Yeah, the last time I caught you using my phone in here, the emergency was about some woman who was driving your car dressed in black lace underwear.
~ Bill Gillespie talking to Lt. Bubba Skinner

William O. "Bill" Gillespie was a primary protagonist in the television series In the Heat of the Night.

Gillespie was an honorable and decent man in a time and place when many of his fellow law enforcement officers were less so. Serving in World War II he married a young Italian woman named Anna, unfortunately both she and their son died in childbirth. Gillespie would later have a daughter named Lana by Georgia Farren.

By the late 1980s Gillespie had been chief of the Sparta, Mississippi police department for over two decades. The city council decided that it would be beneficial to have a more diverse police force. When Virgil Tibbs returned to Sparta for his mother's funeral the council offered him a job, and even offered him a contract to ensure he couldn't be fired the first time he stepped on a white person's toes. Some members of the city council also hoped Gillespie could be eased out of office.

Gillespie was highly resentful of Tibbs at first, feeling his position threatened by the younger man. The two men put aside their mutual suspicion and mistrust of each other and became friends. Gillespie also became friends with Virgil's wife Althea Tibbs. The friendship between Gillespie and Tibbs was reinforced when Tibbs announced that he felt that Gillespie was doing a fine job as chief and he would not accept promotion to chief.

After Gillespie left for a police convention the council brought in the retired Captain Tom Dugan to assist the department. Dugan had been placed in the department by the FBI in order to uncover a plot by white supremacists to murder a civil rights leader. Gillespie was kidnapped by these same supremacists but was later released unharmed, unfortunately Dugan was murdered by them. Afterwards Dugan's nephew agreed to help the police and testify against the white supremacists.

Despite his gruff exterior Gillespie cared deeply for the officers under his command as family, and was deeply affected each time one of them was wounded or killed in the line of duty.

Gillespie was a deeply religious man who prayed often, especially for his deceased wife and son as well as those Sparta officers who died in the line of duty.

City councilwoman Harriet DeLong soon became a thorn in the side to Gillespie as she saw him as a throwback to an earlier era. As she and Gillespie got to know each other better they became friends and that soon developed into something deeper and the two eventually married.

Gillespie served as the chief of police of the Sparta Police Department until 1994, when he was fired by the city council. He was then named the acting sheriff of Newman County and the position was made permanent later on. As sheriff he would continue to work closely with the Sparta police department and his former colleagues in the department. He would also provide support to his friend Virgil in the wake of his friend not only getting divorced but in also starting his new career as an attorney.


  • This version of Bill Gillespie was played by the late Carroll O'Connor, who was also well known for playing Archie Bunker in All in the Family.
  • The idea of Gillespie being at a police convention was used as a cover while O'Connor was recovering from open heart surgery at the end of the second season.
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