The Cast: John Amos

If you’re a fan of Good Times (and if you’re reading these words, you must be!), John Amos may always be James Evans to you. I’m right there with you — his portrayal of the Evans family patriarch is near to my heart, and one of the two characters I most associate with Amos. (The other is Kunta Kinte, from the 1970s miniseries Roots). But Amos was also Gordy on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Admiral Fitzwallace on The West Wing. Cleo McDowell in Coming to America. And he has numerous other accomplishments – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning.

Young John.

John Allen Amos, Jr., was born on December 27, 1939, in Newark, New Jersey, the second of two children of Annabelle and John Amos, Sr., an auto mechanic. He grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, and was a running back at East Orange High School (where one of his schoolmates was future star Dionne Warwick.) “The opportunity to play football was one way of getting neighborhood approval,” Amos said in a 2022 interview on the Rational Hour podcast. “And to be a running back – that meant you were in line for glory and fame, possibly, contingent on how good you were. . . . I began to harbor the illusion that I could possibly get a scholarship and maybe even play pro football.” Amos also played on the football team at Colorado State University, where he majored in sociology, and he continued demonstrating his athletic prowess after college by becoming a Golden Gloves boxing champion.

In his football years.

After a stint as a social worker at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, it appeared that Amos was on the path to achieving his professional football aspirations when he signed on as a free agent with the Denver Broncos of the American Football League in 1964. On the second day of training camp, however, he was released due to a pulled hamstring. Amos recalled that he went on to try out for “more teams than I even knew existed,” and he played with numerous clubs during the next several years, including the Canton Bulldogs of the United Football League, the Wheeling Ironmen of the Continental Football League, and the Jersey City Jets of the Atlantic Coast Football League. In 1967, he returned to the American Football League, signing a free agent contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, but his brief association with the team was cut short by a torn Achilles tendon. To console himself following his injury, Amos wrote a poem entitled “The Turk,” which is a euphemism given to “the guy that releases you from the team when your services are no longer required.” In a 2012 interview with Susan King of the L.A. Times, Amos recalled that Chiefs coach Hank Stram allowed him to read the poem to the team, resulting in a standing ovation. After seeing the team’s reaction, Stram told him, “I think you have another calling.” (To read Amos’s complete poem, “The Turk,” click here.

With McLean Stevenon and Tim Conway on Conway’s show.

Not long after, Amos put his football dreams behind him for good. Instead, he became an advertising copywriter and then in 1969, he joined the writing staff for the CBS-TV musical variety series The Leslie Uggams Show. The series only lasted for 10 episodes, but the following year would be a significant one for Amos – he appeared on an episode of The Bill Cosby Show, he landed a gig as a semi-regular on The Tim Conway Show (“It was a good experience and I learned a lot,” he said), and he was tapped for a role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show after some writers who worked for both the Uggams and the Moore shows thought he would be a good fit for a weatherman character. “They wrote me a few lines,” Amos told the L.A. Times, “and thus Gordy was born, and quite frankly I never looked back after that.” He would appear in a total of 12 episodes on the show during the first four seasons, and then return in the seventh season for a final appearance.

Amos was Henry Evans on Maude . . .

During the next couple of years, Amos guested on several television shows, includng Love, American Style and Sanford and Son, played a biker in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and appeared in a popular singing-dancing commercial for McDonald’s. He made his Broadway debut in 1972 in Tough to Get Help, directed by Carl Reiner, but the play – about a black couple working in a liberal white household – was trashed by critics and closed after only one performance. But the following year, Amos was cast on the hit Norman Lear sitcom Maude (a spinoff of All in the Family) as Henry Evans, the husband of Maude’s maid, Florida (Esther Rolle). He appeared as Henry on three episodes of Maude before Good Times was created as a spinoff, starring Rolle and Amos as Florida and James (no longer Henry) Evans.

But he was James Evans on Good Times.

Amos remained on Good Times for 61 episodes, but his contract was not renewed after the third season and his character was killed in an automobile accident. Amos had clashed with writers and producer Norman Lear on numerous occasions over the direction of the show. “There were several examples where I said, ‘No, you don’t do these things. It’s anathema to Black society. I’ll be the expert on that, if you don’t mind,’” Amos told Andrew Chow in a 2021 Time.com interview. “They thought I was talking about a revolution here in the studio – and I was. I was a sign of the times that we just weren’t going to take any more, but [I] hadn’t developed the social graces to express our disfavor. And it got confrontational and heated enough that ultimately my being killed off the show was the best solution for everybody concerned, myself included.”

Amos earned an Emmy nomination for his performance.

Being let go from Good Times turned out to be nothing more than a momentary blip in Amos’s career. In 1977, he was cast in the groundbreaking mini-series Roots, which told the story of Kunta Kinte, an African boy who is abducted from his home and taken to America, where he lives the rest of his life as a slave. Amos was cast as the adult Kunta Kinte. The show was a massive hit, attracting an estimated 130 million viewers (and this was, of course, in the days before VCRs and streaming when, if you wanted to see a program, you had to be in front of your television when it aired. I know – I was in high school when Roots came on, and my family, and everyone I knew, watched every single night of this eight-part phenomenon). Amos earned an Emmy nomination for his performance, but he lost to his co-star, Louis Gossett, Jr., who played Fiddler.

“It meant so much to me on so many levels,” Amos told Time.com. “I knew that it was a life-changing role for me, as an actor and just from a humanistic standpoint. It was the culmination of all of the misconceptions and stereotypical roles that I had lived and seen being offered to me. It was like a reward for having suffered those indignities.”

With Phylicia Rashad in Gem of the Ocean.

Amos never looked back. During the next several decades, he appeared in a wide variety of television shows, from guest spots in such popular programs as The Love Boat, The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and 30 Rock, to starring or recurring roles in series including Hunter, 704 Hauser (another spinoff from All in the Family), The District, All About the Andersons, and The West Wing. In addition, he appeared in numerous films, including The Beastmaster (1982), Coming to America (1988) and its 2021 sequel, Coming 2 America, Die Hard 2 (1990), and Dr. Dolittle 3 (2006). Away from the big and small screens, Amos starred in Twelfth Night at the 1989 New York Shakespeare Festival (in a cast that included Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Gregory Hines); performed in London at the Old Vic Theatre in The Life and Death of a Buffalo Soldier; wrote and produced Halley’s Comet, a one-man play that he performed periodically at venues worldwide for 20 years; and appeared in 2005 opposite Phylicia Rashad in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean in Princeton, New Jersey. And in 2017, Amos co-wrote a children’s book, A World Without Color, inspired by the roles that have most impacted his life.

Amos and his children, Shannon and K.C.

In his personal life, Amos has two children with his first wife, Noel Mickelson, who he met while both were students at Colorado State University; the couple had two children, Shannon and Kelly Christopher (better known as K.C.). Shannon is the founder of Afterglow Multimedia, a talent management and production company, and K.C. is a Grammy-nominated filmmaker. (K.C. frequently posts videos of his father on TikTok. You can check them out at kc.filmmaker.)

Amos, who turned 83 in December 2022, is still working; in 2019, he made a surprise cameo appearance on a live television restaging of Good Times, called Live in Front of a Studio Audience, co-produced and co-hosted by Good Times creator Norman Lear.

On the set of Live in Front of a Studio Audience, with Bern Nadette Stanis (Thelma on Good Times) and Tiffany Haddish, who played Willona on the Good Times reboot.

The cast, which included Andre Braugher as James and Viola Davis as Florida, performed the series’ third season episode, “The Politician”; Amos played the role of Ald. Fred C. Davis. Other recent appearances include Uncut Gems (2019), Me Time (2022), and an episode of The Righteous Gemstones, and he will be seen in the upcoming comedy, Capture the Flag, co-starring Dick Van Dyke, Louis Gossett, Jr., Paul Dooley, and Barry Corbin.

“I will continue to work until I can’t work anymore. Norman [Lear] is still working well into his nineties,” Amos told Entertainment Weekly following the broadcast of the Good Times reboot. “He makes me feel like I’m just getting started.”

Season One – Michael Gets Suspended (March 8, 1974)

“I know how old you are. You mess with me and I’ll tell it.”

This week’s episode focuses on Michael, who has been suspended from school after referring to President George Washington as a “white racist” because he was a slave owner. The suspension will be lifted if Michael apologizes to his teacher, but he refuses, insisting that he’s quitting school to get a job. (“I’m not going to school just to learn what they teach,” he says.) Although the family tries to hide Michael’s misdeeds from James, he quickly learns of the suspension when he comes home from work and threatens to give Michael “a whipping [he’s] going to remember for the rest of [his] life” if he doesn’t return to school. Before dispensing the promised punishment, James has a one-on-one talk with Michael, where he explains to his son the importance of school and the reason for the spanking he’s going to deliver. Repeatedly laying across his father’s lap in preparation, Michael tells James that one of his heroes, Crispus Attucks, “wasn’t afraid when his turn came.” This comment results in a black history lesson, with Michael sharing information about several black notables with whom James wasn’t familiar. When Florida enters the room, planning to bring a stop to Michael’s punishment, she’s surprised to see her husband and son hugging and laughing. Florida helps Michael to understand the value of school, flaws and all: “School ain’t perfect,” she tells him. “But that’s no call to drop it. It’s got a lot of good in it. You take that good. And use it.” James apologizes to Michael for his intention to spank him, and Michael decides that if his father can apologize to him, then he can return to school and apologize to his teacher.

“Why, you militant midget, you!”

Florida’s thoughtfulness and wisdom as a mother is once again on display in this episode. When she sizes up the situation involving Michael’s suspension, she doesn’t scold or punish him but, instead, talks to him like an equal, calmly addressing each of his arguments. (My own rather militant daughter didn’t buy into Florida’s contention that all presidents are for all the people, not just some of the people, but then again, neither did Michael.) In sharp contrast, James’s immediate reaction was to literally whip Michael into submission. To his credit, James certainly wasn’t eager to spank Michael, although it was obvious he thought that was the right thing to do; he insisted on talking to him first, though, showing Michael the callouses on his hands and telling him that he never wanted Michael’s hands to look like that. “That’s why I don’t take no excuses when you mess up in school,” James says. “I’d rather you be a little bit hurt now than hurt for the rest of your life. Do you understand?” It’s a touching, heartfelt sentiment that James shares with his son, letting Michael know that he wants better for him than what his own life has been. James also shows depth of feeling when he apologizes to Michael for his initial reaction, demonstrating to his son yet another quality of a real man.

Pop Culture References:

Billy Dee Williams

Billy Dee Williams and his wife, Teruko.
(Sorry, Thelma.)

When Willona enters the episode, she gives Thelma a copy of Essence magazine which, she informs Thelma, contains an article on Billy Dee Williams and how happy he is with his wife. (“What a hip life that must be,” Thelma says, “married to Billy Dee!”) Williams (who has a twin sister, and whose birth name is William December Williams) was a popular performer who rose to fame in the early 1970s with roles in films like Brian’s Song (1971) and Lady Sings the Blues (1972). He would go on to play Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars series and star in such hits as Mahogany (1975) and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976), in addition to numerous other feature film and television appearances. The Essence magazine article was referring to Williams’s 1972 marriage (his third) to Teruko Nakagami. The couple remain married to this day. (Williams and Nakagami filed for divorce in 1993, but they later reconciled.)

Essence Magazine

Essence magazine began publication in May 1970 as a lifestyle magazine targeting black women. After starting out with 50,000 copies a month, the magazine grew to a circulation of 1.6 million. (During the magazine’s first three years, its editorial director was Gordon Parks, photographer and director of such films as The Learning Tree [1969] and Shaft [1971].) In the 2000s, the magazine was sold to Time, Inc, but it was acquired in 2017 by Essence Ventures LLC, an independent black-owned company.

Stepin Fetchit and Rochester

Stepin Fetchit with his Cadillac Phaeton.

Florida shares that when she was younger, she dreamed of marrying Errol Flynn, a movie star popular in swashbuckling films from the 1930s and 1940s. When Thelma points out that Flynn was white, Florida explains that her options were either Errol Flynn and Clark Gable (another white star, famous for playing Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind) or Stepin Fetchit and Rochester. “Somehow, the sword seemed more dashing than the broom,” Florida says. Stepin Fetchit was the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry; he began his career in vaudeville but is best known for his feature film roles where he invariably played lazy half-wits – or maybe “half-wits” is giving these characters too much credit.

Vintage souvenir postcard of
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s house.

Rochester, born Edmund Lincoln Anderson, was known for his distinctive gravelly voice and also had his roots in vaudeville – he frequently played servants on the big screen, but his characters weren’t as subservient and cringe-worthy as some other black performers of the day. In the late 1930s, he joined Jack Benny’s radio show as Benny’s personal valet, Rochester Van Jones, a character he continued to portray when Benny moved to television. The character was so popular that Anderson became known thereafter as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. (Even though Florida leaned more toward Flynn and Gable, it’s worth noting that Perry was the first black actor to become a millionaire, and Anderson was paid $100,000 a year on Benny’s show, making him the highest paid black actor of that time.)

Nat Turner

Willona refers to Michael as “an 11-year-old Nat Turner.” Turner was an American slave from Virginia who, in August 1931, led the only effective, sustained slave revolt in U.S. history. Turner killed the family of his owners and, along with a group of approximately 40 other slaves, eventually killed 55 whites. Turner was eventually captured and hanged.

Rona Barrett

In addition to her TV appearances, Barrett had a series of gossip magazines.

Willona is leaving the Evans apartment as James arrives home from work; he expresses his appreciation at her departure, adding that he is in “no mood to listen to the Rona Barrett of the projects this morning.” Rona Barrett was a well-known gossip columnist whose career started in 1957 when she went to work for New York’s Bell-McClure Syndicate, which distributed columns, feature articles, fiction, and comic strips to newspapers throughout the country. In 1966, she began broadcasting Hollywood gossip on ABC television station in Los Angeles, appearing on ABC’s five owned and operated stations nationwide, and she joined Good Morning America in 1975. She retired in 1991. (Interestingly, her reports occasionally got her in hot water with her subjects; Frank Sinatra put her on his enemies list after she criticized his relationships with his children, and she reported offended Ryan O’Neal to the point where he sent her a box containing a live tarantula.)

Food Prices

When Florida and James and James are arguing about Michael’s suspension, the conversation takes a detour, resulting in Florida reciting a litany of her day to James, which included grocery shopping. She tells him, “While they got the whole world watching the price of gas, they are sneaking food prices up again.” In 1971, during Richard Nixon’s first presidential term, he imposed a wage and price freeze to combat the high cost of food. When he won re-election in 1972, he put an end to the freeze, and prices began skyrocketing again. To put this in perspective, today, the average American spends less than 10 percent of their income on food; in the 1970s, the average was closer to 15 percent.

Other stuff:

This Ernie Barnes work is similar to the painting by J.J. in this episode.

This episode contains the first close-up of a painting by Ernie Barnes, who was responsible for creating most of J.J.’s artwork in the show.  (The Black Jesus from Episode Three, though, was not painted by Barnes.) Barnes was born in Durham, North Carolina, and was interested in art from an early age; he was continually drawing in sketchbooks and by the time he entered first grade, he was familiar with the works of such famed artists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Rubens, and Michelangelo. Barnes majored in art at North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University), played football throughout his college years, and became a professional football player upon his graduation. He never stopped drawing, however; during off-seasons with the San Diego Chargers, he illustrated articles for the San Diego magazine, and while playing with the Denver Broncos, he was frequently fined for drawing during team meetings. When he retired from professional football in the mid-1960s, he was hired by the owner of the New York Jets to be the team’s official artist. It was just the beginning of what would become an illustrious and much-admired (and much-imitated) art career. One more note about Barnes’s paintings – his subjects always have their eyes closed.

Yet another reference to Florida’s weight appears in this episode.  When Willona says that she is too young to remember anything before the Korean War, Florida threatens to reveal Willona’s age to the children, and Willona rejoins by indicating that she will reveal Florida’s weight. “My lips are sealed,” Florida says. (Ugh.) Speaking of the age issue, this exchange brings up the first baffling reference to the ages of the three older characters in the series. By listening to this conversation, one would deduce that Willona is younger than Florida because, if Florida’s children know their mother’s age (which Florida says they do), and Willona and Florida are the same age, then the children would also know Willona’s age. Hmm. Later episodes muddle this theory. More on that in future posts . . .

Who’s the guy in the poster above James’s head?

We get our first look at Thelma’s room in this episode (the boys don’t have their own room; they sleep on the pull-out sofa in the living room). Thelma’s walls are decorated with numerous posters of black celebrities of the day, including Sylvester Stewart, better known as Sly Stone (from Sly and the Family Stone), Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby, Jimi Hendrix (I think), and several others. (There’s also a poster of a white singer with brownish-red hair and a beard singing at a microphone. If anyone knows who he is, please share with the group!)

This episode contains another reference to Michael’s ambition to become a lawyer and, eventually, sit on the Supreme Court. If you know, you know . . .

During his discussion with Michael about black history, James refers to black people as “spooks,” incredulously asking Michael, “A spook sailed with Columbus?” and later querying Florida, “Baby, did you know a spook sailed with Columbus?” I know that there was a book and subsequent feature film called The Spook Who Sat By The Door, but I have never in my whole entire life heard a black person refer to our race or an individual as “spooks” in this manner. Have you? Is it just me?

Although I don’t necessarily think of this episode as one of my favorites, it contains numerous lines that are well-written and brilliantly delivered. My favorite scene takes place in Thelma’s room, where the older children first try to convince Michael to back down from his stance and then, failing this, give him tips on how to weather the upcoming whipping from their father. The scene is chock full of humor, but it has moments of sweetness as well, especially when Thelma tells Michael that before commencing with the whooping, their father will solemnly tell him, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” She then looks at Michael, narrows her eyes with steely determination and says, “Make him believe it.” And she punctuates her advice with a kiss on Michael’s cheek – a loving gesture that I always felt was not expected by Ralph Carter; he looks so pleased and surprised. It makes me smile every time I see it.

~ ~ ~

The next episode: Sex and the Evans Family. (It’s my favorite episode, y’all!)

Season One – God’s Business is Good Business (March 1, 1974)

Florida is not impressed.

This episode opens with the appearance of “Rev. Sam, the Happiness Man” on the Evans’s television set. Michael recognizes him as a friend of his father’s, and Florida doesn’t waste a moment in making clear her feelings about the televangelist: “I hate a phony.” Rev. Sam is in town for a series of revival meetings, and although James has left several messages for him, he’s yet to hear from his Army buddy – a fact that Florida points out, adding that the minister has been “busy ripping off poor folks.” While James is in the midst of defending his friend, Rev. Sam shows up at the family’s front door – James is delighted to see him, but Florida is disdainful of the minister’s expensive clothes and bejeweled fingers. When J.J. and Thelma meet the famed preacher, they are duly impressed; Thelma is awe-struck by all the celebrities he knows, and J.J. is fascinated by the preacher’s material possessions, including the Cadillac parked outside: “Now that’s the kind of religion I can get into,” J.J. says. “The good word rolls out and the long green rolls in.” Sam is seeking a trustworthy man to add to his traveling crusade, and he offers James a job making a hundred dollars a day, seven days a week. Florida, naturally, is skeptical (“Nobody makes that kind of money – legally,” she says), and to prove the legitimacy of his ministry, Sam invites the family and Willona to attend his revival meeting that night.

Willona’s not impressed, either. She’s divorced, “but not desperate.”

After the revival, Florida and Willona are still scornful and unconvinced, but the Evans children are filled with excitement, especially J.J., who recaps a moment in the service when an elderly, wheelchair-bound member of the audience made his way to the pulpit; after a few words of healing from Rev. Sam, the man rose from his chair and began to dance. Despite Florida’s objections, James accepts the job Sam has offered, packs his suitcase, and is ready to leave when Sam arrives to pick him up. A few minutes later, Sam’s driver, Ed, arrives to caution Sam that their plane will soon be departing. When Ed learns that James will be joining them, Ed comments that their next stop is Philadelphia, which is a “good place for [James] to take over the wheelchair gig.” It’s then that the family recognizes Ed as the elderly man from the revival who had been “healed” by Rev. Sam – J.J. suggests that the ruse would work better with a young man in the wheelchair and demonstrates the performance he could deliver. He proposes that he go along with James, but James tells Sam that neither he nor J.J. will be joining the crusade. “They don’t print enough money to make me ruin my son,” he says.

James eventually saw Rev. Sam for who he really was.

This episode highlights the keen insight and determination possessed by Florida, and an interesting mélange of personality traits demonstrated by James. Even before she met Rev. Sam, Florida was certain that he was disingenuous, and her opinion was only reinforced after she saw him in action. And even though James was obviously fond of Sam and thought highly of him, Florida did not allow this to either sway her own stance or prevent her from speaking her mind. Conversely, James showed an admirable loyalty to his friend, assuring Florida that Sam would respond to his messages, fondly recounting their experiences in the Army, and championing Sam in the face of Florida’s onslaught of criticism. But James was also blinded by this loyalty, unable to view Sam’s ostentatious displays of wealth as a sign of hypocrisy, or to interpret the display of healing and miracles at the revival as anything other than what Sam presented them to be. He was also unquestionably swayed by the amount of money that he would be making by working with Sam – money that would allow James to take care of his family in a manner that he’d, thus far, been unable to do. It wasn’t until he was presented with irrefutable evidence that James finally was forced to admit that Florida was right, he was wrong, and Sam was not the righteous, guileless man of God that James believed him to be. And once faced with that confirmation, James’s strength of character would not allow him to do anything other than decline to be a part of Sam’s ministry. There was no denying that the money would have been a boon for the family, but for James, it wasn’t worth sacrificing his integrity.

Guest Stars

Rev. Sam: Roscoe Lee Browne

The award-winning Browne was one of the most distinguished guest stars to grace the Good Times set. The son of a Baptist minister, he was born in Woodbury, New Jersey, on May 2, 1922, and graduated from Lincoln University in 1946, after serving in World War II. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University and taught French and literature at Lincoln. Browne was also a track star – he was the National AAU indoor champion at 1,000 yards in both 1950 and 1951, and his showing in a European tour in 1951 earned him the rank of #2 by Track and Field magazine. For several years, Browne earned a living as a sales rep for a wine and liquor importer, but in 1956, he suddenly decided to pursue a career as an actor. He was a natural – his debut performance was that same year, at the New York Shakespeare Festival in its production of Julius Caesar.

Browne’s first feature film appearance was in The Connection (1961), which was about a group of eight drug addicted musicians waiting in a New York loft for their drug connection to arrive. He made his TV debut the following year, in The Defenders. During the next several decades, he was a presence in such films as The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), where he played the title role; Uptown Saturday Night (1974); Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986); and Babe (1990), in which he served as the narrator. He was also in nearly every popular TV series you can name, including Mannix, Bonanza, Sanford and Son, All in the Family, Barney Miller, Starsky and Hutch, Soap (where he assumed the role of the Tate’s butler after the departure of Robert Guillaume from the show), A Different World, E.R., Law and Order, and The Cosby Show, for which he won an Emmy. He also earned a Tony nomination in 1992 for his performance in the Broadway production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.

Browne died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 84 – he’d continued to work up until the last year of his life.

Ed: Danny “Big Black” Rey

Rey as Bart’s father in Blazing Saddles (with Rodney Allen Rippy as young Bart).

The uncredited role of Ed, Rev. Sam’s driver, was played by Danny “Big Black” Rey. Born in Savannah in 1934, Rey played the conga drums with such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965, Sun Ra, and B.B. King. He also released four albums. As an actor, Rey was seen on TV shows including Sanford and Son and Apple’s Way, and appeared in bit roles in Uptown Saturday Night, Lethal Weapon 3, and Blazing Saddles, as Bart’s father.

Pop Culture References:

Blacula

William Marshall as Blacula (with Vonetta McGee)

When Rev. Sam arrives to pick up James, Thelma asks him if his crusade will be traveling to Hollywood and Willona responds before the minister has a chance: “Why not? I can see it now: Rev. Sam starring in Blacula Gets Religion,” she says. “That way, you can get the blood and the money at the same time.” Blacula was a popular blaxploitation horror film released in 1972 and starring William Marshall, about an 18th century African prince named Mamuwalde. Mamuwalde is turned into a vampire in 1780 by Count Dracula, who refused Mamuwalde’s request to help him stop the slave trade and locked him in a coffin in his Transylvania castle. Centuries later, in 1972, two interior decorators purchase the coffin and have it shipped to Los Angeles. When they open the coffin, they become Blacula’s first victims. Blacula was one of the top-grossing films of 1972, had a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream in 1973, and set of a series of blaxploitation horror films, like Sugar Hill (1974) and J.D.’s Revenge (1976).

Rev. Ike

Rev. Ike with one of his many cars.

The character of Rev. Sam was inspired by Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, better known as Rev. Ike, who preached to his followers how to attain good health, happiness, success, and wealth. In the 1970s, at the peak of his popularity, he became one of the first evangelists to reach millions of followers through radio and television; he also started a newspaper and a magazine. Rev. Ike was the living embodiment of his prosperity message – he owned several homes and more than two dozen cars. He also had many critics who (like Florida and Willona to Rev. Sam) accused him of preying on the poor.

Other stuff:

There’s a moment after Thelma meets Reverend Sam that I found interesting. First, J.J. enters the scene and then James introduces Thelma. After admiring the minister’s clothes and rings, J.J. exits, handing Thelma a bag containing the lipstick she’d asked him to buy, with the line: “Here’s your mouth, gal.” This gets a big laugh from the audience, and for several seconds, no one speaks. If you look closely, you can see Roscoe Lee Browne point his finger in the direction of Bern Nadette Stanis, as if he’s directing her to proceed with her next line. Check it out the next time you watch the episode and see what you think.

We find out in this episode that Willona works at a boutique.

In Rev. Sam’s first scene, he’s wearing a striking purple and gold jacket with wide lapels and a satiny sheen. This same jacket was worn by George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) in Season 2, Episode 21, titled “George Meets Whittendale,” which first aired on February 14, 1976.

From Rev. Sam . . . to George.

~

As in Episode 3, this one contains a reference to Flip Wilson’s popular character, Geraldine. While trying to convince Florida to attend his revival meeting, Rev. Sam provides a lively mini-sermon to demonstrate the impact that his ministry has on the “dispirited” people who seek his direction. Sam is animated and engaging, energetically moving about the Evans’s living room and periodically punctuating his message with “Can I get an Amen?” When he wraps it up, he asks Florida for her opinion. “That was good,” she responds. “Now let me see you do Geraldine.”

~ ~ ~

The next episode: Michael Gets Suspended . . .

Season One – Episode Three: Too Old Blues (February 8, 1974)

James and Florida search the want ads for “equal opportunity”

In this episode, James has just received word that he has passed the written aptitude test for a union apprentice training program and is scheduled for an interview. If he’s accepted, he’ll earn $2.50 an hour as an apprentice, and upon completion of the program, he’ll receive $4.25 an hour. Before leaving for his interview, James tells Florida to use their rent money for a party to celebrate his new job. During the interview, while going over James’s application, the interviewer discovers a computer error; the application states that James is 31 years old, but he’s actually 41. Because the government-funded apprentice program is for men ages 18 to 35, James is too old to be accepted. When James arrives home, the party he requested is in full swing, complete with guests. He looks sheepish as he’s serenaded by the group’s rendition of “He’s a Jolly Good Dude,” and his discomfort grows as Thelma and J.J. talk about all the things they’d like to buy with James’s new salary. He finally shares that he didn’t get the job, but Florida offers words of support and encouragement, leading James to philosophically conclude: “So I missed out. What’s the big deal? What would it have meant anyhow? Some more spending money, fancy clothes, nicer place to live? What do I need with a union job for when I have you and these kids?” He and Florida embrace, but James rather plaintively adds, “But it sure would’ve been nice.”

James isn’t pleased to learn that he’s “too old.”

Between the laughs, and the surfeit of pop culture references (see below), this episode serves to underscore the close-knit, caring nature of the Evans family. There’s the excitement and pride over James’s new employment prospects but, more importantly, it’s the family’s reaction when they learn that he didn’t get the job. After James shares his disappointing news with the partygoers, he leaves the room with Florida, and the three children commiserate in their own little group. “Whoever said he was too old don’t know Daddy,” J.J. offers, and Michael adds, “I’d like to see the dude who called him too old. I’d tell him about some of those not-too-old whippings he’s laid on me.” Thelma has the last word: “Daddy ain’t too old. He could do that job at the union. He could do anything anybody gave him a chance to.” And even though James expresses concern that he has disappointed Florida, she bolsters his spirits with her uplifting response: “James, you always see this family through,” she tells him. “You can do it.” The episode sees the family experience a hopeful start only to plummet back to earth in worse shape than they’d been before, but the message is that together, they will always find a way.

Pop Culture Connections

Energy Crisis

While hugging Florida (more on this below under “Other Stuff”), James states that he doesn’t have to worry about “that energy crisis” because he has his “own personal heating system” (meaning Florida.) The energy crisis James is referring to was caused by the action taken by the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, who imposed an embargo against the United States. This was in retaliation for the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military and to gain leverage in the post-war peace negotiations. Embargoes were also enacted against other countries who supported the Israelis, including the Netherlands and South Africa. As a result of the embargo, the U.S. saw skyrocketing prices for gasoline and fuel oil. The embargo, which started in October 1973, ended in March 1974, about a month after the episode aired.

Wilt Chamberlain

Before joining the NBA, Chamberlain played for the Harlem Globetrotters.

After the “personal heating system” comment, Florida observes that a good looking man like James could have married any woman in Chicago, and he responds, “True. But I married you.” Florida rejoins, “If that’s a compliment, I’m Wilt Chamberlain.” Chamberlain was a seven-foot, one-inch basketball star who joined the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1959, when he signed on with the Philadelphia Warriors (which later relocated to California to become the San Francisco Warriors). During his career, he would also play for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers and would play on two NBA championship teams. Chamberlain retired from basketball in 1973.

Meat Shortage

At breakfast, Thelma complains about the family eating oatmeal again, and Florida tells her that she should be grateful for the oatmeal or any other food on the table. “Remember,” she adds, “this family got through the meat shortage without even knowing there was one.” The term “meat shortage,” while commonly used at the time, is a misnomer. In the early 1970s, there was a blight in corn crops that started in Florida and spread north and west, resulting in an increase in corn prices. Concomitantly, livestock producers began to cut back on their herds, leading to a reduction in beef production and a spike in beef prices. This led to price gouging and even a meat boycott; there was no shortage, per se, but meat was inordinately expensive. After a few years, the blight faded, corn prices fell, livestock was rebuilt, and prices returned to normal.

Ozzie and Harriet

This ain’t the Evans family.

When Thelma and J.J. argue about the amount of time she spends in the bathroom, James complains about the frequency of the arguments between the siblings and Florida remarks, “Let’s face it, James – this family ain’t Ozzie and Harriet.” The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was an ABC-TV sitcom that aired from 1952 to 1966 and starred the real-life family of actor/bandleader Ozzie Nelson, his wife, singer Harriet Nelson, and their sons, David and Ricky. The series was typified by the family’s wholesome relationship and homespun lifestyle.

Aristotle Onassis

For his celebration party, James tell Florida that he wants barbecued chicken and ribs, champagne, and music, and jokes that she can hire The Temptations. “Hold on there, Onassis,” Florida says. “What do I use for money for this orgy?” Florida was referring to Aristotle Socrates Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who was, at that time, one of the wealthiest men in the world. In 1968, he married Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of President John F. Kennedy. Onassis died in 1975 at the age of 69.

Rodney Allen Rippy

Everybody knew who this kid was, back in the day.

In an allusion to J.J.’s penchant for thievery, Willona refers to him as “Rodney Allen Ripoff.” This is a takeoff of the name of a child actor who became popular in the 1970s for his appearances in commercials for fast-food chain Jack-in-the-Box. (Jack-in-the-Box was the first fast-food restaurant to popularize drive-thru ordering via a two-way intercom system. These restaurants featured a clown head on top of an intercom, with a sign that read, “Pull forward. Jack will speak to you.”) Rippy would later guest on numerous television shows, present with Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond at the American Music Awards, and sing “Take Life a Little Easier,” a record released by Bell Records in 1973 based on one of Rippy’s Jack-in-the-Box commercials.

Diana Ross

While joking about the type of party he wants for his celebration, James tells Florida not to book The Temptations but, instead to hire “The Supremes – and WITH Diana Ross!” The Supremes was an all-girl musical group that was popular during the 1960s, comprised originally of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard. (Ballard was fired from the group in 1967 and replaced by Cyndy Birdsong.) Almost from the beginning, Ross emerged as the main singer, and in 1970, she left the group to pursue a solo – and wildly successful – career.

Soul Train

Soul Train was a product of Chicago.

Thelma is responsible for providing the music for the party that her father requested – she explains to Florida that she;s gotten albums by Isaac Hayes, The Jackson Five, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Florida quips, “When he said ‘music,’ he didn’t expect you to hijack Soul Train.” Soul Train was a popular musical variety show that premiered on WCIU-TV in Chicago in 1970, created by Don Cornelius, who was also the show’s executive producer and host. Airing live on weekday afternoons and sponsored by local Chicago-based retailer Sears, Roebuck and Company, the show featured acts by popular R&B and soul acts, and local teens and young adults were shown dancing to the music – the first episode on August 17, 1970, featured Jerry Butler, The Chi-Lites and The Emotions as guests. The program was an immediate hit, attracting the notice of another Chicago company, the Johnson Products Company, which co-sponsored the show’s expansion into syndication. Seven other cities purchased the program: Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, and by the end of its first season, the show was airing in 18 additional markets. In October 1971, when the program moved into syndication, it began airing weekly and its home base moved to Los Angeles. Cornelius moved west as well, but for a while, a local version of Soul Train continued to air in Chicago, with Cornelius briefly hosting both programs before focusing solely on the Los Angeles show. The show’s Chicago version continued to air every weekday afternoon until June 1976, hosted by dancer Clinton Ghent, who’d been a part of the show since its inception, and reruns were shown every Friday until 1979. The show was known for two long-running elements: the Soul Train scramble board, where two contestants would unscramble letters to spell out a famous group or singer, and the Soul Train line, a take-off of the 1950s dance, The Stroll. Here, dancers would line up in two lines opposite each other, and dance two at a time down the center of the makeshift aisle. Don Cornelius stopped hosting the syndicated version in 1993, and the show was cancelled after the 2005-2006 season.

Ambassador East

Willona likened the Evans’s decor to the grand ballroom at the Ambassador East.

Willona commends Florida on the decorations for the party, telling her that it looks like the Grand Ballroom at the Ambassador East. This was a popular hotel in Chicago that opened in 1926 in the Gold Coast area, near the city’s Magnificent Mile district. It was featured in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest, starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, and the hotel’s Pump Room was a magnet for stars including Frank Sinatral, Elizabeth Taylor, and Natalie Wood. It was purchased in 2010 by Ian Schrager, an entrepreneur best-known for being co-founder and co-owner of New York’s Studio 54 nightclub. Schrager renamed the hotel the Public Chicago. The hotel changed hands a few more times and is now known as the Ambassador Chicago, under the Hyatt brand.

What You See is What You Get

Willona also has complimentary words for Michael’s outfit for the party, and jokes that he’ll have to fight off the girls. Michael rejoins, “Well, what they see is what they gonna get,” accompanied by a little swaying type of dance movement and a snap of his fingers. This is reminiscent of a catchphrase and movement used by comedian Flip Wilson in drag as “Geraldine Jones,” a sassy, independent, sexy, and feisty female character that he popularized on his NBC television show in the early 1970s. Also, in 1971, the R&B group The Dramatics released a hit song, “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get.”

Guest Stars

Interviewer: Woodrow Parfrey

Parfrey played the man who interviewed James for the apprentice program. Born Sydney Woodrow Parfrey on October 5, 1922, this prolific actor of stage, screen, and TV was orphaned in his teenage years and worked as a car mechanic before entering the military. He was captured by the Germans in World War II, and upon his release from the Army following the war, he took an aptitude test which indicated that he would be proficient in the acting field. He performed in a variety of stage productions during the 1940s and 1950s, including the Broadway production of Room Service, which closed after only 16 performances despite a cast that included Jack Lemmon and Everett Sloane.

He focused primarily on TV and film beginning in the 1960s; his television credits included appearances on a wide variety of popular shows including Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, Hazel, Quincy, and the pilot for The Waltons, titled The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. On the big screen, he was in such hits as Planet of the Apes (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), Papillion (1973), and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Sadly, Parfrey suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 61 – the same age his father was when he died.

Monty: Stymie Beard

Beard played one of the guests at James’s “celebration” party; he had one line: “Florida, I couldn’t be happier if it was MY wife who got a job!” You can read more about Beard in the post on the first episode of the series.

Other stuff:

Although this was the third episode filmed, it was actually the first one to air.

This is the first episode that makes a reference to Florida’s weight (a running gag that lasted for too long, in my opinion). James gives Florida a hug from behind and remarks, “Gorgeous hunk o’ woman here.” Florida laughingly replies, “I don’t know about the gorgeous, but I’m sure a lot o’ hunk.”

There isn’t an overabundance of lines or situations in Good Times that are cringe-worthy to me, but they do exist and this episode contains the first. James says that he married Florida because she was pregnant but adds that he’s only joking. Michael and J.J. are seated at the dining table nearby and J.J. says, “You mean y’all waited for the preacher to say the word before y’all had me? Don’t spread it around – my friends will never stop jiving me!” So, in other words, most of the families in the community are single-parent households, with an absentee father and children born, as they say, out of wedlock – and this is so much the norm that J.J.’s friends would make fun of him if they knew that his parents were married before he was born. This is patently insulting – and not the last time this type of characterization will come up in the series.

This episode contains numerous references to J.J. being a thief, which was first mentioned in the pilot. J.J. is heading downstairs to get the family’s mail, and Florida warns him not to take any mail that doesn’t belong to them. “I don’t take things, Mama,” J.J. says, “I find them.” Florida admonishes him, saying that God didn’t intend for man to steal, and J.J. asks, “Then how come he gave us more pockets than hands?” Later, when James learns how much he’ll make if he’s accepted into the apprentice program, J.J. remarks, “We gonna be so rich and have so much money, I won’t have to find my art supplies no more!” Before the party begins, Florida sends .J.J. and Thelma to buy potato chips from the local store, and when Thelma asks why she has to go along, Florida explains: “I want the potato chips bought, not found.” And upon his return with the chips, J.J. remarks that he’d been in the store numerous times, but “that’s the first time I’ve ever been involved with a cash transaction.” (Ugh. Talk about overkill!)

We learn in this episode that James dropped out of school after the sixth grade, and that he served in the Korean War. We also learn the name of Willona’s ex-husband: Alvin. That name would change later in the series, though.

Florida is back to conversing with God in this episode – after James leaves for his interview, she looks heavenward and expresses her thanks to the Lord, adding, “In my heart I always knew you was the biggest equal opportunity employer of them all!”

The next episode: God’s Business is Good Business . . .

Season One, Episode Two: Black Jesus (February 15, 1974)

“This is what the brothers need.”

The first season’s second episode opens with J.J. painting a picture of a street hustler, Sweet Daddy Williams. When Michael finds a painting in the closet that J.J. calls “Black Jesus,” he suggests that J.J. enter it in a local art show, but J.J. insists on entering the Sweet Daddy painting. Undaunted, and thrilled to have unearthed something that “the brothers need,” Michael replaces his mother’s portrait of the more traditional depiction of Jesus. Florida wants to take the painting down when she learns that J.J. used the neighborhood wino as his model, but the family suddenly experiences a streak of good luck, which James attributes to the presence of Black Jesus. When J.J. returns from the art show with the news that eight other artists had also painted Sweet Daddy Williams, Michael again stresses that he should submit Black Jesus as his entry. James strenuously objects, citing the luck he has received because of the painting, but he reverses his stance after ribbing from Thelma causes J.J. to doubt his talent. Instead, James removes the painting from the wall and, despite his own reluctance, insists that J.J. enter it in the show.

“B.J. is on a roll!”

With this, only the show’s second episode, Good Times turned out a well-rounded installment that managed to be both funny and heartwarming. An especially amusing run comes when James arrives home after receiving an unexpected refund from the Internal Revenue Service. Florida grows more and more frustrated as one person after another enters the apartment with sudden good news, from Thelma excitedly sharing the news that “THE” Larry Williams has invited her to an Issac Hayes concert, to a local numbers runner showing up to tell James that his number hit. Even Willona bursts in because she’s just learned that her annoying date from the previous night owns a gas station. (“Now I can say those three little words,” she gloats. “Fill ‘er up!”) Later, when Thelma belittles J.J. for his lack of ability, Michael defends him at every turn – his hero worship for his big brother is touching and sweet.

Pop Culture Connections

Black History Week

Carter G. Woodson: The Father of Black History Month.

Michael reminds J.J. about the beginning of Black History Week. This event was first created in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, designated for the second week of February. At that time, it was called “Negro History Week.” Nearly 50 years later, Black educators and the Black United Students organization at Kent State University proposed that the event be expanded to the entire month of February; the first Black History Month celebration took place at Kent State in 1970. In 1976, President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month during the commemoration of the U.S. Bicentennial. At the time that this episode was filmed, in 1974, the celebration was still Black History Week.

