Recently two more of my acting friends took their final bows and the curtain closed on their amazing careers.
Many remember Harry Morgan, (1915-2011) who made us laugh so amazingly as part of the ensemble cast of doctors on “M*A*S*H” and also kept the streets safe in “Dragnet.” His acting career spanned from being everything imaginable in golden age of Hollywood films to becoming a television mainstay creating countless characters. I was honored to meet him during my time working at “Grace Under Fire” with my friend Alan Autry. He was a true class act.
The other actor with whom I spent endless hours during my time on “In the Heat of the Night” was Dan Biggers (1931-2011). I remember watching “In the Heat of the Night’s” first episode filmed in Georgia when “‘Doc’ Robb” first encouraged “Chief Gillespie” to retire from the Sparta Police Department for health reasons.
The emotion that was conveyed made you want to have “‘Doc’ Robb” as your family doctor. Gillespie told Robb, “I’ll retire when you do.”
Carroll O’Connor kept his word to “‘Doc’ Robb”, never letting him retire until he did and the show ended.
Probably one of the most visible and versatile of Georgia’s actors he said “I had no idea what a stroke of luck that was,” when he landed the role of “‘Doc’ Robb.”
Following a long career as a high school teacher, school counselor and dean of students, Biggers was then director of historic Berry at the Oak Hill Museum at Berry College in Rome, Ga.
Biggers told me he did not even know he was acting in a series; to him it was just a one-time appearance in a movie.
When his agent, Kathy Hardegree, called for him to return, he thought they needed to add something to the film. Instead, Carroll O’Connor gave him a grand tour of the Covington, Ga., sound stage. In an elaborate, pre-arranged set debut, O’Connor yelled “lights!” — introducing Biggers to the set where Sparta’s coroner would work his magic and assist the Sparta P.D. in solving the almost weekly murders around the small Mississippi town.
His face has become familiar to audiences from the nearly 50 films in which he has appeared, including “Forces of Nature,” “To Dance with the White Dog,” “The Rosa Parks Story” and the “Matlock” opening movie.
In his final role in 2005, he starred opposite Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown.” The film poster featuring his character “Uncle Roy” from that project was displayed at his standing room only celebration of life.
Biggers however knew that it was “Doc” Robb for which he is most recognized and why he received requests to appear at events around the country.
“I could not deny ‘Doc’ Robb was the (character) I liked the most,” he said.
Several years ago he shared a story with me about a drive through a Southern city. While sitting at a stoplight, he had the feeling he was being watched. As he turned he realized someone was at the passenger window, then someone appeared on the other side of the car.The town’s police bicycle squad had pulled him over. He could not figure out what he had done wrong. As he rolled down the window and started to get out, one of the officers stuck his head in and said, “Could we have your autograph?”
Dan and I only shared a handful of scenes when “Officer Randy” would be sent to the hospital to guard a prisoner or bring a crime victim for “Doc” Robb’s care but we spent endless hours behind the scenes. He was always upbeat and gave us so much encouragement.
Dan Biggers and Randall Franks on the coroner’s set
of “In the Heat of the Night”
He retired first from education and then from acting, but he stayed active as his health allowed reading to elementary students as part of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) “Book Pals” program, speaking at schools about careers in film and working with his church. He received the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award for Georgia.
While he had worked opposite some of films biggest stars, from Andy Griffith to Sandra Bullock, Dan told me years ago what he hoped to hear when he arrived at the pearly gates was “Welcome teacher.”
I am sure he did…. followed by, “Could I have your autograph?”