As this episode opens, we learn that it’s report card pick-up day for high school. In a subplot, we also discover that James is being considered for a foreman position at his job. Michael has already received his report card and earned all A’s. Thelma expects mostly top marks and makes a bet with J.J. that he won’t earn the grades necessary for promotion into the 12th grade. To everyone’s surprise, when J.J. comes home with his report card, it shows that he did, indeed, pass all of his courses. But when J.J. is unable to answer History and Algebra questions that Florida asks him, Florida and James seek clarification from J.J.’s principal (“I’m readin’ Cs, but I’m hearin’ Fs,” James says.). In a nutshell, they are told that the school gives passing grades in order to continue receiving funding – whether the students deserve the grades or not. Florida and James want J.J. to voluntarily repeat the 11th grade, so that he can obtain the instruction that he obviously missed, but J.J. refuses to stay behind. Later, we follow up on the subplot and find out that James did not receive the foreman position because his own limited schooling impacted his ability to fill out the application. This provides a real-world lesson to J.J. about the value of a good education, and he vows to put forth more effort during his senior year.
The “Junior the Senior” episode offers some very real truths regarding the public education system in this country, particularly in inner city schools, where administrators were sometimes more interested in posting high graduation rates than ensuring that their students were obtaining a quality education. By spotlighting James’s scholastic limitations, the episode offers a poignant reminder of the long-term effects that education can have.
Pop Culture References:
Near the end of the episode, J.J. tells his mother that he may be selected to give his graduation speech, which he would end with “these two Latin words: Cesar Romero.” Cesar Romero was a film and television actor whose big-screen career began in the 1930s with films like The Thin Man (1934) and in a series of features as The Cisco Kid. In the 1960s, he gained a new audience as The Joker on the Batman TV series and in several Disney comedies.
Frank Campanella (Mr. Kirkman)
Born in New York City on March 12, 1919, Frank Campanella was the son of Sicilian immigrants (and the older brother of actor Joseph Campanella) and spoke mostly Italian when he was growing up. He put his bilingual skills to use during World War II as a civilian translator for the U.S. government, deciphering Italian and Sicilian dialects. The six-foot-five Campanella studied drama at Manhattan College and made his television debut in the 1949 science fiction series Captain Video and His Video Rangers (which, incidentally, was the favorite TV show of the character Ed Norton on The Honeymooners).
Campanella’s first big-screen role was in the 1956 Paul Newman starrer, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). He would go on to appear in such films as The Producers (1967), The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Pretty Woman (1990), and Dick Tracy (1990), and television series from Car 54, Where Are You? to Hunter. In addition, he was noted for helping Robert De Niro learn Sicilian for his role in The Godfather, Part II (1974). Campanella also appeared in several Broadway productions, including Guys and Dolls in 1965.
Campenella died on December 30, 2006 (my 44th birthday!), of complications from Crohn’s Disease. He was 87 years old.
Michael has a callback to the catchphrase he introduced in the first episode, informing his mother that “’boy’ is a white racist word” when Florida tries to awaken her sons by calling out, “Rise and shine, boys!”
There’s yet another reference in this episode to J.J.’s penchant for thievery. When Willona enters the Evans apartment, she remarks that she smells meat. “What happened?” she asks. “Junior mug a cow?”
After J.J. and Thelma make their bet, they link their pinky fingers and then push their thumbs together. Years later, whenever I’d see this action between characters on various television shows, they called it a “pinky swear” or “pinky promise,” and they were using it to indicate that a promise had been made. In my personal experience, though, this gesture was used just as J.J. and Thelma did – for a bet. Maybe it’s a Chicago thing.
Ralph Carter, who played the youngest Evans sibling, Michael, started his career on Broadway at the age of nine, in The Me Nobody Knows. At the time that he was cast on Good Times, he was appearaing in Broadway’s Raisin, the musical based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. In 1975, the year after Good Times premiered, Carter recorded an album called “Young and In Love.” He performed the title song on Soul Train that same year, and the following year, he’s seen performing it on Good Times, in episode 24 of Season 3, called “The Rent Party.” The episode aired on March 2, 1976. Ralph’s Soul Train appearance can be viewed below:
Ratings, Ratings . . .
When Good Times premiered, it aired on Fridays; it replaced Roll Out, another series with a predominantly black cast (which included Garrett Morris, Hilly Hicks, Mel Stewart, and Stu Gilliam), and aired opposite The Odd Couple and The Girl with Something Extra. It was an instant success and wound up the 17th highest-rated series of the year. It did even better when it was moved in fall 1974 to Tuesday nights. It was a solid Top 10 hit, despite competition from Happy Days and Adam-12.
Do you have any trivia about the show to share, or any information that you’re looking for about the show? Let me know in the comments!
The action in this week’s episode kicks off when J.J. reveals to his parents that he has a patron who is helping him purchase art supplies and is providing a space where J.J. can paint. The patron is local businessman and boutique owner Leroy Jackson, who just happens to be a former friend of James’s. Twenty years earlier, before James and Florida got married, James and Jackson had planned to go into business together; James gave Jackson $250, but Jackson gambled and lost the money at the races. When Jackson shows up at the Evans home, James refuses to listen to anything that he has to say and throws him out of the apartment. J.J.’s angry response to his father’s action leads to an argument and J.J. winds up leaving home, moving into the storage room above Jackson’s boutique. James stubbornly maintains his viewpoint, even as Thelma and Michael express how much they miss their brother, and despite Florida’s pleas for J.J. to be allowed to return. After a few days, Florida – under the guise of going to church – secretly goes to visit J.J. While she’s there, James shows up as well, claiming that he’s looking for a missing shirt. While they’re there, Leroy Jackson enters and insists on saying to James what he wanted to tell him 20 years earlier: that he’s sorry. Ultimately, the apology is accepted, Jackson vows to continue helping J.J. with his painting endeavors, and James tells J.J. he can come back home.
I’m beginning to see a pattern that, as much as I’ve watched this show over the decades, I never really noticed until I started analyzing each episode for this blog. James is consistently depicted as obstinate, illogical, quick-tempered, and unreasonable, while Florida is even-tempered, rational, patient, and sensible. This episode is no different. Don’t get me wrong – James’s stubbornness has always been an unmistakable character trait; I suppose I just didn’t realize how frequently it played into the plots of the various episodes.
Here, James places a 20-year-old feud above the well-being and potential success of his oldest son (not to mention the child who is most in need of a leg up), while not only Florida but both of the younger children try in vain to point out the error of his ways. Florida, in fact, literally tells her husband, “You did the wrong thing.” The episode even features a scene with James interacting with God – and coming out with egg on his face. After Florida insists that the Lord will punish him for his disrespect, James gives God 10 seconds to show him a sign. Before the time is up, James’s watch stops working!
Although James continues to maintain his stance against J.J. returning home, the admonitions of his family obviously get through to him, as evidenced by his showing up at J.J.’s temporary home with a flimsy excuse. It’s clear that James is concerned about his son and wants him back, but it’s not until after Jackson apologizes and shakes James’s hand that he pushes his pride aside and relents.
Pop Culture References:
Miss Black America and Moms Mabley
The episode opens with J.J. sleeping on the couch. His face first indicates that he’s enjoying his dream, but his expression then changes to one of distaste. When he awakens, he explains to Florida that he was dreaming that he’d been commissioned to paint the winner of “Miss Black America” in the nude – but the winner was Moms Mabley!
Miss Black America was a beauty pageant created in 1968 as the answer to the Miss America pageant; at that time, there had never been a black Miss America contestant. In the early years of the Miss America pageant, one of the rules stated that contestants “must be of good health and of the white race.” Even though this rule was abandoned in the 1940s, there wouldn’t be a black contestant until 1971, when Cheryl Browne Hollingsworth represented the state of Iowa in the pageant. The Miss Black America pageant was produced by Philadelphia businessman J. Morris Anderson; the first pageant was held in Atlantic City on the same day as the Miss America event. The Miss Black America pageant was held every year until 1996. It started again in 2010, and was held sporadically in the years since, with the last pageant, as of this writing, taking place in 2018.
Moms Mabley was a popular black comedian born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1894. She began her career in vaudeville, gaining popularity as “Jackie Mabley” on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of venues that catered to black performers and audiences. She adopted the name “Moms” in the 1950s and took on the persona of a toothless older woman, performing in a bucket hat, housecoat, and colorful knee socks. She went on to play such venues as Carnegie Hall and on television shows like The Smothers Brothers, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Pearl Bailey Show. She died of heart failure in 1975.
The “Ugly” Green Giant
When Thelma almost uses a tube of J.J.’s green paint as her shampoo, he jokes that if she were shorter, she would have been the first black leprechaun. Thelma counters by telling J.J. that if she spilled some paint on him, he would be known as the “ugly Green Giant,” and adds, “Ho, ho, ho.” This is a reference to the Green Giant frozen vegetable products, which had a series of popular commercials featuring the company’s brand mascot, the Jolly Green Giant. The giant never spoke, except to say, “Ho, ho, ho.”
Edmund Cambridge (Leroy Jackson)
A native of Harlem, New York, Edmund James Cambridge, Jr., was born on September 18, 1920, and, according to legend, got his first taste of show business by sneaking out of his house at the age of 15 to perform at Smalls Paradise nightclub. In Los Angeles during the early 1960s, Cambridge founded the Cambridge Players, a performing troupe whose membership included Juanita Moore, Helen Martin, Esther Rolle, Isabel Sanford, and Beah Richards. The troupe produced the James Baldwin play The Amen Corner, which premiered on Broadway in 1965.
A few years later, Cambridge became a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company; one of the group’s first plays, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, was directed by Cambridge and landed him a Drama Desk Award. He also co-founded the Kilpatrick-Cambridge Theater Arts School in Los Angeles in 1971. Around this time, he made his television debut on the short-lived drama series Bracken’s World, and during the next few decades, he would go on to appear on such television series as Kojak, Adam-12, Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Bernie Mac Show. He was also seen in big screen features like Friday Foster (1971) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). Between appearances in front of the camera, Cambridge (who was a cousin of stand-up comedian and actor Godfrey Cambridge) continued his stage work; in 1984, he directed the original production of 227, a play by Christine Houston that later became the popular NBC television show of the same name starring Marla Gibbs.
A longtime resident of Los Angeles, Cambridge died in 2001 of complications from a fall he suffered while visiting relatives in Harlem. He was 80 years old. The eulogy for his funeral service was conducted by actress Della Reese; Cambridge had been a member of Della Reese’s church, Understanding Principles for Better Living.
In this episode, we see the brief revival of the show’s early depiction of J.J. as a thief. It comes up when Florida shares with James her concern about how J.J. has been getting new art supplies. (“I hope he hasn’t been finding things again,” she says.)
I’ve been wondering . . . did James ever get his money back from Leroy Jackson? He certainly should have received more than Jackson’s heartfelt apology. Given Jackson’s suit and coat, his sharp shoes, and that rock on his finger, he’s obviously not hurting for money. While he was handing out “I’m sorrys,” maybe he should have also been passing out some Benjamins.
I always found it funny that James merely had to hear that the last name of J.J.’s patron was Jackson, and he immediately jumped to the (correct) conclusion that it was Leroy Jackson, his ex-pal. I could understand his suspicions being aroused if the man’s last name were, say, Boykin or McCullough or Underwood. But Jackson? That was quite a leap.
This episode contains the first time that we see some real sibling support between J.J. and Thelma – the two are usually at each other’s throats, trading insults like they were baseball cards. When James tells Leroy Jackson to leave, Thelma implores, “Daddy, don’t throw him out – he wants to help J.J.’s career!” And later, after Jackson departs, Thelma chastises her father, telling him that this was a big chance for J.J.: “The people could have discovered his talent! (Even J.J. is shocked, asking, “Do my ears deceive my face?”)
