Good Times aired from February 1974 until August 1979 on CBS.
Good Times was a spin-off from Maude, which in turn was a spin-off from All in the Family. Florida Evans was originally Maude's maid until she got a show of her own.
Florida and James Evans ( Esther Rolle, John Amos) were lower-middle-class blacks living in a high-rise on the South Side of Chicago with their three children: J.J. ( Jimmie Walker) was the oldest at 17; Thelma( Bernadette Stanis), 16 and Michael( Ralph Carter), 10.
Trying to make ends meet was a difficult task because James was always in and out of jobs - but there was plenty of love in the family. J.J. was an accomplished amateur painter who, though going to trade school, was always looking for some get-rich-quick scheme that would help get him and his family out of the ghetto. He formed a rock group, managed a young comic and tried various other money-making ideas after he got out of school. He did manage to earn money with his painting and was also quite popular with the girls. His catchprase "DY-NO-MITE!" became very popular in the mid-1970's. Florida's neighbor and best friend was Willona Woods ( Ja'net DuBois).
At the start of the 1976-77 season, there was a major cast change. James found a job working as a partner in a garage in Mississippi when he was killed in an auto accident. The entire family, which had been planning to move to their new home and start a new life, was now fatherless. J.J. became the man of the house and was even more determined to find a way out of the ghetto for his family. Some of his not-so-legal schemes became very shady. Florida found a new man in her life in the spring of 1977 - Carl Dixon ( Moses Gunn), the owner of a small appliance repair shop. They were married during the summer of 1977 and in the fall, were referred to on the show as being "on their honeymoon."
Esther Rolle had become upset with the role model for young blacks provided by J.J.'s woman-chasing, less-than-honest character and, on the pretense of illness, left the series prior to the start of the 1977-1978 season. In the story line, Carl had developed lung cancer and he and Florida were living in a Southern location that was better for his health. Friend and neighbor Willona became a sort of surrogate mother to the Evans family. Little Penny Gordon ( Janet Jackson), a victim of child abuse, became Willona's adopted daughter. J.J. was working full-time at an ad agency and Bookman ( Jonyy Brown) , the building super, became a more prominent member of the cast.
The following fall, Esther returned to the cast without Carl (and no explanation on where he was) with the promise that J.J. would be a more respectable character and daughter Thelma married football star Keith Anderson. J.J., who was paying for the wedding, had lost his job at the agency when a business slowdown forced them to lay him off. He had to borrow money from loan shark Sweet Daddy ( Theodore Wilson) to pay for the wedding. To make matters worse, J.J. accidently tripped Keith during the ceremony, resulting in a leg injury that jeopardized Keith's million-dollar pro-football contract. Money was hard to come by and the newlyweds were living in the Evans apartment while Keith recuperated. Keith, while depressed by him physical ailments, drove a taxi to help out, while J.J. taught art at home and Florida got a job as a school bus driver.
In the last episode, everything finally worked out. Keith got his big contract as a running back and moved into his own place with Thelma, who was expecting their first child; J.J. sold the comic strip he had developed to a syndicate for a healthy advance and neighbor Willona got promoted to head buyer at the clothing boutique where she worked.
An Article from Ebony Magazine
Published in September 1975
BAD TIMES ON THE 'GOOD TIMES' SET
They are a likeable family, the Evanses: mother Florida, that towering strength of morality and moderate conservatism; father James, honest and hard-working though down on his luck; James Jr., known as J. J., a budding genius of an artist and the family's clown prince; daughter Thelma, a teen-age beauty, trying to cope with two brothers and the adult world into which she is taking her first faltering steps; son Michael, young and idealistic, the family's resident black militant. And then there's that sexy neighbor, Willona: witty, flippant, a dependable friend.
The characters who people GOOD TIMES, the Tuesday night presentation that is one of the top shows on television, offer the tube's best effort to date at showing a real slice of ghetto black life. Yet, there are some bad times at GOOD TIMES, and although the show has much to recommend it in comparison with TV's usual servings of silliness and violence, it has been thigh-deep in problems which range from questionable scripting to salary disputes to character concepts and include a tinge of personal antipathy.
The crux of it all seems to be a continuing battle among the cast members to keep the comedic flavor of the program from becoming so outlandish as to be embarrassing to blacks. This fall, the cast almost unanimously has taken an attitude, apparently with the concurrence of the producer, that it is maturation time at GOOD TIMES. Critics of the show, including many of the cast, feel this is possible without detracting from the basic comedy values of GOOD TIMES. After all, in the past it has dealt with such subjects as juvenile alcoholism, gang violence, busing, menopause, the hypertension rate among blacks, and black rip-off artists in the black community. But what seems to be called for now is a greater relevance among characters and a closer rein on a tendency to slide toward old-time black minstrelsy. And what is being revealed is a healthy awareness on the part of black performers that they are responsible for cleansing the stained image of blacks so long perpetrated on stage and screen. Black audiences are sensitive to the fact, for example, that of the five shows on TV last season starring blacks, all but one was a comedy, and even the exception--GET CHRISTY LOVE on ABC--had its central character played for laughs more often than not.
GOOD TIMES evolved two and a half years ago from another TV fron-runner from the high-riding house of Tandem (producers of ALL IN THE FAMILY, SANFORD AND SON, MAUDE and, since GOOD TIMES, THE JEFFERSONS). Esther Rolle played the character of Florida, a spirited maid in the MAUDE household, and a show built around her was eventually created by black writers Eric Monte and Mike Evans, who until recently portrayed the son on THE JEFFERSONS. However, most of the GOOD TIMES scripts are written by whites.
"It wasn't really a spin-off," Producer Allan Manings says of GOOD TIMES. "It was one character, and we have changed that character."
The characterization change was natural, according to Miss Rolle, who learned her craft in community theater in New York before embarking on a distinguished stge career. "You're seeing a different side of her," Miss Rolle says of the Florida character. "What I do in my madam's house is a facade; what I do at home is me." Miss Rolle, who insisted that her show portray a family complete with mother and father from its initial concept, declares: "We have so far been able to speak of some of the difficulties of rearing a black family in a city when the parents are not over-equipped with formal training." She says she is "more dedicated to doing a show of worth than to doing a funny show."
She does, in fact, fairly bristle at the role of J. J., the comical older son played by Jimmy Walker, a nightclub comedian whose true age has been variously listed in a range from 25 to 30. Snaps Miss Rolle of J. J.: "He's 18 and he doesn't work. He can't read and write. He doesn't think. The show didn't start out to be that. Michael's role (finely etched by 14-year old Ralph Carter) of a bright, thinking child has been subtly reduced. Little by little--with the help of the artist, I suppose, because they couldn't do that to me-- they have made him (J. J. ) more stupid and enlarged the role." Negative images, says Miss Rolle, "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!'" Miss Rolle says she does not want Walker's "humor and funny little ways cut out, but they can be real. I think there's a happy medium here somewhere."
Producer Manings denies that the role of J. J. has been increased because of its obvious comic value. "There is no doubt that the character and personality have taken off," declares Manings, "but we don't deliberately throw things his way. Whatever functions for the purpose of the show is what we're going to do."
Actor Walker seems to be above the conflict, or just outside it. He spent the spring and early summer hiatus doing television guest appearances and concerts with such performers as Gladys Knight and the Pips, Dionne Warwicke, Paul Williams, Smokey Robinson, The Pointer Sisters and others. He is also a central character in a new Sidney Poitier movie, LET'S DO IT AGAIN, has recorded an album, DYN-O-MITE!, which he says has sold 100,000 copies, has a line of T-shirts and other items and will play a six-week engagement at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas.
Until GOOD TIMES rehearsals resumed in July, Walker had not seen the rest of the cast since February. He admits that he has developed no close friendships among his co-workers. Earlier this year, in explaining their relationship, he declared: "We are a family, and like in any real family, you get along with some members better than you do with others." Now he explains: "We're not enemies. I wouldn't walk by anyone if I saw them on the street."
As far as the J.J. characterization, Walker says, "I play the way I see it for the humor of it. I don't think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said. I am not trying to have my lines etched in some archives or on a wall some place." Walker's position on positive black TV images differs from Miss Rolle's. "I don't think any TV show can put out an image to save people," he says. "My advice is do not follow me. I don't want to be a follower or a leader . . . just a doer."
The cast member who, it seemed for a while, would have to be replaced was John Amos, who stars with Miss Rolle as father of the Evans family. His contractual dispute with Tandem Productions caused a week's delay in the beginning of show tapings for the 1975-76 season. Although some of the difficulties involved salary, a source close to the negotiations confided: "There is more than money involved here. It goes back to how black men have been treated in this country all along." Amos was "very strong in asserting his position," the source said, "not only for himself, but for the whole GOOD TIMES cast. Black actors and actresses have to go beyond the call of duty." Amos, who declined to comment on the situation, has previously written for television, including the LESLIE UGGAMS SHOW of several seasons ago, and has contributed his writing skills to GOOD TIMES. Other cast members have also made contributions to scripts, oftimes, they say, to maintain balance and reality and keep the comedy in perspective. Their efforts have reportedly involved "some crying sessions among the ladies. They have been overwhelmed by some of the garbage they have been asked to play," says one of the show's observers.
GOOD TIMES co-star Ja' net DuBois has her troubles, for instance, in the role of the quip-tossing Willona. A playwright, producer and director in her own right, she says she "loves" GOOD TIMES because "it pays the rent, but there's got to be something that says more about the real me. I'm about love and I'm about feeling. Don't make me insensitive to life. Everything is not a joke." Although she is a very hip lady, Miss DuBois is hardly a real-life flip-side of TV's Willona. Philadelphia-born, she scrubbed floors with her mother at the age of 10, just as Miss Rolle once picked beans on a farm, and Ja' net has immense respect for the show's star. "She fights every week for the characters," Miss DuBois declares of Miss Rolle. "How can you tell a black woman how to portray a black woman when she's been one all her life? I think we should have a little more to say about what we do, because only we know how we feel."
Miss Rolle expressed a similar feeling during her initial discussion of accepting the role when she asked GOOD TIMES Executive Producer Norman Lear, "Am I going to have some say about this (show)? Remember, I've been black longest."
BernNadette Stanis, the pretty teen-age Thelma of GOOD TIMES and in real life the oldest of five children, says that the life of the TV Evans family is very similar to her own in "the love that the family tries to convey to each other." Says Miss Stanis, who interrupted her second-year studies at Julliard School of Music to make her television debut in the Thelma role: "I'm very close to that character because she's very close to where I was at 16." She adds, however, that she was a bit more conscious of her growth as an individual than is Thelma. "I can see why they (the producers) do a lot of things they do, because it gets laughs and it helps keep the comedy in. But I think they should explore the other characters before they're done. Right now, I'm a good straight man for J. J. I would like to see them open up the straight character of Thelma. I don't know if they will or not, but I'm ready when they are." Because her role is the only teen-age black girl consistently shown on television, Miss Stanis feels certain responsibilities. "A lot of young people look up to me," she says. "I'm very conscious of that. I want to do the best I can for them."
Producer Manings promises the 1975-76 season will see the show and its characters "deepening rather than changing." Of the controversial J. J., Manings says: "We're going to put him in art school and to work. It's a very strong show because it says, "This is where I am, this is my career, it's what I want to be.'" As for Michael, he will be enrolled in a class for gifted children. "And it's the first time this kid gets less than all A's," Manings reveals. The show will also be putting the father through a trade school. "He graduates as an operator of heavy machinery," says Manings, "and finally gets a job offer---and it's in Alaska."
The serious undertones of the comedy show will continue, according to Manings, keeping it several cuts above most TV fare. Upcoming episodes will deal with dying and the aged, the high cost of hospitalization, gun control, and unwanted children. "We don't try to preach," says Manings. "With this show it comes with the territory." Conceived as a show about economically depressed Americans, the sudden downturn in the nation's economy more than a year ago "gave the show a tremendous validity," Manings believes. "As long as the country is where it's at, the story-lines just keep coming."
Thus, while it may be carrying a cautious crew, GOOD TIMES at least seems to be attempting to get on the right track.
An Article about how African-Americans are portrayed on TV in the late 1970's from Time Magazine.
Blacks on TV: A Disturbing Image
Monday, Mar. 27, 1978 By LANCE MORROW Article
Here we have George Jefferson: entrepreneur, black bigot, a splenetic little whip of a man who bullies like a demented overseer, seldom speaks below a shriek and worships at the church of ostentation. Would you like to live next door to The Jeffersons? Or consider the character J.J. on TV's Good Times: a bug-eyed young comic of the ghetto with spasms of supercool blowing through his nervous system, a kind of ElectraGlide strut. "Dy-no-mite!" goes J.J., to convulse the audience in the way that something like "Feets, do your stuff!" got to them three decades ago. Then there is the character Ray Ellis in Baby, I'm Back: a feckless black creep who deserted his wife and two children seven years ago, one step ahead of his bookie's enforcers, and has now reappeared to make excuses and bed room eyes at the wife. Ellis and the show's writers make much merriment at the expense of the sober, straight career Army officer courting the wife; obviously, he is a turkey.
A generation ago, NBC had to cancel The Nat King Cole Show because sponsors would not pay for blacks on TV. Now anyone who watches, say, the Monday night prime-time line up on CBS (Good Times; Baby, I'm Back) and tunes in other sit coms like The Jeffersons and What's Happening!! would think he was witnessing the greatest accumulation of blacks on TV since the March on Washington.
But the high visibility of blacks on television is no reason for anyone except the producers and sponsors to rejoice. Al though Good Times and The Jeffersons are long-running pro grams with large audiences, some of the shows, notably Baby, I'm Back (new, and also with good ratings), are drawing out raged reactions from black parents, teachers, leaders and psychologists. A reasonably attentive white also has reason to be disturbed. Why are there no strong, intelligent black father figures on TV? Why do the mothers (in Good Times and the defunct That's My Mama, for example) always seem to be fat? (The famous black matriarchy? Some residual white image of Mammy? Of Aunt Jemima?) Why are black families so often shown to be in screaming turmoil, the air bruised with insults? Why are there not black images of success through education and accomplishment, instead of the old Amos 'n' Andy routines of chicanery or the newer, grittier pimp-flash and hustle?
One answer, of course, is that earnest dignity and accomplishment are not very funny, unless they are mocked. TV humor, whether the players are black or white, now turns mostly on chaotic exaggeration, a great deal of it emanating from the workshop and social conscience of Producer Norman Lear. His Archie Bunker, after all, is a kind of blue-collar, honky George Jefferson, his whooping racial slurs rendered cute by being malapropped.
Television, some argue, is in the business of being dimwitted. It often presents just as distorted a picture of whites as of blacks. Does it make sense to complain about the unreality of black characters when whites on TV have for years been implicated in such efforts as The Flying Nun and The Love Boat?
But the effect of distorting black realities has greater consequences. That is the subtle but important difference. Whites, for one thing, are seen in the widest possible variety of shows on TV—dramatic programs, adventures, news specials, sitcoms and so on. (The quality of comedies about whites is occasionally better too: witness The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) Blacks, on the other hand, inhabit a restricted range of TV formats; apart from their roles as local newspersons and a peppering of parts on integrated shows (a smart detective on Police Woman, for example), they are mostly seen in situation comedies.
The black sitcoms can have excellent intentions, but something about them is troubling. As seen by Topper Carew. who produced children's programs like Rebop, most of the shows are merely projections of what whites think black life is like: "I wouldn't call them black shows. They have a with very black heavy people black appearing presence. on That's them." all. They are white shows As matter of equilibrium, perhaps there ought to be some dif ferences between the standards that are applied to TV about whites and TV about blacks. Is that an unfairness doctrine, a kind of reverse discrimination? Should shows about blacks be held to a higher standard of relevance, sensitivity and accuracy than those about whites? Though any hard and fast rules would be foolish, an effort to do just that might help correct some deep-seated racial misunderstanding. Whites know about whites, and possess a built-in reality adjuster that makes all the necessary corrections and allowances for exaggeration and stupidity when whites are being portrayed. Blacks know something about whites too. But whites in the U.S. still do not know all that much about blacks; most whites pos sess no automatic focus mechanism to tell them what is nonsense and what is not. Whites receiving a brutalized, stupid or stereotyped image of blacks through TV are liable to tell them selves, "Why, yes. that's the way blacks are."
An even more urgent problem involves the kind of image that young blacks, who are among the most addicted TV watchers, receive of their own race. It was a strange and destructive message that Good Times sent out when its producers eliminated not only the family's strong, if frustrated, father (John Amos) but also, later, its mother (Esther Rolle), who abandoned her three children in their Chicago housing project to move to Arizona to be with her new man. Says Rolle, who quit the show because of her differences with the producers over the way the characters were portrayed: "It was an outrage, an insult." The Rev. Jesse Jackson may have the most useful idea, which he offers to high school students in speeches: Just turn the damned thing off and study.
No one wants TV shows about blacks to turn into the stolidly heroic tableaux of socialist realism. The problem, says Michael Dann, a TV consultant and former head of programming at CBS, lies partly in the nature of drama and comedy. In dramatic series, good, responsible characters can be developed and portrayed by blacks, intermixing them with whites; in comedies, the producers are highly tempted merely to satirize black family life, exaggerating and distorting it. Every harassed, desiccated TV writer knows how to get a laugh with a bellowed insult or ostentatiously jivy dialect.
One better approach might be for the networks to develop black versions of, say, The Waltons or The Little House on the Prairie. As Alex Haley and the producers of Roots discovered, the black American past has a deep texture and drama that could be profitably explored. Another answer is to get many more blacks involved in conceiving, writing and producing programs about blacks. Until that happens, the networks will continue to turn out shows about blacks that inevitably fail to reflect the di versity of black American lives.
It was not so long ago that blacks were all but invisible on American television, except for those playing servants, like Jack Benny's valet Rochester or Ethel Walers in Beulah. As recently as 1968, a sponsor became apoplectic when Singer Petula Clark touched Harry Belafonte on the arm during a show. Some TV producers are apt to congratulate themselves for displaying so many blacks on TV now; even though mostly bad, the shows come weighed down with all kinds of pretensions to relevance.
On balance, Washington Post Columnist William Raspberry may be correct when he says, "If the question is whether to have blacks portrayed on TV as they are today (as stereotypes), or have them invisible, then obviously you go with what is—and hope for something better."
The ultimate meaning of color resides in the nation's mind in the images that whites and blacks have of one another, and that blacks have of themselves. The young, black and white, absorb too much of their social "reality" from television. The people who create TV's fantasies are, God help us, molding minds.
That is why they should be more careful.
Esther Rolle's Obituary
'Good Times' matriarch Esther Rolle dies at 78
November 18, 1998
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Esther Rolle, the bass-voiced, Emmy award-winning actress who gained television stardom as the strong, outspoken black matriarch in the 1970s television series "Good Times," died Tuesday. She was 78.
Rolle's publicist, Larry Calhoun, said the cause of death has not been determined. But he confirmed that Rolle suffered from diabetes and was undergoing dialysis treatment.
Her death comes just a month before the debut of her latest film, "Down in the Delta," Maya Angelou's directorial debut.
Born the 10th of 18 children of a South Florida vegetable farmer, Rolle followed her actress sister to New York after high school, landing various parts on Broadway. In the early 1970s, she was appearing in the Melvin Van Peebles' play "Don't Play Us Cheap" when she was offered the role of Florida Evans, the wise and wisecracking housekeeper on the sitcom "Maude."
The character proved so popular that producers decided to spin off a whole new show around Rolle. "Good Times" ran on CBS from 1974 to 1979.
"Good Times" told the story of Evans, her husband and three kids, who were a struggling but devoted family living in Chicago's South Side. The show made a star out of Jimmie Walker, who played Evans' older son J.J., and his trademark saying -- "Dy-no-MITE" -- became a national catch phrase.
Rolle once said she was intent on shattering the image of a "Hollywood maid with the rolling of the eyes" who doted on her white charges but ignored her own children. She demanded that her sitcom family be led by a father, a role played by John Amos.
Ironically, despite her quest to defy black stereotypes in Hollywood, Rolle spent much of her career playing maids -- in the TV movie "Summer of My German Soldier," which garnered her an Emmy; in the big screen adaptation of "Driving Miss Daisy;" and on stage in the classic "A Raisin in the Sun."
Again striving to present good role models, Rolle left "Good Times" after three seasons because she felt the J.J. character, who began getting mixed up in shady schemes as the show evolved, was a poor example for black youths. She was persuaded to return a year later.
In 1990, Rolle became the first woman to receive the NAACP Chairman's Civil Rights Leadership Award, which honored her work in helping raise the image of blacks.
In addition to her Emmy win for "Summer of My German Soldier," Rolle was also nominated for an Emmy for her work in the TV adaptation of Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings."
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