Howard Rollins grew up in modest circumstances, and was born as the youngest of four children of a steel worker and a housekeeper in Baltimore. Rollins graduated from Towson State College, where he studied theater. Encouraged by a friend took Rollins in a cast of Of Mice and Men at a theater in Baltimore in part, and fell by his acting talent.
The mid-1970s drew African Americans in New York City, where he hardly got offers larger theater roles. In 1978 he made his debut as a film actor in the film drama The Trial of the Moke on the side of the then also unknown actor Samuel L. Jackson. Rollins ' career was limited to a few exceptions, television films. His breakthrough as an actor scored Rollins in 1981, when he took over the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime Miloš Forman's film drama, and it was in 1982 nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. For the same film, he was also nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. However, a distinction was always denied him.
From 1988 to 1994 Rollins was for the crime drama In the Heat of the Night in front of the camera, which meant a further step on the career ladder for him.
Howard Rollins sick mid-1990s AIDS. Also in mid-October 1996, a malignant lymphoma found with him, in which he six weeks later, died at the age of 46 years.
In October 2006 a wax statue was erected at the Senator Theater in Baltimore, showing the actor. This is now at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore.