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!)