A 1965 novel by John Ball, In the Heat of the Night also spawned a film and a television series. The film version, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, was the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1967.On his way back home after visiting his mother, Black Philadelphian Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is arrested on suspicion of the murder of a prominent factory owner in Sparta, Mississippi. In his one phone conversation, he reveals that he's actually a homicide detective back 'up North', and is told by his superiors that he should assist the locals in solving the case — partnered with the casually racist Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Steiger). It's a rocky start to the partnership, but the more Tibbs displays his detective prowess, the more Gillespie comes to respect him. Working together, and fighting together against the truly rabid racism of some of the local rednecks, they solve the case.The TV series picks up twenty years on, with a newly-married Tibbs moving to Sparta after his mother's death. Turns out that at her funeral he was signed on as Chief of [nonexistent] Detectives by the town's opportunistic mayor. It's the 'New South', and everyone's anxious to seem racially progressive. Except, initially at least, Gillespie and his new (not to say considerably younger and hunkier) squad of flatfoots. Also, of course, several dozen bad guys.Ran six seasons. It was kept interesting by brilliant casting choices Carroll O'Connor and Howard Rollins.
This film contains examples of:
Angry Black Man: Tibbs has every reason for his patience to be tested, and he later admits that his anger got him on the wrong track for a bit.
Book Ends: Tibbs arriving in town by train, Tibbs leaving town by train.
California Doubling: Though the film is set in Mississippi, the '60s political climate necessitated filming in Illinois.
Specifically, Poitier refused to shoot south of the Mason-Dixon line. Why? Because of an unpleasant experience some months earlier involving himself, Harry Belafonte, and a group of friendly Klansmen. (A few scenes were, however, shot in Tennessee — most notably Endicott's cotton field, which Illinois couldn't provide.)
The Peeping Tom: Officer Sam Wood stops on his nightly patrol route to gawk at Delores Purdy, who parades around her kitchen in the nude.
Police Are Useless: Sparta police, anyway (unless you're interested in arresting the wrong man). No wonder Mrs. Colbert insists on keeping Tibbs around.
However, it's explained that Sparta hadn't had a murder in ages, and the small-town tactics they employ doesn't cover the severity of the case. Gillespie is competent in things like chasing down suspects, but figuring out a murder requires the forensics skills that Tibbs knows by heart.
Pragmatic Adaptation: The novel's Mr. Tibbs was a polite, non-confrontational African American; the film's Mr. Tibbs, on the other hand, is much more assertive towards the bigots around him.
Reasonable Authority Figure: Gillespie, of all people. Despite his racism, he's pissed to find out that his men just arrested a cop. And in his own way he more or less begs Tibbs for his help, acknowledging that he and his fellow cops can't solve a murder this complicated on their own.
Red Herring: The racially charged environment had nothing to do with the murder. It was just a mugging gone wrong.
Sequel: Poitier reprises his role in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971), both of which are set in San Francisco and feature more of a Blaxploitation flavor.
Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Gillespie isn't too thrilled to have Tibbs second-guessing him during the early part of the investigation. But when Tibbs keeps getting proved correct, Gillespie lets up on the animosity. For his part, Tibbs doesn't help ease tensions as he withholds key observations at times and keeps trying to lead the investigation his way.
Gillespie: Now, just what do you do there in little ol' Pennsylvania to earn that kinda money?
Tibbs: I'm a police officer!
Later on, when Gillespie suspects his deputy Sam of the murder, Tibbs delivers a line which shakes the former:
Tibbs:Sam couldn't have driven two cars.
Wrongly Accused: Tibbs is but the first of several people falsely blamed for the murder.
The TV series contains examples of:
The Aggressive Drug Dealer: The two-parter "A Small War" has a gang of these coming from the "big city" of Jackson (the state capital) and setting up shop in Sparta, especially among the high school kids.
Deep South: Played up even more than in the movie, by way of contrasting old attitudes with new.
Domestic Abuse: One episode combines this with Parental Abandonment. A woman kills her abusive husband, flees to another city where she changes her name and gets a new life, all while she left her daughter behind in an empty house. Also the episode, "Love, Honor, Obey"
Driven to Suicide: In the episode "Fairest Of Them All", a young pageant contestant kills herself over threats from a rival's mother to reveal the girl's dark secrets (that friend's mom had engineered, as it happened). Another episode has a teenage girl's suicide attempt leading to the revelation that her grandfather had been molesting her, after years of doing the same to her mother.
Drugs Are Bad: a few episodes focus on this (it was the 90's) and how it's destroying Sparta, but the most compelling one is "Cracked" where a young teen (she was 13) tries crack, gets hooked, and dies.
Put on a Bus: Eventually, Rollins was fired about his drug busts, so Tibbs became a lawyer and left Sparta to pursue his new career.
Rape as Drama: Althea is brutally assaulted by a misogynistic coworker. The rape isn't forgotten about after one episode—although she recovers and moves on, it remains a permanent part of her psyche and years later, contributes to an offscreen separation from her husband.
Real Life Writes the Plot: An unfortunate series of interruptions in both leads' careers — O'Connor's heart surgery, Rollins' struggles with addiction — led to one or the other of their characters frequently being away at 'conventions' or 'seminars'.
Social Services Does Not Exist: averted as Althea is a social worker and many episodes involve her helping the police with talking to the family members of victims, helping the kids at Sparta High, and random people in the community. Social Services is called in (from the big city of Jackson) as the plot requires, usually in the case of abandoned children.
Stage Mom: The aforementioned "Fairest of Them All" features one of these so determined that her daughter win a local pageant that she arranges for someone to drug the girl's chief rival, take nude pictures of her, then threaten to leak the photos to the press unless the girl drops out of the pageant.
Teen Pregnancy: one episode has a girl concealing her pregnancy and when she has the baby, throws it in a dumpster and it dies.