Once upon a time, Covington was not known for the vampires of Mystic Falls. It was the fast-paced police chases, robberies, bloody murder scenes, and various other gruesome crimes that put the city in the national spotlight.
They were part of TV’s "In the Heat of the Night," starring Carroll O’Connor, which filmed on location in Covington from 1988-1993. Actor Geoffrey Thorne portrayed Sgt. Wilson Sweet on the hit show during that time.
Thorne joined the show during its second season, when it relocated to Georgia from Louisiana. This was Thorne’s first acting job on a regular television series, although he had been working full-time as an actor in Los Angeles for many years. His role, Sgt. Wilson Sweet, placed him in scenes with actors Carroll O’Connor, Howard Rollins, Anne-Marie Johnson, Alan Autry, David Hart, Lois Nettleton and Hugh O’Connor. "In the Heat of the Night" quickly became a top-rated television series.
According to Thorne, who is now in his 40s, Covington, with its small-town atmosphere, fit the bill to portray the Southern town of Sparta, Miss. (The television series was based on the film and novel of the same name). But Covington’s citizens were much more well-behaved.
"Covington and Sparta look alike, but no… Covington never had that amount of crime and trouble that Sparta did. Good Lord, Covington would have to call in the National Guard," laughed Thorne.
Originally from Washington, D.C., and now residing in Los Angeles, Thorne looks back on his "Heat" days with fondness. He much prefers to look ahead in life and not behind him, but there are certain things that stand out in his memory that were rather sweet about filming "In the Heat of the Night."
He vividly recalls his audition for "Heat" in Los Angeles and how he kept getting called back, along with fewer and fewer fellow actors, until finally it was just him. And he remembers the occasional violent weather that would sweep through Covington.
Southern hospitality was something entirely new to him. For this city guy, it was heartwarming to be invited to people’s churches on Sunday or over to their houses for real home-cooked meals.
Thorne said he spent his free time doing what young people do: He went dancing in Atlanta, attended local plays, hung out at Little Five Points and also joined the other cast and crew members at spots such as TP Phalen’s (located near where Café Milano is now) and Outback Steakhouse. He made his home, along with many other cast and crew members, at Harvest Grove Apartments. David Hart, Crystal Fox, Howard Rollins, Alan Autry and Anne-Marie Johnson were some of his closest buddies on the set.
According to Thorne, he and the other actors were treated like stars in the Covington-Conyers area, but whenever they returned to Los Angeles or New York City, they were "regular people," even though they were on a top-rated television show. He believes this was because a TV show about a small-town police force was not "hip" or "cool" in those cities.
"There was zero star treatment at home," recalled Throne. "But I actually thought this was a good thing, because it kept me from getting a swelled head. I was never comfortable with the star treatment."
Spending hours and days together (for many months of the year) filming "In the Heat of the Night," the cast and crew became like family. There was harmony and there was also "heat."
There were also a few pranks. One in particular was played on Thorne.
Having lived in a big city his entire life, he’d never had need for a car. When he landed the role, nobody asked if he could drive and he never admitted to the producers that he did not know how.
Since "Heat’’ was a "cop show,’’ however, it quickly became apparent he was going to have to drive in chase scenes.
When he finally came clean to higher-ups, he was sent to a local driving school. As soon as he had his license, he was scheduled to do his first big chase scene.
"Our stunt coordinator Jeff Dashnaw thought it would be hilarious to give me one of the stunt cars without me knowing, to drive in my first chase scene," recalled Thorne.
He said the car looked like a normal police car used in the show but had been rigged for stunts. With a super-powerful engine and hair-trigger steering, it was more race car than police car.
"I nearly wiped out on that first take," said Thorne. "I went into a skid….I panicked...Crew members and onlookers scattered for safety….It was terrifying," recalled Thorne. The stunt man who had set up the prank stood back and laughed hysterically.
Although many of his memories are special, some from after the show ended are rather sad. Lois Nettleton died of lung cancer several years ago. Carroll O’Connor passed away in 2001. O’Connor’s son Hugh, who portrayed Officer Lonnie Jamision, battled a drug problem and committed suicide in 1995.
Rollins, who battled his own demons, died of complications from lymphoma in 1996.
For Thorne, "Heat" was only the beginning. He left the series during its sixth season because he wanted to become a writer and also to work on the production side of the entertainment industry. He wrote episodes of "Law & Order" and for the "Ben 10" cartoon series. For three years he was a co-producer and writer for "Leverage." He has not acted since 2000, and he has no plans to go back in front of the camera, at least for now. Instead, he writes novels and comics and contributes to anthologies.
"Book and magazine editors don’t care what color you are, what your gender is, or how old you are. They don’t care if you are pretty," said Thorne. "All they care about is how well you write."
Today Thorne is busy writing an original audio drama with Pendant Productions. It reminds him of the shows he and his dad listened to on old-time radio. He does not have children, but has been married several years now to the love of his life.
Occasionally he watches a rerun of "In the Heat of the Night."
What does he think when he recalls those days of filming in Covington? What comes to mind when he remembers being an actor?
"It was mostly sweet, most of the time," he said.