Space Lab

When Florida sees that Michael has replaced her portrait of Jesus with J.J.’s Black Jesus painting, she tells him, “I hope the space lab is out of the way, because I am just about to go into orbit!” She was likely referring to Skylab, the first U.S. space station, which was launched into orbit in May 1973 and returned to Earth in February 1974.

Muhammad Speaks

As part of his campaign to keep Black Jesus on display, Michael tells his mother that Jesus was Black, and that he read about it in Muhammad Speaks. Founded in 1960, Muhammad Speaks was the official publication of the Nation of Islam and contained both current events and news of interest to the Black community. The publication was renamed after Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975.

Fly Me

When Willona makes her entrance in the episode, she flings open the Evans’s front door and exclaims, “I’m Willona – fly me!” This is a reference to the popular Fly Me ad campaign by National Airlines, started in 1972. In TV spots and magazine ads, smiling, scantily clad stewardesses (as flight attendants were called back then) named Linda or Judy or Donna targeted their male travelers, inviting them to “fly them.” (Click here to check out one of the TV spots.) Although the campaign was hugely successful for the now-defunct airlines, it led to protests by stewardesses that eventually resulted in an improvement in workplace conditions.

Jet Magazine Centerfold

J.J. jokes that there were so many paintings of Sweet Daddy Williams at the art show that the hustler must be “this month’s Jet Magazine centerfold.” Jet was a weekly magazine published by Chicago’s John H. Johnson Publishing Company that focused on news, entertainment, sports, and politics related to the Black community. Billed as the “Weekly Negro News Magazine” and distinguished by its small 5 x 8 inch size, the magazine was also known for featuring a full-page feature known as “Beauty of the Week.” Also called the “Jet Centerfold,” this page featured a Black woman clad in a swimsuit, along with her name, profession, and interests. Jet has been published in a digital format only since 2014.

Guest Stars

Numbers Runner: Eric Monte

This episode featured only one guest star – the show’s co-creator Eric Monte. More about Monte in an upcoming post . . .

Other stuff:

When the episode opens, J.J. is not wearing his trademark blue demin hat. The hat doesn’t make its appearance until about halfway through the episode, when J.J. dons it to take his painting to the art show.

Eric Monte as the numbers runner.

Early in the episode, J.J. is looking for a tube of gold paint and blames Thelma for the missing item. Every time it’s missing, he tells her, she comes up with “a new pair of psychedelic dungarees.” I’m always struck by this line, because . . . who says “dungarees?” Unless you’re Tom Sawyer.

This episode contains the first references to Sweet Daddy Williams, a neighborhood loan shark, and Ned the Wino, the local drunk. These characters would both show up in the flesh later in the series, with Sweet Daddy played by Theodore Wilson and Ned the Wino played by Raymond Allen.

J.J. almost made it through the entire episode without uttering what would soon become his wildly popular trademark catchphrase – almost, but not quite. At the episode’s end, James tells J.J. to return his Black Jesus painting to the closet, and Florida allows it to stay on the wall: “This family can use all the help it can get,” she explains. And J.J.’s response? “Dy-no-mite!”

The next episode: Too Old Blues . . .

Good Times Trivia Trio No. 1

Marilyn and Alan Bergman, who wrote the lyrics for the Good Times theme song, were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1980.
Jimmie Walker’s denim hat was a mainstay in his wardrobe on the show for several seasons.
  • The theme song to Good Times was sung by Jim Gilstrap and Motown singer Blinky Williams with background vocals provided by a gospel choir. It was composed by Dave Grusin, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The Bergmans were an acclaimed songwriting team who, during their careers, received four Emmys, three Oscars, and two Grammys, and were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In addition to Good Times, the Bergmans penned the lyrics for TV shows like Maude and Alice, and numerous films including The Way We Were, In The Heat of the Night and The Windmills of Your Mind, for the movie The Thomas Crown Affair. The Bergmans were married for more than 60 years, until Marilyn’s death in January 2022.
  • For several seasons of Good Times, beginning with the first episode, Jimmie Walker almost constantly wore a floppy denim hat. According to Walker’s memoir, he bought the hat before he auditioned for a role as a street hood in Badge 373, a 1974 film directed by Howard Koch and starring Robert Duvall. Walker purchased the hat thinking it would make him look “more urban, more street.” He got the part. (But his lines were dubbed by an actor who sounded “blacker!”)
Ralph Carter starred in Raisin with Joe Morton.
  • Laurence Fishburne was originally cast as the youngest Evans child, Michael, but the producers really wanted Ralph Carter, who had a contract committing him to Raisin on Broadway; for his role in the musical, Carter was nominated for the 1974 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. (Here’s a clip of Carter performing the number “Sidewalk Tree” at the 1974 Tony Awards, where he was introduced by Esther Rolle.) Fishburne had participated in two weeks of rehearsals with the Good Times cast when Norman Lear bought out Ralph Carter’s contract – which meant that Fishburne was out and Carter was in.

The Pilot: Getting Up the Rent (February 22, 1974)

The family’s foundation: Florida and James.

And so it begins . . .

The first characters introduced in the series are Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis), who is cooking breakfast in the kitchen, and Michael (Ralph Carter), who enters the apartment after playing with a friend. (Incidentally, during his first-scene argument with his never-seen pal, Michael tells him, “You make me sick sometimes.” This struck me as such an authentic line – it’s something that I used to say as a child.)

With Thelma and Michael’s first few lines, the show sets up two long-running character traits: Thelma is not exactly a culinary whiz, and Michael is a pro-black, anti-establishment militant. In fact, the show economically illustrates these two characteristics when Michael, peering into Thelma’s pot on the stove, comments, “Black is beautiful, Thelma, but not when it’s oatmeal.” And their older brother, J.J. (Jimmie Walker), before he is even seen, is established by Thelma as a loafer (“Where’s that big string-bean brother of yours? He was supposed to help me set the table, make the beds, and clean up!”). The matriarch of the family, Florida (Esther Rolle), is recovering from a recent operation to have her appendix removed, we meet her husband James (John Amos) when he comes home after working all night, and Florida’s best friend and neighbor Willona (Ja’ Net DuBois) pops in to share the news about her latest date.

J.J. offers to sell his first painting to help pay the rent.

Written by the show’s co-creator Eric Monte, and directed by Donald McKayle and Perry Rosemond, the episode’s plot centers around an eviction notice that the family received for non-payment of rent; two previous notices were received during Florida’s hospital stay, and with the movers arriving to remove the contents of the apartment, the family is desperate to raise the money they need. Each of the family members tries different means of getting the money – Florida tries to sign up for welfare benefits, the children hatch a “department store hustle,” and James (against Florida’s wishes) uses his skills in shooting pool. Ultimately, James’s method is successful, but he pretends that a friend gave him the money – and Florida pretends that she doesn’t know the truth.

“Getting Up the Rent” was the first episode taped and was the actual series pilot, but it wasn’t aired first – that distinction went to “Too Old Blues.” Instead, “Getting Up the Rent” was the third episode to be broadcast.

The pilot was full of promise, and did an admirable job of establishing the personas of each of the main characters: strong, faith-filled Florida; proud, dedicated, and no-nonsense James; streetwise, artistically gifted J.J.; family-focused but sharp-tongued Thelma; budding militant Michael; and loyal, quick-with-a-quip Willona. I was never pleased with the depiction of J.J. as a hustling, “light-fingered Louie” but, to their credit, the producers/writers pivoted from this characterization after the first few episodes.

The family that stays together.

The episode brought the Evans’s poverty into sharp focus – it can’t get much worse than getting evicted from your home, and it’s made clear that James had the choice of paying for their shelter or paying for his wife’s life-saving operation. With James working two jobs and bringing home just six dollars after working all night, and the family keeping their savings in a shoe box, there’s no question about the family’s financial situation. But the pilot also managed to showcase the close-knit nature of the Evans family and the deep love and respect that existed between Florida and James. There was James’s tender reaction to Florida apologizing for the cost of her recent operation. And the children’s willingness to chip in their meager contributions to help with the rent. And Michael vehemently refusing to allow J.J. to sell his first painting (“The only way anyone gets this painting is over my dead body!). They were small but effective touches which helped established a foundation that would last throughout the run of the series. Finally, the cast demonstrated a unique and instant chemistry – they felt like a real family and fostered a feeling of audience affection and recognition from the very start.

