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.”
~ ~ ~
The next episode: Michael Gets Suspended . . .