Carroll O'Connor's favorite episode of In the Heat of the Night is also the first one he ever wrote
When In the Heat of the Night debuted in 1988, it immediately joined the top 20 most popular shows on television that year. Among them were popular crime dramas like Matlock, L.A. Law and Murder, She Wrote. According to In the Heat of the Night star Carroll O'Connor, his show was better than all of them.
At least, that's what the accomplished actor told the Archive of American Television in an interview about the show that made him the second actor ever (after Ed Asner, of course) to win an Emmy in both a comedic and dramatic role. To O'Connor, In the Heat of the Night was the most important show on TV, and he was so dedicated to its success, that he personally wrote 27 episodes, although he was credited under the pen name Mark Harris. In fact, his favorite episode of the show was the first one he ever wrote, a second season episode called "A Trip Upstate."
The episode finds O'Connor as Chief Bill Gillespie, confronted with an unusual request. It seems a prisoner who's long since left the jail in Gillespie's small town is actually about to face the executioner, and he asks to see Gillespie, not due to a long-held grudge or anything like that, but because Gillespie was a person who showed him kindness and he has a favor to ask.
His favor was this: The prisoner has a small sum of money that he wants to leave to a home for the blind, because that's the charity his mother always gave to every Christmas. This touched Gillespie, and although he only vaguely remembers the prisoner, he agrees to the prisoner's request and more.
You see, after Gillespie visits the prisoner, the man makes yet another request. He asks Gillespie if he'll stick around to be present during his execution. Gillespie's never seen one of those before, and despite being a little spooked and obliged to head back to Sparta, he decides to rent a suit and attend.
In the end, this powerful episode written by the titan of classic TV raised so many questions that former First Lady Rosalynn Carter called O'Connor up herself and asked for a copy of the episode to bring with her as she toured the U.S. She wanted everybody to see it; that's how much O'Connor's words resonated with her. In the interview, O'Connor said, "She wanted to take that tape and show it to people. I got a lot of pleasure out of that.”
In O'Connor's career, he wrote episodes here and there for Bronk, Archie Bunker's Place, and The Redd Foxx Show, but by far his greatest output was on In the Heat of the Night. O'Connor explained why this particular crime drama meant so much to him in a simple, straightforward way: "I got a lot of satisfaction out of that show.”