Folks are always asking me about my time on “In the Heat of the Night.” There are the conventional questions about what Carroll O’Connor was like to work with. Was he a nice person?
The answer I always give is, “Yes, he was a good man, but he could be a tough boss.”
He ruled our show like a benevolent absolute monarchy. But that was the way television is. The star calls the shots.
That is even more the case if he or she carries the mantle of creative control as Carroll secured just before the second full season of the show.
What that meant is what was seen and said had his stamp of approval on it. I always believed that the show had the potential to be like “Gunsmoke” or “Bonanza.” The show could have had a run that just went on forever.
Alan “Bubba” Autry and I discussed this early on, sitting at the dinner table in the middle of the parking lot of First Methodist Church in Covington, Ga. The church sat across from two of our major outdoor sets: the police station and the Tibbs’ house.
It was a show driven by the characters. The combination of those unique actors could have entertained audiences on and on, but from my conversations with the public in all parts of the country, I have surmised that many of the choices made in the direction of the show is what led to its eventual drop in interest from viewers.
Viewers do not decide whether a show is on the air; the network executives do. Lower viewer ratings coupled with increasing costs of production often due to increases in actor and executive salaries are deciding factors.
But keeping a strong audience plays a tremendous role.
I remember Ken Curtis, “Festus” from “Gunsmoke,” telling me how CBS simply “forgot” to put them on the new fall schedule one year close to the show’s final year. The local stations were so outraged, they played some hardball with the network to get the show back on the air, knowing that their viewers would be livid to lose the staple of “Gunsmoke” after more than 20 years on the air.
Many viewers have told me that they tuned the show out when the relationship between “Chief Bill Gillespie” (O’Connor) and “Harriet DeLong” (actress Denise Nicholas) moved into more serious territory. The inclusion of a late in life Southern interracial relationship and marriage just did not fly with many of the viewers.
I have heard this comment from both white and African-American viewers in the North and South alike. Perhaps if the choice had been made for one of the younger characters on the show, these viewers would not have tuned out as readily.
That is not to say interracial relationships do not exist in the 60-plus set, but these folks were raised in a time when such relationships were not accepted. It is often difficult to overcome long-standing attitudes.
I often tell them that I feel pursuing this story line, along with other choices that Carroll made was his way of erasing the face of “Archie Bunker” and thus his own from the dictionary next to the word bigot.
While his leadership and attitudes about portrayals of African-Americans yielded the show great praise from critics and numerous Image Awards, some choices watered down the show.
One of those was to not allow racial slurs on a crime drama supposedly fueled by Southern racial tension. I remember once a scene was set around a well-to-do Southern bigot played by actor Mert Hatfield. He got in a confrontation with “Bubba” and “Wilson Sweet” (Geoffrey Thorne).
In the heat of the argument the bigot turns to Sweet and says something like: “I’ll get you, young black man.”
Despite pleas to Carroll to allow the bigot to use the stronger “N” word to help fuel the scene, the line remained watered down, and Geoffrey became jokingly referred to as the superhero “Young Black Man” for years to come.
This rule was relaxed, and more heated exchanges returned to the most heated drama on television at the time when NBC put “I’ll Fly Away” as the show’s lead-in. The racial conflict of the show set in the 1950s South began to make “In the Heat of the Night” look like Mayberry.
While it’s not a bad thing for any show to aspire to be like “The Andy Griffith Show,” with which we had some similarities, when a show is based on the 1960s film that helped change the way America looked at racism and prejudice, it was difficult to white-wash that underlying theme.
“I’ll Fly Away” helped to move the show back to its roots of showing prejudice and racism for what they are.
Unlike the original film where the Sparta Police were part of the problem, in our version, while the department may have been perceived that way by some, the police characters were the windows for our viewers on these types of abuses and crimes by others.
The police were the good guys. Despite the existence of prejudice and racism, which continue to prevail in every community across this great land in many forms against many groups, the good people of Sparta, Miss., showed America each week that we could get along.
Perhaps that was Carroll’s objective all along, to show people around the world that despite our differences we can all live together by following the basic teachings of the Good Book. He thought racism and prejudice should be left in the past.
Unfortunately, the soapbox he chose to stand upon helped sink one of the South’s best-loved shows long before its time.
While America laughed at seeing Sammy Davis Jr. give “Archie Bunker” a great big kiss, maybe they were just not yet ready to see Archie kissing back.Randall Franks is an award-winning musician, singer and actor. He is best known for his role as “Officer Randy Goode” on TV’s “In the Heat of the Night,” now on Turner South. His latest CD release, “God’s Children,” is by etrecordshop.com. He is a columnist and staff writer for The Catoosa County News and can be reached at email@example.com.