The cast of "Good Times," clockwise from top, Esther Rolle,...

The cast of "Good Times," clockwise from top, Esther Rolle, Jimmie Walker, Ralph Carter, BernNadette Stanis, John Amos. Credit: CBS/Everett Collection/Gene Trindl

On the night of Feb. 8, 1974, millions of viewers had just settled in at 8 for another episode of ABC's “The Brady Bunch,” while over on NBC, “Sanford and Son” — barely two seasons old — was getting underway.

Then, at 8:30, there was this intriguing newcomer on CBS: What exactly did those millions make of “Good Times” 50 years ago?

The cast of "Good Times": Pictured from left is Ralph...

The cast of "Good Times": Pictured from left is Ralph Carter (as Michael Evans), Esther Rolle (Florida Evans), John Amos (James Evans, Sr.), Jimmie Walker ( James "J.J." Evans, Jr.), BernNadette Stanis (Thelma Evans). Credit: CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

Both familiar and unfamiliar, many already knew the leads of this latest Norman Lear creation because the star Esther Rolle had been Florida Evans, the truth-to-power maid who zinged Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) on “Maude.” John Amos, who had played her largely unseen husband on that show, had also been Gordy the weather forecaster, on CBS'  hit “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

What they'd never seen before was a Black family sitcom, or a Black male and female lead as husband and wife on a TV show. They had never seen a series that addressed real issues for Black Americans and their families (the first episode alone was about poverty and systemic unemployment — and this was a sitcom?).

Still a classic

But the world was changing, and TV was finally changing, too. The lingering and painful question on this long-ago night was just how much TV intended to change.

“Good Times” turned 50 earlier this month, but unlike most shows a half-century old, some memories still abide, as durable and immutable as granite. Think “Good Times” and try not to think of J.J.'s (Jimmie Walker) “dyn-O-mite," or Florida Evans' “damn damn damn” when she first learns of husband James' (Amos) death. It remains enduringly popular, too — a Top 20 performer for Peacock (and an animated Netflix reboot arrives this summer).

In a recent phone interview, BernNadette Stanis, who played teen daughter Thelma Evans — and at 70, is still an actor and author — calls these fans Good-Timers for life. “Wherever I go, young people come up to me to say 'I watched with my grandmother, who watched with my mom, and I'm watching with my baby.' Four generations! Oh, my God, it's wonderful.”

Ralph Carter, 62, who played the Evans' youngest son, Michael, said in an interview, “people have never forgotten us. They show to us that we're relevant, and not relics. I'm beyond joy that I can walk down the street and have so much positive energy in my life.”

“Good Times” changed Black TV forever — no “Good Times,” no “Cosby Show” 10 years later — but this groundbreaking show's searing history is now forgotten. Amos was fired by the end of the third season. Rolle walked off after the fourth. Walker's J.J. — the irrepressible oldest son — divided the cast.

Lear called the experience “agony.” Fifty years later, it's easy to understand exactly why.

John Amos and Esther Rolle of "Good Times."

John Amos and Esther Rolle of "Good Times." Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

By the time she joined “Good Times'' at age 54, Rolle had largely avoided the quixotic and still unashamedly racist Hollywood meatgrinder. A charter member of the Negro Ensemble Company, the pioneering theater group, Rolle had no intention of starring in some scatterbrained sitcom. For Amos, then 35, this role was about dignity and righting old wrongs.

Meanwhile, their boss Lear (who died last December at the age of 101) was the most powerful producer on television, yet he had met his match — two of them, both implacable.

A complicated history

The back story to “Good Times” is complicated but this is the simple version: Looking to spin off Rolle's character from “Maude,” Lear turned to Mike Evans (Lionel Jefferson on “All in the Family”) and another writer, Eric Monte, to come up with a script. Their idea: to have Rolle play a single mother of three, living in the Chicago projects. (“Maude” had been set in Tuckahoe.)

But Evans and Monte's pilot had left out a husband. In Marlon Riggs' 1991 documentary about Black TV, “Color Adjustment,” Rolle said “I looked at the first script and I thought, where are these childrens' fathers? Where is my husband?' … I said that if you don't find the actor who can do [him], then I can't" do the show.

Lear agreed to a husband — Amos — which would become his only major concession to Rolle. He also threw out the pilot script by Evans and Monte, who were both Black, and hired a production team of white writers. That would soon lead to further friction with his stars.

Lear filled out the rest of the cast with Stanis, a recent Juilliard graduate, while Carter, a child actor then starring in a musical adaptation of “Raisin in the Sun,” was cast as the youngest Evans. Amityville native Ja'Net DuBois — by then a seasoned stage actor — would be the Evans' next-door neighbor Willona Woods.

Lear also picked Walker, a successful stand-up comic who'd already built a national profile on shows like “Laugh-In.”

Fighting Norman Lear

Adrien Serbo — author of a recently published history “Scratchin' and Survivin': Hustle Economics and the Black Sitcoms of Tandem Productions” — says that "'Good Times” was “always supposed to be really a kind of autobiography of Eric Monte's own life growing up in Chicago's South Side as a poet and writer. J.J. was him in a lot of ways — the funny, quirky guy.”

In his autobiography, “Even This I Get to Experience,” Lear said the production went well at first, but “that lasted for about eight weeks [because] Esther and John began to feel a personal responsibility for every aspect of TV's first Black family's behavior.”

Their “hypersensitivity,” he added, “cost us all dearly.”

In fact, Lear had one vision for the show, his stars another.

Foremost, they wanted to reflect a happy Black family, and not one steeped in the sort of pathologies many white viewers assumed of Black life — above all, a fatherless household. As Rolle also said at the time, “I think what the haves in the world don't realize is that all is not lost because you don't have money. There are other values — love, sharing, caring — and if you concentrate on them, sometimes you'll ride out the storm.”

Gerren Keith, the longtime director of “Good Times,” said in a recent interview that the early '70s “was a politically and socially charged time, and Norman and [his other partner at Tandem] Bud Yorkin wanted to reflect that in their shows.

“We all felt, and the cast felt, that we were very much a part of that movement,” he said.

But he also said the leads objected to certain lines in the scripts (“I've been Black longer than you have,” Rolle famously quipped to Lear). Amos demanded a role in the writing process, too.

John Amos, Esther Rolle stand their ground

In an interview with Newsday in 1994, Amos — now 84, living in Arizona and enmeshed in a family legal dispute over his care — said, “I played football for a long time, and I felt when I first came into the business that physical confrontation was the best way to resolve any issue. When things got tight, not having the maturity I'd like to think I've acquired, I was ready to — in the street vernacular — throw down.”

Rolle simply declined to say certain lines. Keith recalled a script meeting for an episode about the oil embargo (which had just ended in January 1974) in which she was told to say “damn Arabs …”

“We were at the first table read [for the episode] and she said, 'I don't want to say that.' The writers were like, 'Why not?' She said, 'Because it's an issue we've never discussed before and I don't want to take a stand, as if it represents this show or as a character on this show.'

“Well, it ended up in the script, and she didn't say the line — she just skipped right over it,” recalled Keith. “Little things like that crept into the fabric of the show. Esther would say, 'there are far more important issues to us as a Black family …' "

'Dyn-O-Mite' explodes on set

Jimmie Walker poses with a talking doll based on his...

Jimmie Walker poses with a talking doll based on his character "J.J." from "Good Times." Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

J.J. quickly became the biggest battlefield. Walker, 76, said in an interview with website Emmy Legends that “our cast really wanted to do stories, but I came in as a comedy kamikaze.”

“Dyn-O-mite” arrived as a throwaway during rehearsal, but when one of the show's directors told him to say it again during a live show, Walker told him that “people will never be that stupid to l buy this [as a joke] and [the director] said, 'yes they will … ' ”

“That's when all hell broke loose.” The phrase, said Walker, “became the bane of Norman's existence.”

Years later Lear ruefully admitted that he let Walker “get those easy laughs” but that he repeated the line “too much. You rely on the gifts you have as an actor. Unfortunately, American television makes you do it 26 times.”

J.J. was supposed to be an aspiring artist facing his own issues at Cabrini-Green — drugs, alcohol abuse, violence (he was shot in one episode) — but all of that was ceded to “DYN-O-MITE!!”

In 1975, the battle broke out into the open. Rolle — who wasn't speaking to Walker — told Ebony magazine that “negative images … have been quietly slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child. I resent the imagery that says to Black kids that you can make it by standing on the corner saying 'Dyn-o-mite!' ”

Lear fired Amos after the third season, and Rolle left by the spring of 1977. She'd return for the sixth and final season, but by then “Good Times” revolved around J.J.

A series that had launched with 42 million viewers — just behind “Happy Days” — ended up with a fraction of that audience in 1979.

Stanis now says she doesn't really remember the on-set friction, but vividly remembers the table read for the episode where the cast first learned that Amos' character had been killed in a car crash.

At the line announcing his death, “Ralph looks at me, and I look at him,” she says. “We're puzzled, and no one is saying anything. Then, I'm looking at mom — Esther — and she is crying. She looked down because she knew the whole story. That's how I found out. We had to do that show knowing John wouldn't be there anymore. It felt like a real death.”

Keith, the “Good Times” director, says Rolle “was an extremely dignified and refined woman with a deep social conscience, a morally strong and good person, dedicated to her art. Just her bearing, carriage and personality made a real difference to us. We all looked up to her, and thought of her as heroic.”

After Amos left “it just took so much out of her. She didn't want to go that much further.”

Rolle died in 1998, at the age of 78. She never starred in another TV show.


"Good Times" streams on Peacock. It's also on two smaller cable channels, Get (Optimum Ch. 143) weekdays 9-11 a.m. and 3-4 a.m. and TV One (Optimum 178; Fios 271) on Saturdays from noon to 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

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