Periodically, I will shine the spotlight on each of the principal cast members of Good Times. Fittingly, I’m starting out with the matriarch of the family, played by Esther Rolle. The top-billed actress portrayed Florida Evans, wife of James (John Amos) and mother to James, Jr. (Jimmie Walker), Thelma (Bernadette Stanis), and Michael (Ralph Carter). She was on the show for five of its six seasons.
The actress of stage, screen, and TV was born Esther Elizabeth Rolle on November 8, 1920, in Pompano Beach, Florida, the 10th of 18 children of Bahamian immigrants Jonathan Rolle, a vegetable farmer, and his homemaker wife, Elizabeth. Jonathan’s talent for telling stories may have served as the inspiration for Rolle and her older siblings to start their own drama troupe, which performed around the state during the 1930s.
After Esther’s graduation from high school, she attended Spelman College (my alma mater!) in Atlanta for a year, then moved to New York, where her two older sisters were working to get their acting careers off the ground. (One of her sisters, Estelle Evans, would later appear as the housekeeper in To Kill a Mockingbird , and the other, Rosanna Carter, would be seen in films like The Brother From Another Planet  and She-Devil . Carter would also play a featured role in the first episode of Good Times’ second season, and Evans would play a small role in the seventh episode of season three.)
In New York, Rolle attended Hunter College, then transferred to The New School and, later, to Yale University in nearby New Haven. Although Rolle was more interested in writing than acting, one of her teachers suggested that she take drama classes and turn her talents toward the stage. To pay for her education and make ends meet, Rolle worked in the New York City garment district. She also joined the dance troupe run by African musician Asadata Dafora, remaining with the group for more than 10 years. (While she wasn’t performing, Rolle found time for a private life; in 1955, she married Oscar Robertson who, according to Internet sources, “pressed slacks in a dry cleaner.” They remained married until 1975.)
In the 1960s, Rolle appeared in numerous stage productions as one of the original members of the Negro Ensemble Company; others in the company included Rosalind Cash, Moses Gunn, Denise Nicholas, and Clarice Taylor. Also during this period, Rolle made her big screen debut in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and later appeared in films including Nothing But a Man (1964), The Learning Tree (1969), and Cleopatra Jones (1973). She also continued her stage work, and in 1970, she was singled out in the Boston College newspaper, The Heights, as “especially striking” in a play by Jean Genet called The Blacks. The following year, she landed her first TV gig, on the ABC soaper One Life to Live, and in 1972, while appearing in Melvin Van Peebles’s play Don’t Play Us Cheap, she was asked to audition for the role of a maid, Florida Evans, on the CBS-TV show Maude. Rolle won the part, and a successful year later, she took on the starring role in the spinoff of Maude, Good Times. According to all sources, Lear originally wanted the character of Florida Evans to be the single mother of three children, but Rolle refused to sign on with the series unless her character had a husband. “I only took my part with provisions that Good Times would have a complete Black family – with a father image,” Rolle told Ebony magazine in 1978. “I had a good father. I wanted the characters to portray a family as mine did.”
During the run of Good Times from 1974 to 1979, Rolle released an album called The Garden of My Mind (1975), on which she performed spoken word backed by gospel singers; portrayed Lady Macbeth in an off-Broadway version of Macbeth (1977); played a housekeeper in the TV movie Summer of My German Soldier (1978), earning an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie; and was featured in the made-for-TV movie I Know Where the Caged Bird Sings (1979). After Good Times ended, she continued dividing her performance time between stage, film, and TV, most notably the Bill Duke-directed TV adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun (1989), in which she played the family matriarch Lena Younger; Driving Miss Daisy (1989), where she was seen as a maid; Rosewood (1997), directed by John Singleton; the TV miniseries Scarlett (1994); and the Broadway production of Horowitz and Mrs. Washington, where she starred opposite Sam Levene.
In 1981, Rolle starred in the pilot for an NBC crime drama called Momma the Detective (also known as See China and Die, for some reason), where she played a housekeeper with a penchant for crime solving. Unfortunately, the series never materialized. (It’s a shame, too. I think this could have been another good part for Rolle – check out the pilot for yourself and see what you think.) She was even featured in a series of psychic hotline commercials during the late 1990s, which ended with her signature directive, “Tell them Esther sent you.” (That last one wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of her career, but hey – you do what you gotta do.) Off-screen, Rolle became the first woman to win the NAACP chairman’s Civil Rights Leadership Award in 1990, honored for raising the image of blacks through her work on the stage and in TV and movies. And the following year, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
One of Rolle’s last performances was in Down in the Delta (1998), directed by Maya Angelou. By now, her health had started to fail, and on November 17, 1998, Rolle died of complications from diabetes; she was buried at the Westview Community Cemetery in Pompano Beach. Even years after her death, however, she continues to be remembered and honored. In 2017, her life and career were spotlighted in an exhibit in her hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida, and in March 2022, the Broward County (Florida) African American Research Library and Cultural Center presented a stage production titled Head Above Water: The Life of Esther Rolle. (When Rolle died, she left her career memorabilia, including her Good Times scripts, to the library.) She may be gone, but she’ll never be forgotten.
Incidentally, Rolle had her share of conflicts with the producers and writers of Good Times (more on that in a later post), but near the end of her life, she still maintained positive memories of her experience and the impact of the series. “I loved Good Times,” she said in 1997. “Later it got to be not so much fun, but I loved what it did for others as much as for me. . . . I’m proud of that.”