As befits a man of his station, Capt. Richard Davenport strides confidently across Fort Neal Army base with orders to solve the whodunit of A Soldier’s Story, the new, highly praised, emotionally charged drama about a racially motivated murder in 1944. As he walks by a white junior officer, Davenport stops in his tracks. The soldier hasn’t saluted him, and the slight is no minor offense. Confrontation looms as Davenport eyes the offender. Surprised, the soldier salutes.
Howard E. Rollins Jr., the 33-year-old actor cast as Davenport, says such slights have been a familiar hazard in his professional life. When his 1981 film debut as the smoldering Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, critics predicted that he’d have his pick of choice roles. Yet his part in the film version of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer prizewinning drama is the only feature he’s done since. Like the self-assured Davenport, Rollins attributes the situation more to others’ lack of vision than his own lack of talent. “I would love to be sitting around discussing the next five projects and when I’ll have time to do them all,” Rollins says. “But that doesn’t seem to be a luxury I can have right now, nor an experience I can look forward to in the near future.”
Not that Rollins has been vegetating of late. Since Ragtime, he has starred in the NBC-TV movie Doctor’s Story, had a role as a nonconformist entrepreneur on the NBC soap Another World and played civil rights leader Medgar Evers in PBS’s For Us the Living. But he’s refused to accept demeaning movie roles. “The scripts I turned down just had limited conversation,” he says. He passed, for instance, on a role in Witness, the upcoming Harrison Ford drama set in the Amish community. “I was asked to be his partner who had lines like, ‘How these people gonna run their s—if they don’t have electricity?’ ” says Rollins. “Well, any idiot would know you don’t have electrical appliances if you’re Amish. That’s offensive to me. They wouldn’t offer that to Timothy Hutton or Richard Gere.” For an actor such discretion carries the risk of turning a career into a casualty. “But that’s the risk he took and I think it pays off,” says Ragtime director Milos Forman.
When Rollins first saw the Negro Ensemble Company’s production of A Soldier’s Play about a year after it opened off Broadway, the Davenport role impressed him as a challenge. So did shooting last autumn on location at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, where Rollins seized an opportunity to pull rank. “It was just so hot,” says Rollins, who went the actor’s equivalent of AWOL. “We were out there at 7 in the morning, running around on this field, drilling with these guns and stuff. After two days of that I said, ‘Okay. That’s enough for me.’ ” The announcement drew some chuckles but no objections.
But such minor difficulties soon seemed insignificant compared with the tragedy that rocked Rollins’ life. While filming a crucial scene, Rollins received word that his 80-year-old father, Howard Ellsworth Rollins Sr., a retired steelworker, had died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. According to Soldier director Norman Jewison, Howard insisted on finishing the scene and gave “an incredible performance. Maybe he was doing it for his dad.” Explains Rollins: “I had to work so there would be no time to stop and think. I’d never experienced death that close.”
The loss was particularly devastating because the Baltimore-born Rollins—youngest of four children—had just proved to his once dubious father the merits of pursuing acting. In 1970 he dropped out of Towson State University to perform in a locally produced PBS soap, Our Street. He arrived in New York four years later with $300 in his pocket to begin his acting career. Rollins eventually segued from off Broadway to the TV dramas King and Roots II.
Despite his professional accomplishments, life offstage and offscreen is “nothing extraordinary, nothing exciting,” he contends. He lives in a manically cluttered studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and he hangs out with a circle of five close nonshow-business friends. A bachelor whose major indulgence is designer clothes by Armani and Versace, he says there is currently no love interest in his life. “I would love to have a special person. But right now the special person in my life is my career, and I think that’s why I’m single to this day.”
As the family renegade, Rollins is now venturing to change the mainstream looks that first brought him attention. He is growing a beard and is encouraging his hair toward dreadlocks. “I have to constantly fight someone else’s idea of me,” he explains. “They have to realize I’m doing this for me, first.”
Although A Soldier’s Story makes good use of black acting talent, Rollins doesn’t believe the film signals a breakthrough in casting, contrary to popular Hollywood opinion. “I think it’s just another girder in the foundation,” he says. His hopes are now set on the leading roles in a movie about a black cowboy and in the film version of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. Rollins is convinced both works could be profitable ventures, thanks to one thing: himself. “They could make money because I think there are enough people interested in me. They turn on to me. And I don’t mean that pompously,” he adds. “If that’s exploitation, then please.”