In the Heat of the Night's Joanne St. John deserved more episodes
Why did Joanne St. John only stick around for one season? It’s complicated.
When the TV version of In the Heat of the Night premiered in 1988, the series — a serious drama based around a police chief and his mostly male fellow officers — seemed primarily geared toward men.
But then in the second season, the show got a little softer by introducing Joanne St. John, the owner of a diner called The Magnolia Café and eventual love interest of Chief Gillespie. Seemingly, the show was introducing characters for women in the audience to relate to.
Playing Joanne was a veteran actor named Lois Nettleton who rose to fame in the Fifties and Sixties working on Broadway with stars like Katharine Hepburn and Burt Reynolds and featuring in movies across from film icons like Jane Fonda and Frank Sinatra.
In 1967, at least one critic considered her "one of America’s excellent, serious, young actresses."
The Tony and Emmy-nominated actor also made a splash on TV during this time, with memorable appearances on Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone.
By the time she appeared on In the Heat of the Night, she’d also been cast to star in three short-lived series, Jerry Van Dyke’s doomed sitcom Accidental Family (1967), Norman Lear’s satirical All That Glitters (1977) and Harry Morgan’s post-M*A*S*H sitcom adaption of You Can’t Take It With You (1987).
For Nettleton, landing on In the Heat of the Night during its second season must’ve felt like finally finding her TV home in the arms of Carroll O’Connor.
She thought her character Joanne, along with the character of Althea Tibbs (Anne-Marie Johnson), added special female characters to the drama, and fans agreed.
"Anne-Marie and I are playing wonderful characters, and I'm glad to know the audience feels as we do about them," Nettleton told The Leader-Post in 1989.
For Nettleton, who had largely been typecast as the funny sitcom wife, Joanne St. John was a character with much more nuance.
"What I love about this series, and what makes me feel proud to be a part of it is that it deals so basically with human issues, social issues, with relationships between and among people," Nettleton said. "But it doesn’t preach. The show simply speaks to the human condition and how people deal with each other and relate to each other. And people will respond; they have to."
She continued, "This explains why, for example, they gave Joanne that [flawed] background. The whole point was to show that ‘let’s not be too quick to judge people by the way they appear to be.’ This lady who seems to be so helpful and such a really good friend, well, maybe she has something in her past."
For Nettleton, playing a character with a heart of gold, but a shady past gave her an opportunity to explore a new world of emotions onscreen. She came to love her character.
In the second season, Joanne appears in 22 episodes. In her final episode, "Missing Pig," she ends up getting shot and knocked unconscious. After this action-packed episode, she stopped appearing on the show.
According to this In the Heat of the Night FAQ, Nettleton wanted to continue doing the series, but producers felt the character of Joanne St. John had run its course and wrote her out, claiming that all "story possibilities for her character had been exhausted."
After leaving In the Heat of the Night, Nettleton spent the Nineties guest starring on hit series like Seinfeld and Full House. She also went back to Broadway.
In 2006, she retired from onscreen acting with a final appearance in a Hallmark holiday TV movie. Two years later, she passed away at the age of 80.
Although she won a Daytime Emmy for playing Susan B. Anthony, Joanne St. John is likely her best-remembered TV character.
To Nettleton, contrary to what producers thought, the possibilities of storylines for Joanne seemed endless.
"I think of Joanne as someone who is understanding and open to the possibilities in life," Nettleton said.