How Esther Rolle Stood Up to Hollywood

Everett Collection

The Emmy winner said, "I have never been given the chance I deserve in the mainstream industry. The never got beyond me as a maid."

Summer of my German Soldier was a worthy enough vehicle for Esther Rolle to win an Emmy (for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series or special), but the 1978 NBC telefilm didn't pass muster with The Hollywood Reporter.

"There was promising dramatic material buried within Summer of My German Soldier," read the review, "but the film failed to live up to its own expectations. Jane-Howard Hammerstein's script needed further beefing up to really engage our emotions."

Soldier, based on a 1973 novel by Bette Greene, centered on the relationship between a 13-year-old Southern Jewish girl (Kristy McNichol) and a young German soldier (Bruce Davison) who had escaped from an Arkansas POW camp during World War II. Rolle plays Ruth, a loving housekeeper who becomes the girl's only confidante.

But while the telefilm marked Rolle's career high point in terms of awards, it was her portrayal of maid Florida Evans on the CBS sitcom Maude and its spinoff series Good Times that made her famous.

But Rolle, who had been in Blues for Mister Charlie on Broadway, didn't always fit smoothly in the TV sitcom world -- she clashed with the writers on Good Times, openly resenting the character of J.J. (played by Jimmie Walker with his "Dyn-o-mite!" expression), and she left the show because she said she did not "agree to do a clown show to degrade young black men."

Rolle died Nov. 17, 1998, at age 78 of diabetes.