Howard E. Rollins Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1950. He was the youngest of four children born to Howard E. Rollins Sr. (steelworker) and Ruth R. Rollins (domestic worker). Rollins graduated from Towson State College, where he studied theater. His first break into acting came when a friend convinced him to try out for a role in "Of Mice and Men" at a local Baltimore theater. He surprised himself with his acting talent.
He left for New York City in 1974 to further his acting career. Rollins earned an Oscar nomination for the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime (1981) and an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor on the ABC daytime drama "Another World" (1964). He is also known for his brilliant portrayal of Virgil Tibbs on the long running hit TV series "In the Heat of the Night" (1988), based on the 1967 movie of the same name. In 1995, he made his final feature film appearance in Drunks (1995).
Rollins was diagnosed with lymphoma in late 1996. Six weeks later, he died of complications from the disease at the age of 46.