Pop Culture Connections

A little more than a year after Thelma was seen reading an Ebony magazine in the show’s pilot, the cast appeared on the magazine’s cover.

Ebony Magazine

As Thelma is preparing the oatmeal in the first scene, she’s reading Ebony, a monthly magazine which covers entertainment, politics, fashion, and beauty that pertain to the Black community. The magazine was founded in 1945, ceased publication of the print format in 2019, and relaunched in a digital format in 2021.

Detroit Automobile Recall

After J.J. makes a crack about Thelma’s looks, she counters by telling him, “If you were born in Detroit, you would have been recalled for being dangerously ugly.” In 1973, the year before the series started, more than 3.7 million vehicles were recalled by General Motors, which is headquartered in Detroit. The vehicles, from the Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac lines, were recalled because stones from unpaved or gravel roads could get caught in the engine compartment, which could affect the driver’s ability to steer. At the end of 1973, another 22,000 cars from these four lines were recalled due to safety defects that could cause the rear wheels to lock.

President Richard Nixon

The family is facing a possible eviction, but Michael tells his mother that Monty – a friend of James’s who works for the administration of the projects – has assured the family that “everything would be okay.” Florida responds, “That’s the same Monty that said Nixon was going to be poor folks’ best friend.” At the time that the episode aired, Richard Nixon was the president of the United States. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, he would resign from office later that year, on August 9, 1974.

Marshall Field’s

Downtown Chicago, at Randolph and State Streets. You can see the famed clock from Marshall Field’s on the right.

J.J. concocts a scheme for he and his siblings to get the rent money by going to Marshall Field’s; Thelma will pretend to faint from malnourishment in the hopes that passersby will donate the needed funds. Marshall Field’s was a large, upscale department retailer in Chicago whose flagship store was located in the city’s downtown area. The store was founded in the 1800s and remained a Chicago staple until 2006, when it was taken over by Macy’s and renamed.

O.J. Simpson

James arrives home (and for some reason, knocks on the door instead of using his key), and grouses about the amount of time Florida takes to let him in. “If you wanted somebody fast,” Florida responds, “you should have married O.J. Simpson.” In December 1973, Simpson, a member of the Buffalo Bills football team, became the first National Football League (NFL) player to rush more than 2,000 yards in a single season. This would be the show’s first reference to Simpson, but not the last – which is always a bit jarring, given what would happen about 20 years hence.

Ain’t Got a Pot or a Window . . . “

Trying to help the family get the money for the rent, Willona takes Florida to the welfare office (that’s literally the sign on the door: WELFARE OFFICE), but James’s meager income is too high to qualify. Before they leave, they’re approached by a buffoon in a maroon velvet suit who tries to hit on them; Willona dismisses him by observing that he “ain’t got a pot or a window.” She’s referring to a popular saying that means a person is financially bereft; the entire expression is that the person doesn’t have “a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.”

Running Jokes

I don’t take things – I FIND them . . .”

The pilot episode sets up J.J. as not only lazy, but also a thief. When Florida expresses concern about the overdue rent money, J.J. tells her that he has numerous ways of getting hold of the needed cash, and Florida insists that she doesn’t want him to steal. “I wouldn’t do that, Mama,” J.J. says. “I may just find seventy dollars.” This characterization would last only a few episodes.

“’Boy’ is a white racist word.”

“Don’t call me ‘boy.'”

The pilot also saw Michael’s first insistence that the word “boy” is a “white racist word.” He offers this nugget when Florida admonishes J.J. about stealing and adds, “I hope I’m coming through to you, boy.” Later in the episode, Michael gives the same rebuke to his father when James calls him a boy. This budding catchphrase for Michael didn’t last long, though. But there was a different catchphrase that was, well . . .

Dy-No-Mite!

J.J. used the exclamatory word in the first episode that would become his trademark and a popular catchphrase that would be forever associated with the show. He uses it to indicate his enthusiastic approval upon learning that his father plans to get the rent money by hustling pool games. J.J. would go on to use “Dy-No-Mite,” in one way or another, in every episode for the next few seasons. Every. Episode.

Guest Stars

Tom: Hal Williams

Halroy Candis Williams was born in Columbus, Ohio, on December 14, 1938, and started acting in local community theater. After working as a postal worker and a corrections officer, Williams moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to pursue his acting career and signed on with the California Youth Authority to pay the bills while he went on auditions. Williams was able to devote his time to acting full time in 1970, when he landed roles in three TV productions: a TV movie and two series, Dan August and That Girl. Williams went on to play Officer “Smitty” Smith on the Sanford and Son TV series, Harley Foster on The Waltons, Sgt. Ted Ross on the film Private Benjamin (1980) and the subsequent TV series based on the movie, and Lester Jenkins on 227. As of this writing, he is still performing; his most recent appearance was earlier in 2022 in the TV series The Mayor. In this episode, Williams played Tom, one of the two men who arrive at the Evans apartment to remove their belongings.

Monty: Stymie Beard

Matthew “Stymie” Beard in his first of several Good Times appearances.

Matthew “Stymie” Beard played Monty, a friend of James’s. He was born in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day 1925, one of 14 children. After playing a few uncredited bit parts in movies like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927) and Showboat (1929), he was signed by Hal Roach at the age of five to appear in the Our Gang Comedies. Beard’s Our Gang name was originally Hercules, but director Robert McGowan changed it because Beard was known to “stymie” him by wandering around the lot. Beard reportedly was given his trademark bowler hat by comic actor Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame.

“Stymie” when he was in Our Gang.

He remained with Our Gang until, at age 10, he was too old, and he later appeared in small parts in such films as Captain Blood (1935), Jezebel (1938), and The Return of Frank James (1940). During his teen years, however, he developed a heroin habit and wound up spending a number of years in jail. He later got clean and sober and returned to acting in the 1970s on TV shows including Sanford and Son, Maude, and Different Strokes. Beard suffered a stroke a few days after his 56th birthday and died of pneumonia on January 8, 1981.

Eddie: Ernie Banks

Ernie Lee Banks played the other employee of the project who showed up to evict the Evans family. Banks was born in Franklin, Virginia, on April 3, 1935. His appearance on Good Times was his acting debut. Later that year, he was also seen in two blaxploitation movies from 1974: Black Godfather and Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes. He went on to appear in such films as Bulworth (1998); TV series including The Jeffersons, NYPD Blue, and ER; and the 1978 miniseries King, where he portrayed Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Banks also released a record in 1990 called Are You Ready to Be Loved? He died in his hometown of Franklin on August 13, 2006, at the age of 71.

Trivial Stuff

  • The Evans family lives on the 17th floor. (J.J. distributes the mail to his siblings and tells them he’s just been down 17 floors to get it.)
  • We learn that Michael plans to be a lawyer. He offers to give his father the two dollars he’s been saving for law school.
  • In order to get the money for the rent, James wins it by playing pool. He has his own pool cue, and it’s made clear that he used to “hustle” pool for money in the past. This is never referenced again in the series.
Florida talks to Jesus. (More on Jesus in the next episode. . .)
  • This episode contains a heavy emphasis on Florida’s spirituality, including Florida praying aloud, more than once, to her picture of Jesus on the wall.
  • J.J. is referred to as “James Junior” by both Thelma and Florida throughout the episode. After the pilot, he would be known only as J.J.
  • At the start of the episode, J.J.’s head was bare. But with about six minutes remaining, he was seen sporting the blue jean cap that would become a staple in his wardrobe over the next few seasons.

The next episode: Black Jesus . . .

The Cast: Esther Rolle

Periodically, I will shine the spotlight on each of the principal cast members of Good Times. Fittingly, I’m starting out with the matriarch of the family, played by Esther Rolle. The top-billed actress portrayed Florida Evans, wife of James (John Amos) and mother to James, Jr. (Jimmie Walker), Thelma (Bernadette Stanis), and Michael (Ralph Carter). She was on the show for five of its six seasons.

The actress of stage, screen, and TV was born Esther Elizabeth Rolle on November 8, 1920, in Pompano Beach, Florida, the 10th of 18 children of Bahamian immigrants Jonathan Rolle, a vegetable farmer, and his homemaker wife, Elizabeth. Jonathan’s talent for telling stories may have served as the inspiration for Rolle and her older siblings to start their own drama troupe, which performed around the state during the 1930s.

