10 Things You Might Not Know about IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
The TV adaptation of In The Heat Of The Night starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018. But did you know that the story of chief Bill Gillespie and detective Virgil Tibbs has been going on for more than half a century?
From book to film to television to stage and (maybe) back to TV, In The Heat Of The Night has become one of America’s most enduring stories. And the TV adventures of the Sparta, Mississippi Police Department – including Bubba (Alan Autry), Parker (David Hart), Lonnie (Hugh O’Connor), Sweet (Geoffrey Thorne), Randy (Randall Franks), and Luann (Crystal R. Fox) – have become a fan favorite.
So pour yourself a Mason jar of sweet tea and enjoy these surprising facts!
1. In The Heat Of The Night began as a novel.
John Ball was a 54-year-old columnist and music critic when he wrote the whodunit In The Heat Of The Night in 1965. He was also a first-time novelist, which makes his Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America even more impressive. Ball would go on to write six more Tibbs novels, plus four short stories. The last novel was Singapore, published a year before the series began.
2. The film adaptation was the Best Picture of 1967.
Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant adapted Ball’s novel for the screen in 1967, changing the setting to Sparta and moving Tibbs from the Pasadena P.D. to Philadelphia. Rod Steiger was cast as Gillespie and Sidney Poitier took on the role of Tibbs, with Norman Jewison directing. At the time, Poitier was best known as the first black performer to win an Academy Award for Best Actor (for Lilies Of The Field). Steiger took home the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, one of five the film won (including Best Picture).
3. Tibbs returned for two sequels.
In 1970, Sidney Poitier returned as Tibbs for a follow-up film. They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! gets its title from Virgil’s most iconic line (which he actually says in the first movie). Tibbs is now a San Francisco cop with a wife (Barbara McNair), daughter (Wanda Spell), and son (George Spell). Gillespie is not in the second film, nor are the actions of ITHOTN referenced. Tibbs was back again a year later in The Organization, a drug trafficking drama featuring Poitier’s final appearance in the role. Neither sequel matched the success of the original, and both ignore the issue of race (a key component of In The Heat Of The Night).
4. The TV show was a sequel, not a reboot.
Two decades after the film, Tibbs and Gillespie returned in the TV adaptation of In The Heat Of The Night produced by Fred Silverman Productions and MGM/UA for NBC. In the pilot, Virgil and his wife Althea (Anne-Marie Johnson) come to Sparta for the funeral of Virgil’s mother. “When Virgil came back to Philadelphia after his last visit he could hardly talk about anything else,” Althea says to Gillespie. Virgil mentions it’s been “a couple of years,” and their uneasy interaction duplicates the cautious comradeship Gillespie and Tibbs built in the film. The series ignores the sequels, except for Virgil’s twins, who were created for the movies and are born in season four.
5. O.J. Simpson was almost cast as Tibbs.
In an interview with the Academy of TV Arts and Sciences, O’Connor said he auditioned five prospective actors for Tibbs, including O.J. Simpson. “Fred Silverman thought O.J. was pretty good, very good in fact…. and Brandon Tartikoff (head of NBC) was pleased with O.J,” O’Connor recalled. “But I wanted Howard from the start.” Simpson would go on to guest star in a season two episode.
6. O’Connor quit after season one.
O’Connor’s contract stipulated that he would be story editor (using the pseudonym Matt Harris) as well as star. But “they wouldn’t let me change anything,” he said. “So I told the studio, ‘I’m out. I don’t want to come back and don’t ask me. You’ve breached the contract.’” Only when executive producer Juanita Bartlett left did O’Connor return. After conflicts arose with her replacements, O’Connor himself was named executive producer for season three onward. He also wrote the story or scripts for 27 episodes and directed three shows.
7. There were two Spartas.
Season one was filmed on location in the small town of Hammond, Louisiana. For season two, production moved to Covington, Georgia. There were no soundstages in Covington, so producers retrofitted two warehouses for standing sets like the police station. Covington would later “play” Mystic Falls, Virginia in The Vampire Diaries.
8. O’Connor missed the end of season two due to illness.
O’Connor was diagnosed with a life-threatening coronary artery blockage during season two and underwent sextuple bypass, forcing him to miss four episodes. Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall) stepped in as acting chief Tom Dugan. O’Connor wanted the show to explain his disappearance with a heart attack for Gillespie, but producers Jeri Taylor and David Moessinger refused, leading to their dismissal. Despite only appearing in 18 of 22 shows, O’Connor won an Emmy for season two.
9. The series survived two cancellations.
When NBC chose not to renew ITHOTN after five seasons in 1992, CBS quickly picked up the series. A year later, Rollins left and was replaced by Carl Weathers as new chief Hamilton Forbes. The series was cancelled (again) after season seven, only to return (again) for an eighth season of four TV movies. While there was no finale, season seven concludes with Gillespie marrying girlfriend Harriet DeLong (Denise Nicholas). That DeLong was an African American woman gives Gillespie’s story a touchingly redemptive ending.
10. One of the stars of In the Heat Of The Night now lives in Sparta. Sort of.
After playing Cpl. Dee Shepard on ITHOTN for five years, Dee Shaw bought property in Covington. She later built a home, where she lives today. “I call it ‘The House That Carroll Built,’” she said in 2016. Covington also hosts cast reunions and location tours and maintains a ITHOTN museum at the the Newton County Visitors Bureau.
11. BONUS! In The Heat Of The Night lives on.
In 2010, In The Heat Of The Night was adapted for the stage. An L.A. Theater Works production toured during the 2014-2015 season and the play continues to be produced nationwide. In addition, a contemporary TV reboot is in the works from writer-producer Joe Robert Cole. Cole’s previous project was FX’s American Crime Story, a docudrama about O.J. Simpson, the man who nearly played Virgil Tibbs.
For more police procedurals with iconic stars, visit the Walker, Texas Ranger show page for airdates and times.