Incidentally, the business that James and Leroy Jackson planned to go into is never named.
“Sex and the Evans Family” is not only my favorite episode; it’s also the one I’ve seen most often – there’ve been times when I’ve literally played it over and over (and over) again, saying most of the lines right along with the performers. This is the episode where Florida and James are dismayed about Thelma’s impending date with a 21-year-old. They are also dismayed (for different reasons) about a document found in their apartment titled “Sexual Behavior in the Ghetto.” (More about the episode can be found here.)
The writing in the episode is brilliant – it’s just one funny bit after another, and it doesn’t rely on one-liners from J.J. or barbs between J.J. and Thelma. One of my many favorite exchanges comes when Florida is trying to figure out the owner of the document and Willona suggests that it might belong to James. Florida shoots down this idea with confidence: “Willona, we’ve been married for 18 years, and I got news for you,” Florida tells her friend. “James don’t need no instructions.” Another favorite comes when Florida tries to hide the “sexual behavior” document from Michael, and he wants to know what it is. “Is it something on black unity?” Michael asks. And Willona responds wryly, “In a way.” After she delivers this line, she scratches her head and studies her nails before furtively casting a sheepish glance in Florida’s direction – and Florida affixes her with a disapproving slow burn that makes me laugh every time. I also love when Thelma tells her father that the document is educational. “Educational!” James rejoins. “Where was it printed? Porno Tech?!” The episode is just brimming with smart, funny dialogue.
In addition to the writing, there’s just so much about this episode to love. Here are a few:
Willona’s look. She’s sporting an attractive Afro wig, hoop earrings, and a cool patchwork shirt with a turtleneck sweater. It’s a great outfit.
John Amos’s facial expressions are classic. He doesn’t even have to speak to convey his delight when he believes that the document belongs to J.J. Or his horror when he learns that it’s Thelma’s. His smug look of self-satisfaction when she tells Florida she had “reason to glow” when they were dating. His contempt when Eddie arrives at their door. The reluctance with which he sheds his suspicion toward Eddie as Florida reads from his thesis. And his pride at hearing the benefits of having a “strong father figure” in the home. It’s a master class of acting.
I don’t know if this was the idea of Philip Michael Thomas, or the director – or maybe just my imagination – but the next time you see this episode, check out Eddie’s reaction when Thelma emerges from her bedroom, ready to leave for their date. “Wow,” Eddie says. “You look great.” He actually looks her up and down and gives this sort of lewd laugh. I always find this to be incredibly interesting – he seems like he just might be the “lecherous young man” that James feared.
Speaking of Eddie, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room, the only blemish in this otherwise perfect episode: the age difference between Thelma and her date. I know that times have changed, but I find two main things wrong with this scenario. First, although Eddie is called a “21-year-old boy” several times in the episode, he’s no boy – he’s a man. And why a man who has GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE would want to go out with a high school junior is not only beyond me – it’s just gross. Secondly, looking back on my own experience of growing up in Chicago in the 1970s, if my mother had an objection to someone I wanted to date, then I wouldn’t have gone out with them – because she wouldn’t have LET ME. So, for me, it’s completely implausible that James and Florida would grouse and grumble about Thelma’s date rather than simply putting their collective feet down and forbidding her to go out with him. They both state that they’re not happy about it, but no one seems to consider telling her that she can’t go. Period. Makes no sense.
But I love this episode so much that this questionable plot mechanism ultimately doesn’t matter to me. Certainly not enough to dampen the joy I receive from watching it over and over (and over) again.
What do you think of this episode? Let’s talk about it!
