The actor died Sunday at St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital in New York of a bacterial infection due to complications from lymphoma--a cancer he learned six weeks ago he contracted.
"He was a very gifted guy," O'Connor said today. Rollins also won rave reviews for his work in A Soldier's Story in 1984. In his last film Drunks in 1995, he appeared in a bit part as an alcoholic.
In fact, Rollins battled addiction for years--a problem that cost him his role on In the Heat. The actor once told TV Guide that drugs and alcohol almost drove him to suicide days before Christmas in 1989. "I'm sick of it. I'll never straighten out my life, I'll never have the career I want...How can I talk about a career when I can't even stop using drugs? Why can't I just take a gun to my head and be out of this misery?"
He said that it was during his work on the In the Heat of the Night that he became addicted to drugs and alcohol. The series, which first aired on NBC in 1988 before moving to CBS, featured Rollins opposite O'Connor as a black detective from Philadelphia working in a racially volatile Southern town.
In 1993, Rollins spent about a month in jail for driving under the influence and reckless driving. He pleaded guilty in 1992 to driving under the influence of a tranquilizer. He was sentenced to two days in jail and fined $1,000, and lost his driver's license. In 1988, Rollins pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and cocaine possession in Louisiana.
Because of his drug abuse and legal problems, Rollins saw his role in the series diminished. Eventually, Carl Weathers replaced him as O'Connor's partner.
The cop drama had a troubled run. In addition to Rollins' drug abuse, Carroll O'Connor had to undergo heart-bypass surgery, and O'Connor's son, Hugh, who co-starred in the series, was also addicted to drugs and committed suicide before the series finale aired in 1995.
"[My wife] and I are deeply saddened," O'Connor said. "He was a friend who we loved deeply."