roles on shows including Fantasy Island and Murder She Wrote as well as appearing in a number of movies including Driving Miss Daisy, My Fellow Americans, and two memorable roles in The Mighty Quinn (as Ubu Pearl) in 1989 and Rosewood (as Aunt Sarah) in 1997. 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.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Esther was a surprise guest on RuPaul's VH-1 talk show where her former Maude co-star Bea Arthur appeared as a guest and Rolle was brought out to surprise Arthur. The two had not seen each other in years, Arthur said, and the two shared a warmly, emotional embrace. Rolle also appeared in a series of psychic hotline TV commercials in the 1990s. "Tell them Esther sent you," was her trademark line.
Esther only married once. She was previously married to Oscar Robinson, they were married from 1955 to 1975. While they had no children together, Rolle was the stepmother to Oscar Robinson's daughter, Sherley Mae Robinson, (born 1936) from his first marriage.
On November 17, 1998, just nine days after her 78th birthday, Rolle passed away from complications of diabetes in Culver City, California. Her body was flown back to her hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida. As a devout Methodist, Rolle requested that her funeral be held at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her Good Times co-stars John Amos, Ja'Net DuBois, Bernnadette Stanis, Johnny Brown, and Ralph Carter attended the service while Jimmie Walker did not. Rolle's 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.