getTV talks JA’NET DuBOIS — An Interview With Bern Nadette Stanis
Think about your favorite episodes of Good Times, producer Norman Lear’s groundbreaking 1970s sitcom, seen each weekday on getTV. They probably involve the Evans family facing a challenge and getting through it together. The frank depiction of a working-class family trying to make ends meet in a Chicago housing project broke new ground on TV in 1974. And it’s that realness that has kept the show in our hearts, and on our TVs, ever since.
“Good Times was about family, faith and struggle,” Bern Nadette Stanis, who played teen daughter Thelma Evans, recently told getTV. “It teaches us so much, even today.”
Like many of us, Stanis is waiting out this unique moment in history at home with her own family. And she’s mourning the death of a member of the Good Times family. Ja’Net DuBois, who played sassy and stylish neighbor Willona Woods, passed away unexpectedly on February 17. Her death came two months after she appeared with Stanis and Jimmie Walker (J.J.) on ABC’s live Good Times special, and just two weeks after she joined Walker, Stanis, Ralph Carter (Michael Evans) and Johnny Brown (Bookman) for a fan event in Hollywood.
“She got so much love from everyone that day,” Stanis said of DuBois, who also wrote and sang the iconic theme song of The Jeffersons and won two Emmys. “It was so nice to see.”
We spoke with Stanis on the phone from her home in California. The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.
getTV: How are you and your family doing in these crazy times?
BERN NADETTE STANIS: We’re doing fine. We’re at home. I’m keeping busy with all the little projects I always wanted to do but didn’t have the time for. I even cleaned out a closet!
Who’s in your crew right now?
My crew is my husband, me, and my granddaughter.
Thelma is a grandma? Congratulations!
[laughs] I am a grandmother! Thank you. My granddaughter is four years old. She’s going to be with me for awhile until this is over.
What do you think the Evans family would be doing during a pandemic?
I think the Evans family would be doing what everyone else is doing. Mom would be sewing something. Dad, just reading the paper, probably drinking his beer. Michael would be going through encyclopedias. J.J. would be trying to sneak a girl in. And Willona would be right there with us, gossiping!
We were very sorry to hear about Ja’Net DuBois. Did you remain close after Good Times ended?
Yeah, absolutely. As the years went on, and I grew up, we became closer even than when we were on the show. I would call her to see what she was doing, and she would call me.
Do you remember the first time you met her?
It was the first time we all got together for the show. I was the last one to be cast on Good Times. Ralph Carter and I always looked up to her because she was such a fancy lady, always dressed up. She used to say to us that we were like her kids. She had children our age and we became friends with her children.
Ja’Net became the adult lead on Good Times after Esther Rolle left, then returned to a supporting role when Esther came back. Do you think she handled that situation well?
She helped hold up the show when Esther wasn’t there, and she became the caregiver for us. And when Esther came back, she pleasantly took her spot and let Esther be the star again. I think she handled that very well.
Ja’Net co-wrote and sang The Jeffersons theme shortly after Good Times started. Were you aware that was happening at the time?
I remember her sitting in the back of the rehearsal hall and she was writing things, recording them on a big tape recorder, and playing them back. I was like, “What you are doing?” And she said, “Norman Lear’s got a new show coming out and he’s looking for a theme song.” So, she let me hear it. It was “Movin’ On Up.”
The song was about George and Louise Jefferson, but there was an autobiographical element to it as well, right?
Right. She and her Mom. She called her mother and said, “I think I bit off more than I can chew! I’m working on this theme song and I don’t think I can do it.” And her mother said, “Just think about how we lived and what you always told me: that we were gonna move on up!”
And then, with the proceeds from the song, she helped her mom do just that.
Yes, she sure did. She bought her a home, and a mink coat, and everything!
After her passing, her family said that jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway was actually her father. Do you know anything about that?
I can remember someone saying that when we were on the show. She never brought it up, and I was too shy to ask her. I would imagine if the family said that, it’s true. She was beautiful enough to be his daughter, and very talented musically. She sang, she danced, she wrote music. It’s very possible.
When was the last time you saw Ja’Net?
We [the Good Times cast] did the Hollywood Show, and we were all together except for John Amos. She was so lively, looking great. And then, the next Monday, her daughter called and told me she had passed. It was really a shock to us, but it was incredible that we got to spend all that time together.
Do you think she understood the important role she played in American popular culture?
She definitely knew. As Willona, she showed women that, even though you are single, you can still be happy. You can be a mom, a friend, but you can still be sexy.
What do you think we can learn from the Evans family at this moment in history?
People tell me they show their children Good Times because they want them to understand how privileged they are, and how separated we’ve become. Everyone has their own computer, television, telephone. Back in those days, it was one TV and we all sat in the living room and watched it together!
In that sense, do you feel like the togetherness we’re all experiencing right now is positive?
It is bringing us back together as families. Everyone’s watching old tv shows and movies together. People aren’t going out to dinner or buying take-out. They’re at home cooking. They’re eating together.
Which is what the Evans family did 40 years ago!
Absolutely! It’s bringing us back to old times, to what really matters. It gives you a feeling of comfort.