The sixth episode of the series (my favorite, by the way) centers on two primary plot points: (1) Thelma, who is 16, has an upcoming date with a 21-year-old, and (2) Wedged between the cushions of the family sofa, Florida finds a manuscript titled “Sexual Behavior in the Ghetto.” Neither James nor Florida is pleased with the age gap between Thelma and her date, but this issue fades in significance to Florida when she finds the document. Even though J.J. denies ownership, Florida is certain that this “trash” belongs to her oldest son, and shares this with James when he arrives home. Florida is dismayed to find that James is not only unconcerned but seems rather delighted: “A boy his age wanting to know about these things is the most normal thing in the world,” he says. “And he ain’t a boy no more – shucks, he’s a man!” But minutes later, when Thelma reveals that the document is hers, James does a complete about-face, becoming nearly apoplectic, labelling the document a “filthy piece of trash,” and reviving his objection to her dating an older boy.
As it turns out, the document is the thesis written by Thelma’s date, Eddie Conroy, who is pursuing his master’s degree. In fact, when Eddie arrives for the date, he clarifies that the thesis is what brought him and Thelma together; he interviewed her as part of his research regarding attitudes and sexual behavior among ghetto residents. This information infuriates James even more, but he’s radically mollified when he hears Eddie’s conclusion, that “in homes with a solid family foundation, especially a strong father figure, the incidence of unwanted pregnancies is almost non-existent.” Content with Eddie’s explanation, James is now happy to allow Thelma to go out with him.
“Sex and the Evans Family” is another episode where the audience is shown the disparity between the temperaments and belief systems of Florida and James. While Florida is appalled at the idea of J.J. reading this material, James sees it as inconsequential, other than as a reason for approving of, and even esteeming, his son. (“You dog, you,” James admiringly says to him, not once but twice!) In contrast, when the document is shown to belong to his daughter, James’s attitude is completely different, and he seems to be unable to understand why Florida sees this double standard as an issue. Ever the voice of reason, Florida consistently combats James’s skewed declarations; when he justifies his stance by saying that boys don’t get pregnant, Florida counters with, “No, but they’re usually somewhere around the scene of the crime.”
James’s reactions are clearly based on emotion, while Florida’s are rooted in practicality. One of the best lines that demonstrate James’s stance comes when he is talking to Thelma about the “sexual behavior” document. James asks his daughter what has gotten into her lately, “going out with 21-year-old men and reading stuff like that.” Thelma responds that there’s nothing wrong with dating a 21-year-old, and she asks him, “What’s wrong with reading stuff like that?” And James’s answer? “Because it’s stuff like that!” Which, really, is no answer at all. It is, instead, on the level of that tried and true parental response: “Because I said so.” Ironically, even when James is satisfied with allowing Thelma to go out with Eddie, it’s not because of any assurance he has received regarding Eddie’s character or intentions, but because of the complimentary language about fathers that is contained in Eddie’s thesis.
Pop Culture References:
J.J. is preparing for a date and Florida points out that it is his fourth date that week (each one with a different girl), calling him the “Richard Roundtree of the projects.” Richard Roundtree was the star of the 1971 hit film Shaft and its sequels, Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), and according to the hit soundtrack by Isaac Hayes, Shaft was “a sex machine to all the chicks.”
When You’re Hot, You’re Hot
When Florida comments on his numerous dates, J.J. responds, “What can I say, Mama? When you’re hot, you’re hot!” This could be a reference to the popular 1971 country song by Jerry Reed called “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” that crossed over to the Top 40 pop chart. It describes a game of craps being played in a back alley.
After J.J. makes the aforementioned remark about being hot, he adds, “Right now, the two things most demand around here are me and gasoline.” This is another reference to the country’s gas problem, previously discussed in the pop culture section in my post on Season 1, Episode 3.
Lena Horne, Stormy Weather, and Show Me the Way to Go Home
Florida and Willona are reminiscing on the boys they dated when they were Thelma’s age, and Florida shares that her “dreamboat” was too fast for her. He took her to see a Lena Horne movie, she recalls. “While Lena was on the screen singing ‘Stormy Weather,’” she says, “I was in the balcony singing ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home.’” Lena Horne was a popular black singer and actress, whose career spanned seven decades, beginning in the 1940s. In 1943, she starred in an all-black film called Stormy Weather, in which she sang the title song. “Show Me the Way to Go Home” was a well-known song written in 1925. Interestingly, the following year, the song would reach a wide audience with the release of the Steven Spielberg hit, Jaws (1975); it was sung in a scene by stars Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, just before their boat was attacked by the shark.
