GOOD TIMES – 10 Episodes of Norman Lear’s 1970s Classic Featuring John Amos as James Evans
When Good Times debuted in February of 1974, it was a true television rarity: a spin-off of a spin-off.
Bea Arthur’s guest appearance on All In The Family in December of 1971 as Edith’s out-spoken cousin Maude Findlay inspired the spin-off Maude less than a year later. And Esther Rolle’s inspired performance as Maude’s straight-talking maid Florida Evans inspired Good Times midway through Maude’s second season.
But a number of changes were made by producer Norman Lear and writers Mike Evans and Eric Monte when Florida and her firefighter husband “Henry” Evans (John Amos) got their own show. The setting moved from New York to a Chicago housing project, Florida no longer worked, “Henry” was now known as James, and he was no longer a fireman. More importantly, Amos was elevated to co-lead status with Rolle, at least in terms of screen time.
In that regard, Good Times was historic: the first situation comedy to portray a two-parent African-American family. Rolle and Amos were dedicated to being positive role models and depicting a stable family unit, but clashes with producers over the show’s creative direction eventually led to unprecedented changes in a top 10 show: Amos was fired and James was killed off, Rolle left, and the first-ever African-American family sitcom had lost its parents.
“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.”
The series soldiered on for three more seasons with Amos, but his presence was always missed.
Here are ten of his best episodes to look for on getTV:
1. Too Old Blues (Season 1, Episode 1 — Feb 8, 1974)
This episode was filmed after the pilot but aired as the series premiere. It’s interesting that the producers choose to focus the first show on James and his job hunt, not Florida. We also get his full backstory: he was in the Army, served in Korea, and was born in 1932, which makes James 41 — too old for the apprentice job he’s applying for. Amos himself was born in 1939, which means the actor was 7 years younger than his character.
2. Black Jesus (Season 1, Episode 2 — Feb 15, 1974)
This iconic episode was produced after the pilot but aired before it. James shows up with presents for everyone after he gets an unexpected tax refund and the family attributes their string of good luck to J.J.’s newly painted portrait of “Black Jesus.” It also establishes two supporting characters who would show up later: gangster Sweet Daddy Williams (later played by Teddy Wilson) and Ned the Wino (Raymond G. Allen). And look for series co-creator Eric Monte as a numbers runner.
3. Getting Up The Rent (Season 1, Episode 3 — Feb 22, 1974)
The third episode aired was actually the first one produced, with the family facing eviction as Florida recuperates from surgery. Look for Hal Williams (Sanford and Son) as a repo man and Matthew “Stymie” Beard (The Little Rascals) as James’ friend Monty. And pay particular attention to how the characters are introduced: J.J. is a wannabe thief, James hustles the rent money at the pool hall, and the three kids all get equal focus. That would change quickly as Jimmie Walker’s catchphrase “Dy-No-Mite” became a national sensation. This episode, written by co-creator Monte, is one of the series’ best. And it establishes James as the true head of the family — a role that was never truly filled when he left.
4. The Check-up (Season 1, Episode 12 — Feb 22, 1974)
James gets laid off (again) and Florida and the kids are worried about his hypertension, which only makes his blood pressure go up. One hallmark of season one is the emphasis on James’s constant job search, which gave Good Times an unusual amount of social relevance for a sitcom. There’s even a scene where Florida tells James she wants to get a job and acknowledges that she used to be a maid (though she doesn’t mention Maude). “You’ve got too darn much pride,” Florida tells James — a common theme in sitcoms before and since.
5. The Gang Parts 1 and 2 (Season 2, Episode 9/10 — Nov 12, 19, 1974)
J.J. reluctantly gets mixed up with a street gang and is shot. Although Amos’ screen time diminished in season two, this episode reminds viewers that he’s still the head of the Evans family. And it also recaptures the socially aware tone of the first season. “There was so much gang violence going on at that time,” Amos said about this episode on WBLS radio in 2017. “Norman Lear delivered a very welcome and needed message about the community.”
6. The Windfall (Season 2, Episode 12 — Dec 3, 1974)
When James finds a bag of stolen money and turns it in, he’s treated like a hero and interviewed on TV. He is even rewarded with a gift certificate. But then he reveals that he kept a portion of the money. Florida disagrees with his decision to “steal,” but the live studio audience shows their approval with loud cheers. “It’s a cold world out there and we can’t change it,” James tells Florida. “But we sure can’t let it change us,” she replies.
7. Florida’s Big Gig (Season 2, Episode 14 — Dec 31, 1974)
James goes for a job interview at a department store, but it’s Florida they want to hire. Look for TV icon Charlotte Rae as the personnel manager and Dick O’Neill is her cynical boss. “If we hire a black woman,” he tells her, “we are capturing two minority butterflies with one net.”
8. Florida Goes to School (Season 2, Episode 15 — Jan 17, 1975)
Florida wants to go to night school, but James balks. One of the treats of Good Times is the snapshot of 1970s life it provides, and this episode is a great example of the evolving relationship dynamics of the era. Also: Ja’Net DuBois’ comebacks to Amos are a perfect example of how the series was still delivering sharp, socially aware episodes after two seasons.
9. The Houseguest (Season 2, Episode 20 — Feb 18, 1975)
James’ childhood friend from Cartersville, Mississippi shows up claiming to be a successful public relations executive. But he’s really on the run from loan sharks for gambling debts. Thalmus Rasulala plays James’ less-than-honest buddy Ernie Harris. He shows up again a year later in a different role, as Florida’s flirty boss.
10. The Family Tree (Season 3, Episode 15 — Dec 23, 1975)
Good Times’ 1975 Christmas episode was a last hurrah for the increasingly dissatisfied John Amos. In this episode, Thelma’s research on the Evans family tree results in a surprising discovery: James’ father is still alive. Stage actor Richard Ward plays Henry Evans, named after James’ original character on Maude. “We sure missed out on some good times together,” James tells Henry 35 years after he walked out on the family. The scenes between Ward and Amos are some of his best in his three seasons on the series. Ward would return two more times, sadly both after James’ death.
11. BONUS! The Rent Party (Season 3, Episode 24 — Mar 2, 1976)
Although nobody knew for sure this would be his last episode, The Rent Party feels very much like a farewell. We even see Johnny Brown as Bookman the superintendent, the character who would, in a small way, take some of James’ screen time in season four. In this episode, the Evans family stages a talent show to help Weeping Wanda (Helen Martin) earn enough money to make her rent.” Ralph Carter sings his hit “When You’re Young And In Love,” Brown does impressions, and Rolle, Stanis and Du’Bois sing “Stop In The name of Love.” Amos ends the episode dancing with the entire cast in a final scene. Happily, he would go on to be Emmy-nominated for Rootsand reunite with Norman Lear as the lead in the final All In The Family spin-off — 704 Hauser— in 1994.
Catch Good Times 12a and 5a ET — two episodes back to back — on getTV. For more, visit the getTV schedule.