After Esther’s graduation from high school, she attended Spelman College (my alma mater!) in Atlanta for a year, then moved to New York, where her two older sisters were working to get their acting careers off the ground. (One of her sisters, Estelle Evans, would later appear as the housekeeper in To Kill a Mockingbird [1962], and the other, Rosanna Carter, would be seen in films like The Brother From Another Planet [1984] and She-Devil [1987]. Carter would also play a featured role in the first episode of Good Times’ second season, and Evans would play a small role in the seventh episode of season three.)

In New York, Rolle attended Hunter College, then transferred to The New School and, later, to Yale University in nearby New Haven. Although Rolle was more interested in writing than acting, one of her teachers suggested that she take drama classes and turn her talents toward the stage. To pay for her education and make ends meet, Rolle worked in the New York City garment district. She also joined the dance troupe run by African musician Asadata Dafora, remaining with the group for more than 10 years. (While she wasn’t performing, Rolle found time for a private life; in 1955, she married Oscar Robertson who, according to Internet sources, “pressed slacks in a dry cleaner.” They remained married until 1975.)

Rolle performed with the Shogola Oloba dance group for more than a decade.

In the 1960s, Rolle appeared in numerous stage productions as one of the original members of the Negro Ensemble Company; others in the company included Rosalind Cash, Moses Gunn, Denise Nicholas, and Clarice Taylor. Also during this period, Rolle made her big screen debut in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and later appeared in films including Nothing But a Man (1964), The Learning Tree (1969), and Cleopatra Jones (1973). She also continued her stage work, and in 1970, she was singled out in the Boston College newspaper, The Heights, as “especially striking” in a play by Jean Genet called The Blacks. The following year, she landed her first TV gig, on the ABC soaper One Life to Live, and in 1972, while appearing in Melvin Van Peebles’s play Don’t Play Us Cheap, she was asked to audition for the role of a maid, Florida Evans, on the CBS-TV show Maude. Rolle won the part, and a successful year later, she took on the starring role in the spinoff of Maude, Good Times. According to all sources, Lear originally wanted the character of Florida Evans to be the single mother of three children, but Rolle refused to sign on with the series unless her character had a husband. “I only took my part with provisions that Good Times would have a complete Black family – with a father image,” Rolle told Ebony magazine in 1978. “I had a good father. I wanted the characters to portray a family as mine did.”

Rolle in a Negro Ensemble production.

During the run of Good Times from 1974 to 1979, Rolle released an album called The Garden of My Mind (1975), on which she performed spoken word backed by gospel singers; portrayed Lady Macbeth in an off-Broadway version of Macbeth (1977); played a housekeeper in the TV movie Summer of My German Soldier (1978), earning an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie; and was featured in the made-for-TV movie I Know Where the Caged Bird Sings (1979). After Good Times ended, she continued dividing her performance time between stage, film, and TV, most notably the Bill Duke-directed TV adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun (1989), in which she played the family matriarch Lena Younger; Driving Miss Daisy (1989), where she was seen as a maid; Rosewood (1997), directed by John Singleton; the TV miniseries Scarlett (1994); and the Broadway production of Horowitz and Mrs. Washington, where she starred opposite Sam Levene.

In 1981, Rolle starred in the pilot for an NBC crime drama called Momma the Detective (also known as See China and Die, for some reason), where she played a housekeeper with a penchant for crime solving. Unfortunately, the series never materialized. (It’s a shame, too. I think this could have been another good part for Rolle – check out the pilot for yourself and see what you think.) She was even featured in a series of psychic hotline commercials during the late 1990s, which ended with her signature directive, “Tell them Esther sent you.” (That last one wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of her career, but hey – you do what you gotta do.) Off-screen, Rolle became the first woman to win the NAACP chairman’s Civil Rights Leadership Award in 1990, honored for raising the image of blacks through her work on the stage and in TV and movies. And the following year, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

One of Rolle’s last performances was in Down in the Delta (1998), directed by Maya Angelou. By now, her health had started to fail, and on November 17, 1998, Rolle died of complications from diabetes; she was buried at the Westview Community Cemetery in Pompano Beach. Even years after her death, however, she continues to be remembered and honored. In 2017, her life and career were spotlighted in an exhibit in her hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida, and in March 2022, the Broward County (Florida) African American Research Library and Cultural Center presented a stage production titled Head Above Water: The Life of Esther Rolle. (When Rolle died, she left her career memorabilia, including her Good Times scripts, to the library.) She may be gone, but she’ll never be forgotten.

Incidentally, Rolle had her share of conflicts with the producers and writers of Good Times (more on that in a later post), but near the end of her life, she still maintained positive memories of her experience and the impact of the series. “I loved Good Times,” she said in 1997. “Later it got to be not so much fun, but I loved what it did for others as much as for me. . . . I’m proud of that.”

My ‘Good Times’ Journey Begins . . .

I watch Good Times every day. Every single day. I’ve done it for years. I laugh at the same jokes in the same places, I make the same mental observations, I say the same dialogue along with the characters. I’m not claiming to be the biggest Good Times fan in the world – but I’ll wager that I’m up there in the top 10. So it was almost inevitable for me to devote a blog to this unforgettable show.

A situation comedy set in my hometown of Chicago, Illinois, Good Times premiered on February 8, 1974, and ran for six years on CBS-TV. I can’t say with certainty what it is about this show that captured and kept my fascination over all these decades – there are so many reasons. It shines a light on real-life issues, from teen pregnancy to drug use to crime. It showcases a variety of up-and-coming performers, including Debbie Allen, Rosalind Cash, Lou Gossett, and Philip Michael Thomas. It incorporates the pop culture of the day. And it’s well-written and legitimately funny. Beyond these tangible features, Good Times simply feels like family; these were people I knew.

The beginning: All in the Family.

Before Good Times, there were only a handful of television shows that featured black people. The 1950s gave us The Amos and Andy Show, Beulah, and The Jack Benny Program, and in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was Room 222, Julia, I Spy, Roll Out, The Flip Wilson Show, Sanford and Son, and The Bill Cosby Show (the one from the late 1960s where he played a physical education teacher named Chet Kincaid).

In 1971, television producer Norman Lear created All in the Family. Previously, Lear (a former writer for The Martin and Lewis Show, and director of two feature films) had created only one television show – a western called The Deputy featuring Henry Fonda that ran from 1959 to 1961. All in the Family starred Carroll O’Connor as rabid bigot Archie Bunker, and Jean Stapleton as Archie’s long-suffering wife. When it aired in January as a mid-season replacement show on CBS, it took a while for it to find its audience, but by the 1971-1972 season, it was a solid hit a near-instant hit. In September 1972, All in the Family saw its first-spinoff, Maude, starring Bea Arthur as Archie’s outspoken, liberal cousin-in-law. On Maude’s third episode, she hired a maid: Florida Evans (Esther Rolle). The popularity of this intelligent, fearless, slightly imperious, and often impertinent black character earned Rolle her own spinoff, Good Times, in 1974.

Maude hires Florida.

There were a few tweaks between Florida on Maude and Florida on Good Times. On Maude, Florida lived in New York with her husband, Henry (John Amos), who worked as a fireman, while the Evans family on Good Times lived in a housing project in Chicago, Florida’s husband’s name was James, and James often worked several jobs to make ends meet. On Florida’s first episode on Maude, there’s a reference to the two of them drinking a few martinis at lunch, but on Good Times, Florida doesn’t drink alcohol. And on Maude, Florida and Henry have been married for 24 years, but on Good Times, they celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Good Times was created by writer Eric Monte, who also wrote for such series as The Jeffersons and What’s Happening, as well as the screenplay for the film Cooley High (another production set in Chicago – Monte’s hometown), and Michael Evans, best known for portraying Lionel on All in the Family and, for several years, on another spinoff, The Jeffersons. Originally, the show was slated to be called The Black Family, with the family’s last name being Black. (Get it?) Later, the creators decided to change the last name of the family to Evans and they renamed the show Good Times.

Florida and the former Henry, now James.

The show was a hit from the start, and in its second season, it trounced its main competition, ABC’s Happy Days, knocking it out of the top 30 shows. In that season, Good Times climbed to number seven in the ratings. After the second season, though, ratings started to dip, and after Amos’s character was killed off at the end of the third season, things would never be the same.

This blog, Ain’t We Lucky We Got ‘Em’, is my love letter to Good Times. I will provide a look at each of the show’s 133 episodes, as well as delve into the pop culture of the 1970s, which is significantly interwoven throughout so many of the episodes. I’ll also periodically offer other features, including trivia quizzes, my favorite episodes, and more.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey.