And so it begins . . .
The first characters introduced in the series are Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis), who is cooking breakfast in the kitchen, and Michael (Ralph Carter), who enters the apartment after playing with a friend. (Incidentally, during his first-scene argument with his never-seen pal, Michael tells him, “You make me sick sometimes.” This struck me as such an authentic line – it’s something that I used to say as a child.)
With Thelma and Michael’s first few lines, the show sets up two long-running character traits: Thelma is not exactly a culinary whiz, and Michael is a pro-black, anti-establishment militant. In fact, the show economically illustrates these two characteristics when Michael, peering into Thelma’s pot on the stove, comments, “Black is beautiful, Thelma, but not when it’s oatmeal.” And their older brother, J.J. (Jimmie Walker), before he is even seen, is established by Thelma as a loafer (“Where’s that big string-bean brother of yours? He was supposed to help me set the table, make the beds, and clean up!”). The matriarch of the family, Florida (Esther Rolle), is recovering from a recent operation to have her appendix removed, we meet her husband James (John Amos) when he comes home after working all night, and Florida’s best friend and neighbor Willona (Ja’ Net DuBois) pops in to share the news about her latest date.
Written by the show’s co-creator Eric Monte, and directed by Donald McKayle and Perry Rosemond, the episode’s plot centers around an eviction notice that the family received for non-payment of rent; two previous notices were received during Florida’s hospital stay, and with the movers arriving to remove the contents of the apartment, the family is desperate to raise the money they need. Each of the family members tries different means of getting the money – Florida tries to sign up for welfare benefits, the children hatch a “department store hustle,” and James (against Florida’s wishes) uses his skills in shooting pool. Ultimately, James’s method is successful, but he pretends that a friend gave him the money – and Florida pretends that she doesn’t know the truth.
“Getting Up the Rent” was the first episode taped and was the actual series pilot, but it wasn’t aired first – that distinction went to “Too Old Blues.” Instead, “Getting Up the Rent” was the third episode to be broadcast.
The pilot was full of promise, and did an admirable job of establishing the personas of each of the main characters: strong, faith-filled Florida; proud, dedicated, and no-nonsense James; streetwise, artistically gifted J.J.; family-focused but sharp-tongued Thelma; budding militant Michael; and loyal, quick-with-a-quip Willona. I was never pleased with the depiction of J.J. as a hustling, “light-fingered Louie” but, to their credit, the producers/writers pivoted from this characterization after the first few episodes.
The episode brought the Evans’s poverty into sharp focus – it can’t get much worse than getting evicted from your home, and it’s made clear that James had the choice of paying for their shelter or paying for his wife’s life-saving operation. With James working two jobs and bringing home just six dollars after working all night, and the family keeping their savings in a shoe box, there’s no question about the family’s financial situation. But the pilot also managed to showcase the close-knit nature of the Evans family and the deep love and respect that existed between Florida and James. There was James’s tender reaction to Florida apologizing for the cost of her recent operation. And the children’s willingness to chip in their meager contributions to help with the rent. And Michael vehemently refusing to allow J.J. to sell his first painting (“The only way anyone gets this painting is over my dead body!). They were small but effective touches which helped established a foundation that would last throughout the run of the series. Finally, the cast demonstrated a unique and instant chemistry – they felt like a real family and fostered a feeling of audience affection and recognition from the very start.
Pop Culture Connections
As Thelma is preparing the oatmeal in the first scene, she’s reading Ebony, a monthly magazine which covers entertainment, politics, fashion, and beauty that pertain to the Black community. The magazine was founded in 1945, ceased publication of the print format in 2019, and relaunched in a digital format in 2021.
Detroit Automobile Recall
After J.J. makes a crack about Thelma’s looks, she counters by telling him, “If you were born in Detroit, you would have been recalled for being dangerously ugly.” In 1973, the year before the series started, more than 3.7 million vehicles were recalled by General Motors, which is headquartered in Detroit. The vehicles, from the Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac lines, were recalled because stones from unpaved or gravel roads could get caught in the engine compartment, which could affect the driver’s ability to steer. At the end of 1973, another 22,000 cars from these four lines were recalled due to safety defects that could cause the rear wheels to lock.
President Richard Nixon
The family is facing a possible eviction, but Michael tells his mother that Monty – a friend of James’s who works for the administration of the projects – has assured the family that “everything would be okay.” Florida responds, “That’s the same Monty that said Nixon was going to be poor folks’ best friend.” At the time that the episode aired, Richard Nixon was the president of the United States. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, he would resign from office later that year, on August 9, 1974.
J.J. concocts a scheme for he and his siblings to get the rent money by going to Marshall Field’s; Thelma will pretend to faint from malnourishment in the hopes that passersby will donate the needed funds. Marshall Field’s was a large, upscale department retailer in Chicago whose flagship store was located in the city’s downtown area. The store was founded in the 1800s and remained a Chicago staple until 2006, when it was taken over by Macy’s and renamed.
