|In the Heat of the Night series character|
|First appearance||In the Heat of the Night (novel) (1965)|
|Last appearance||In the Heat of the Night (TV series) (1995)|
|Created by||John Ball|
|Portrayed by||Sidney Poitier
Virgil Tibbs is a fictional character who is one of the two leading male characters in John Ball's 1965 novel In the Heat of the Night, and the protagonist in six sequels to that novel. On screen, he is the protagonist in the Oscar-winning 1967 film In the Heat of the Night based on the novel, and of the sequel films, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971), as well as the subsequent 1988-1995 television series derived from the first film.
In the novels, Tibbs works for the police force of Pasadena, California. In the films, portrayed by Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier, he first works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but in later sequels, he is shown to be working for the San Francisco Police. In an unusual step, the Tibbs films are themselves mentioned in the sequel novels: when asked about the movies, Tibbs emphasizes that he's from Pasadena, not Philadelphia. He also comments positively on Poitier's looks and acting ability. In a short story (see below), Ball wrote of a meeting that his counterpart in Tibbs' universe had with Tibbs.
In the novels, Tibbs returns to Pasadena as a police officer. In the films, Tibbs also returns to his law enforcement career, in Philadelphia and subsequently in San Francisco. In the television series, set a few years after the first film, Tibbs returns to Sparta where he becomes the Chief of Detectives under Gillespie.
Tibbs has a black belt in karate and a brown belt in aikido, is highly observant, and like many fictional detectives is something of a polymath: he has an extensive depth and breadth of knowledge in many fields of the arts, sciences, and modern culture. His general demeanor is somewhat cold, and highly intellectual. He is tolerant of non-criminal behaviors outside of the social mainstream, such as nudism.
Tibbs is uninterested in glory or media attention. He is a perfectionist, and his sole motivation is duty and justice. In the films, Tibbs displays a considerably larger degree of anger over issues of race than in the books. For example, in the novel In The Heat of the Night, the phrase "They call me Mr. Tibbs" is a statement ending in a period, while in the movie, it's an angry exclamation.
Physically, Tibbs is slender, quick, strong, and handsome. His nose is relatively narrow, and his mouth is "straight and determined". His skin tone is neither exceptionally light nor dark.
Tibbs has several romantic liaisons in the novels and seems to be well on the way to be getting married by the end of the last Tibbs novel Singapore. In the first film, Tibbs is not married, although the second and third films he was depicted as having a wife (played by Barbara McNair) and two children.
For the book The Great Detectives (1978), edited by Otto Penzler, John Ball contributed a short story in which Ball (or rather his counterpart in Virgil Tibbs' universe) meets with Tibbs and asks him to recount his upbringing. This short story establishes that Tibbs' superior on the police force encouraged Ball's fictionalizations of Tibbs' cases to promote positive public relations. "'I have a letter from Otto Penzler,' I said... 'Otto has asked me for a piece about your background. How much may I tell him?' I should insert a footnote here. Virgil Tibbs is basically a quiet, self-effacing man... He has mentioned to me more than once that my accounts of some of his cases have proved somewhat embarrassing to him. However, Chief McGowan feels that these books help explain the police function to the citizenry at large and to show how modern, enlightened police departments function."
In the Heat of the Night
Virgil Tibbs is an African American police detective who is detained on suspicion of murder solely on the basis of his skin color while passing through the small town of Wells, somewhere in the Carolinas (Sparta, Mississippi in the film). When Tibbs' innocence and status as a homicide investigator is confirmed, political pressure in the town leads to his temporary assignment to aid the Wells (Sparta) police on the case - despite the reluctance of the town's racist chief of police, Bill Gillespie. Tibbs is a diligent, hard working detective who does not accept the racism of his new surroundings. When his erstwhile supervisor, Chief Gillespie, remarks that "Virgil is a pretty fancy name for a black boy like you," and asks what people call him at home, Tibbs is quick to respond, "They call me Mister Tibbs." The line is delivered more forcefully in the film than it is in the novel.
The Tibbs character and his famous quote were both ranked in the AFI 100 Years... series. The Tibbs character was ranked as the 19th greatest hero in the history of American cinema whilst his famous quote was ranked as the 16th greatest quote.
In the NBC/CBS television series In the Heat of the Night, Tibbs was depicted as a native of Sparta, Mississippi, who left the South and became a police detective in Philadelphia. During a visit to his hometown for the funeral of his mother, the politically opportunistic mayor offers Tibbs the position of Chief of Detectives due to his previous experience with Gillespie. Tibbs accepts the position, making him second-in-command to the reluctant Police Chief. Although Tibbs and Gillespie have their disagreements about police methods and use of limited local resources, they prove an effective partnership. Tibbs' sophisticated detective skills complement Gillespie's intimate knowledge of the area and its population.
Tibbs was portrayed in the series by Howard Rollins, who garnered critical acclaim for his work in the film A Soldier's Story, and for his Academy Award-nominated performance in the film Ragtime. Due to substance abuse problems, Rollins' appearances on the series decreased and he eventually was fired; subsequently, the Tibbs family was written out of the series.
All novels were written by John Ball.
- In the Heat of the Night (1965)
- The Cool Cottontail (1966)
- Johnny Get Your Gun (1969)
- Five Pieces Of Jade (1972)
- The Eyes Of Buddha (1976)
- Then Came Violence (1980)
- Singapore (1986)
- Virgil Tibbs and the Cocktail Napkin (1977)
- Virgil Tibbs (1978)
- In the Heat of the Night (1988–1995)