GOOD TIMES – 10 Dyn-O-Mite Facts About The 1970s Classic
When Good Times debuted in February of 1974, it was a television first: a sitcom about an African-American family in an inner-city housing project. Esther Rolle starred as matriarch Florida Evans, John Amos was her hard-working husband James, and Ja’net Dubois played their feisty neighbor Willona Woods. Over time, stories shifted focus to their kids: loveable goofball J.J. (Jimmie Walker), responsible Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis), and Michael (Ralph Carter), the socially conscious youngest.
Walker’s broadly comic J.J. emerged as the show’s breakout character, and he began to receive more screen time. Amos and Rolle pushed back, committed to their mission of depicting positive role models. After clashes with producer Norman Lear, Amos was written out, Rolle left, and the first-ever African-American family sitcom had lost its parents.
And yet, the show endured, and the storytelling remained resonant. Now, more than forty years later, getTV viewers can see what made Good Times one of the most groundbreaking sitcoms of its era. So grab a seat on the pull-out couch and enjoy these Dyn-O-Mite facts about the Evans family.
1. Esther Rolle got her start on the stage.
Rolle was born in Florida, the tenth of 18 children born to Bahamian parents. She moved to New York City and worked in the garment industry before beginning her performing career with the African dance troupe Shologa Oloba. Esther was one of the founding members of the Negro Ensemble Company, along with Rosalind Cash, Frances Foster, and her sister Rosanna Carter, who were all future Good Times guest stars.
2. John Amos was just eight years older than Jimmie Walker
When Good Times began, Jimmie Walker was 26 and Amos – playing his father – was only 34. (Rolle was 53.) New Jersey native Amos was a pro football player who transitioned to acting, landing the recurring role of weatherman Gordy on Mary Tyler Moore in 1970. Walker was a comedian with only a handful of TV appearances when he was cast as J.J. “I came on to be funny,” Walker told PBS’s Pioneers Of Television. “[Rolle and Amos] were actors, so they were thinking, ‘We’re acting.’ I came out as a stand-up.”
3. It was a spin-off of a spin-off.
Lear’s All In The Family introduced Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur), the opinionated cousin of Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton), in December of 1971. Less than a year later, Maude had her own show set in the affluent suburbs of New York City. And, beginning with episode three, she also had a maid: Florida Evans. Rolle was often given Maude’s sharpest punchlines and Lear and the writers gradually expanded her role. Her firefighter husband was introduced towards the end of the first season (played by Amos, but originally named “Henry.”). Midway through season two, Florida and Henry were spun off into their own series, making Good Times a rarity: a spin-off of a spin-off.
4. Good Times broke continuity with Maude.
In Florida’s Goodbye (airdate February 5, 1974), "Henry" Evans gets a promotion and Florida quits her job with the Findlay family to be a stay-at-home mom. When Good Times premiered three days later, the Evans family now lived in Chicago, Henry’s name was now James, and he no longer had a job.
5. Norman Lear was not the creator.
Lear “developed” and produced Good Times, but the series was created by two African-American writers: Mike Evans and Eric Monte. Evans played Lionel Jefferson on All In The Family and, when he expressed a desire to write, Lear offered him the Good Times pilot. Evans collaborated with Monte, a college friend who had grown up in the crime-ridden Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. (The Evans family lives there too, though the name is never mentioned.)
6. John Amos was fired.
“With all the attention being paid [to Good Times], Esther and John began to feel a personal responsibility” for the series, Lear wrote in his 2014 book Even This I Get To Experience. This led to frequent clashes, particularly about J.J. and his antics. “By the end of the third season, John Amos was so glum and dispirited that it seemed impossible to go on,” Lear wrote. “[So] we decided to write him out of the show.” Amos accepts some responsibility for the split, telling Jet in 2008, “I wasn’t the most diplomatic guy in those days.”
7. Esther Rolle quit.
Five months after James’ death (which took place off-screen), Florida goes on her first date with shop owner Carl Dixon (Moses Gunn, Rolle’s former Negro Ensemble Company colleague). Carl proposes to Florida at the end of the season and, when season five begins, the now-married couple is honeymooning in Arizona. Florida and Carl eventually decide to stay there, as Carl is treated for cancer. In reality, Rolle chose to step away from the series.
8. Ja’net Dubois became the star – and got Janet Jackson as a daughter.
With Ja’net Dubois promoted to lead, Lear gave Willona a powerful storyline. Early in season five, J.J. meets Penny (Janet Jackson), the daughter of an abusive mother (Chip Fields). In a four-part story arc, Willona takes Penny in and begins the process of adopting her with the help of social worker Mrs. Dobbs (Alice Ghostley). Good Times was Janet Jackson’s first acting job at age 11, after a season on the CBS variety series The Jacksons. Dubois would recreate the character of Willona on The Wayans Bros. in 1997 (reuniting with Bern Nadette Stanis as Thelma and Johnny Brown as building super Bookman). She and Janet Jackson reunited in 1986 when Dubois played her mom in the music video for “Control.”
9. Rolle returned for the final season.
After sitting out season five, Rolle returned for the final season as Florida helps Thelma prepare for her marriage to football player Keith (Ben Powers). The series concludes with good times for everyone, as J.J. gets a new job, Thelma announces she’s pregnant, Keith recovers from the injury that threatened his career, and the Evans family finally moves out of the projects (along with Willona and Penny).
10. Good Times lived again on Black-ish in 2016
ABC’s Black-ish paid tribute to the Evans family in the popular sitcom’s second season, with Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) falling asleep during a Good Times marathon and dreaming that he (and the rest of the cast) are members of the Evans family. Black-ish even built a duplicate of the Good Times apartment, and depicted supporting characters like Penny, Keith, and Bookman.
11. BONUS! The theme song is frequently misquoted.
Like other Lear shows, the Good Times’ theme (sung by Jim Gilstrap and Saundra “Blinky” Williams) became iconic. According to songwriters Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, the lyrics are as follows (we’ve underlined the often-misquoted parts): “Good times! Any time you meet a payment. Good times! Any time you meet a friend. Good times! Any time you’re out from under. Not getting’ hassled, not gettin’ hustled. Keepin’ your head above water, makin’ a wave when you can. Temporarily layoffs - good times! Easy credit ripoffs - good times! Scratchin’ and survivin’ - good times! Hangin’ in and jivin’ - good times! Ain’t we lucky we got ‘em, good times!” Remember this the next time you do classic TV karaoke.
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