After James reacts to finding out that the document is Thelma, Florida expresses her confusion. “A little while ago when you thought it was J.J. reading this stuff, it was hallelujah time,” she says. “Now that you find out that it’s Thelma’s, you want to call in the Exorcist.” The Exorcist was a hit movie released in 1973 that concerned a little girl being possessed by a demon. In order to save her, her mother contacts an exorcist, which is a Catholic priest who is tasked with investigating cases of possible demonic influence or possession. (Incidentally, I saw The Exorcist in the movie theater when I was 11 years old, after weeks of bugging my mother to take me. It was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. I still haven’t quite recovered.)
Keep on Truckin’
When J.J. is finished preparing for his date, he tells his family, “Well – I gots to keep on truckin’!” The phrase “Keep on truckin’” was first popularized in 1968 – it appeared in a one-page cartoon by artist Robert Crumb, which was published by Zap Comix. The cartoon showed several men swaggering down a variety of vistas. (Crumb was inspired by the 1936 song by Blind Boy Fuller called “Truckin’ My Blues Away.” The first line on this song is “Keep on truckin’ mama, truckin’ my blues away.”) The phrase became well-known (especially among hippies – who Crumb reportedly despised) and Crumb’s drawing was extensively used on all kinds of merchandise. Crumb sued numerous times over the image being used without his permission, and in 1977, it was ruled he would retain possession of the copyright.
In August 1973, Eddie Kendricks (a founding member of The Temptations, who’d embarked career two years earlier) released “Keep on Truckin’” – the song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B Singles Chart and was Kendricks’s only number one solo record. Here’s Eddie Kendricks singing the hit in 1974 on The Midnight Special television show.
Just before J.J. leaves, he tells his family not to wait up for him, because he expects to have a long evening. Then he sings: “Tonight, tonight, won’t be just any night…” This line is from the song “Tonight,” in the musical West Side Story, which premiered on Broadway in September 1957, and was made into a film in 1961. It was remade by director Steven Spielberg in 2021.
James allows J.J. to go out on a date, but does not want Thelma to go on hers. Thelma wants to know why J.J. can go out, but she can’t, and James responds, “Because he ain’t my daughter. I ain’t gotta worry about him.” Thelma rejoins that her father is “nothing but a male chauvinist!” This is a term that was popularized by feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It refers to men in positions of power who believed in the male superiority and demonstrated that belief through their words and behavior.
Let’s Make a Deal
When Thelma’s date arrives to pick her up, James blocks his entrance, causing Eddie to ask if he is at the Evans apartment. James tells him, “Well, it ain’t Let’s Make a Deal.” This was the first time that Let’s Make a Deal was mentioned on Good Times, but it would not be the last. Let’s Make a Deal is a TV game show that originated in 1963 on NBC-TV; contestants dressed up in costumes and compete to win cash and prizes. The show aired until 1968, then moved to ABC-TV, where it remained until 1976. The show was revived on CBS-TV in 2009, with Wayne Brady as host, and as of this writing, it’s still on the air.
Philip Michael Thomas (billed as Philip Thomas)
Perhaps best known for his role on the popular 1990s television series Miami Vice, Thomas was born on May 26, 1949, in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up San Bernadino, California. As a child, he expressed an interest in acting and participated in the theater group in his church. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in Oakwood College, an HBCU in Huntsville, Alabama, and two years later, he transferred to the University of California, Riverside. While a student there, he landed a part in the San Francisco production of Hair and quit school a short time later to pursue acting full time. A few years later, in fall 1971, he made his Broadway debut in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play No Place to Be Somebody in a cast that included Mary Alice and Julius Harris (who would both be Good Times guest stars in later seasons); the play ran for 39 performances at the Morosco Theater.
In the 1970s, Thomas’s career took off on both the big and small screens; he made his feature film debut in 1971 in Come Back, Charleston Blue (the sequel to Cotton Comes to Harlem), sporting a huge afro and a snazzy wide-lapel suit in his role as an inner-city minister. In addition to his role as Eddie on Good Times, some of his other television credits during the 1970s included Police Woman, Medical Center, Wonder Woman, Starsky and Hutch, and the mini-series Roots: The Next Generations. He also starred with Irene Cara in the feature film Sparkle (1976). His most popular role came in 1984, when he was cast as Detective Ricardo Tubbs, opposite Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Produced by Michael Mann, the hit series ran until 1989 and was a standout for its fashions, music, and ultra-cool vibe. During the run of Miami Vice, Thomas also branched out into singing, releasing two albums and this music video. (Incidentally, after Thomas rose to “overnight” fame due to his role on Miami Vice, he coined the now well-known acronym EGOT [Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony] when he stated his desire to achieve the EGOT within five years.)
After Miami Vice left the air, Thomas continued appearing in various productions, and notably served as the voice of Lance Vance for the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Vice City Stories video games. In addition, in 1993, he co-wrote the tune that was chosen as the theme song for the city of Miami. The following year, he signed with the Psychic Reader’s Network (which later became Access Resource Services, and then Traffix, Inc.) and became the spokesperson for the Philip Michael Thomas International Psychic Network; he appeared in numerous televisions ads and infomericals like this one. In the late 1990s, Thomas was replaced by Youree Dell Harris – better known as Miss Cleo. Thomas sued, charging Traffix with breach of contract, and in 2002, he was awarded $1.48 million, plus $780,000 in interest.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Thomas is still acting, and will appear in two films slated for release in 2023, both written and directed by Karmyn Jones: Whealthy and Wise, co-starring Clifton Davis (of That’s My Mama and Amen fame) and No Family Without Blood, in a cast that includes Chicago native Chance the Rapper.
When J.J. is first seen, he is combing his hair with what was known as an afro pick. The handle of J.J.’s kind of pick was divided in two, so the user could grip the handle while picking their hair, and fold the two sides down and make it more compact when it was not in use. (Or stick the pick in their hair, as J.J. does.) One side of this pick was red and the other was green, representing two of the three colors of the Pan-African flag; these colors were introduced by Marcus Garvey. Red represented the blood that was shed for liberation, and green was for the abundant natural wealth of Africa. (Incidentally, my brother had a pick just like this in the 1970s.)
There’s a scene where Thelma wants to know if her mother is ironing her dress, and Florida informs her that she’s just getting started. “Someday when I want a vacation,” Florida tells Willona, “I’m going to take a job as a maid.” This is a likely allusion to the job Florida had working for Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) and her family on the TV show, Maude.
It’s revealed in this episode that Florida and James have been married for 18 years. It also comes out that James is three years older than Florida.
The references to Florida’s weight continue. While Florida and Willona are discussing their dating lives as teens, Florida comments that “that was a lot of years and 50 pounds ago.” Willona then remembers that Florida used to be known as “the girl with the dangerous curves.” Florida slaps herself on the rear and remarks, “Well, the curves are still here. But they’ve widened the road a little.” Har har.
As a seller of vintage items on Etsy (shameless plug!), I was interested to see that Florida was using an iron rest while she was doing her ironing. An iron rest is the same shape as the flat surface of the iron, and allows you to set the iron flat on the board instead of resting it on the heel of the iron. They aren’t often seen these days, but they’re beneficial because the iron is steadier than if it were resting on the heel, especially if the ironing board is wobbly. Also, it leads to less strain on the wrist, since you don’t have to twist the iron onto its heel. (Before I noticed the iron rest, I thought this was a goof in the episode, because Florida had the iron on the board for so long on the flat part!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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 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  and Shaft .) 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
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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 . . .
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 . . .
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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!”