James arrives home (and for some reason, knocks on the door instead of using his key), and grouses about the amount of time Florida takes to let him in. “If you wanted somebody fast,” Florida responds, “you should have married O.J. Simpson.” In December 1973, Simpson, a member of the Buffalo Bills football team, became the first National Football League (NFL) player to rush more than 2,000 yards in a single season. This would be the show’s first reference to Simpson, but not the last – which is always a bit jarring, given what would happen about 20 years hence.
“Ain’t Got a Pot or a Window . . . “
Trying to help the family get the money for the rent, Willona takes Florida to the welfare office (that’s literally the sign on the door: WELFARE OFFICE), but James’s meager income is too high to qualify. Before they leave, they’re approached by a buffoon in a maroon velvet suit who tries to hit on them; Willona dismisses him by observing that he “ain’t got a pot or a window.” She’s referring to a popular saying that means a person is financially bereft; the entire expression is that the person doesn’t have “a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.”
“I don’t take things – I FIND them . . .”
The pilot episode sets up J.J. as not only lazy, but also a thief. When Florida expresses concern about the overdue rent money, J.J. tells her that he has numerous ways of getting hold of the needed cash, and Florida insists that she doesn’t want him to steal. “I wouldn’t do that, Mama,” J.J. says. “I may just find seventy dollars.” This characterization would last only a few episodes.
“’Boy’ is a white racist word.”
The pilot also saw Michael’s first insistence that the word “boy” is a “white racist word.” He offers this nugget when Florida admonishes J.J. about stealing and adds, “I hope I’m coming through to you, boy.” Later in the episode, Michael gives the same rebuke to his father when James calls him a boy. This budding catchphrase for Michael didn’t last long, though. But there was a different catchphrase that was, well . . .
J.J. used the exclamatory word in the first episode that would become his trademark and a popular catchphrase that would be forever associated with the show. He uses it to indicate his enthusiastic approval upon learning that his father plans to get the rent money by hustling pool games. J.J. would go on to use “Dy-No-Mite,” in one way or another, in every episode for the next few seasons. Every. Episode.
Tom: Hal Williams
Halroy Candis Williams was born in Columbus, Ohio, on December 14, 1938, and started acting in local community theater. After working as a postal worker and a corrections officer, Williams moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to pursue his acting career and signed on with the California Youth Authority to pay the bills while he went on auditions. Williams was able to devote his time to acting full time in 1970, when he landed roles in three TV productions: a TV movie and two series, Dan August and That Girl. Williams went on to play Officer “Smitty” Smith on the Sanford and Son TV series, Harley Foster on The Waltons, Sgt. Ted Ross on the film Private Benjamin (1980) and the subsequent TV series based on the movie, and Lester Jenkins on 227. As of this writing, he is still performing; his most recent appearance was earlier in 2022 in the TV series The Mayor. In this episode, Williams played Tom, one of the two men who arrive at the Evans apartment to remove their belongings.
Monty: Stymie Beard
Matthew “Stymie” Beard played Monty, a friend of James’s. He was born in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day 1925, one of 14 children. After playing a few uncredited bit parts in movies like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927) and Showboat (1929), he was signed by Hal Roach at the age of five to appear in the Our Gang Comedies. Beard’s Our Gang name was originally Hercules, but director Robert McGowan changed it because Beard was known to “stymie” him by wandering around the lot. Beard reportedly was given his trademark bowler hat by comic actor Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame.
He remained with Our Gang until, at age 10, he was too old, and he later appeared in small parts in such films as Captain Blood (1935), Jezebel (1938), and The Return of Frank James (1940). During his teen years, however, he developed a heroin habit and wound up spending a number of years in jail. He later got clean and sober and returned to acting in the 1970s on TV shows including Sanford and Son, Maude, and Different Strokes. Beard suffered a stroke a few days after his 56th birthday and died of pneumonia on January 8, 1981.
Eddie: Ernie Banks
Ernie Lee Banks played the other employee of the project who showed up to evict the Evans family. Banks was born in Franklin, Virginia, on April 3, 1935. His appearance on Good Times was his acting debut. Later that year, he was also seen in two blaxploitation movies from 1974: Black Godfather and Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes. He went on to appear in such films as Bulworth (1998); TV series including The Jeffersons, NYPD Blue, and ER; and the 1978 miniseries King, where he portrayed Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Banks also released a record in 1990 called Are You Ready to Be Loved? He died in his hometown of Franklin on August 13, 2006, at the age of 71.
- The Evans family lives on the 17th floor. (J.J. distributes the mail to his siblings and tells them he’s just been down 17 floors to get it.)
- We learn that Michael plans to be a lawyer. He offers to give his father the two dollars he’s been saving for law school.
- In order to get the money for the rent, James wins it by playing pool. He has his own pool cue, and it’s made clear that he used to “hustle” pool for money in the past. This is never referenced again in the series.
- This episode contains a heavy emphasis on Florida’s spirituality, including Florida praying aloud, more than once, to her picture of Jesus on the wall.
- J.J. is referred to as “James Junior” by both Thelma and Florida throughout the episode. After the pilot, he would be known only as J.J.
- At the start of the episode, J.J.’s head was bare. But with about six minutes remaining, he was seen sporting the blue jean cap that would become a staple in his wardrobe over the next few seasons.
The next episode: Black Jesus . . .