GOOD TIMES – 10 Unforgettable Characters
One of the most enjoyable things about a good TV series is watching it evolve over a long run. Even the best shows often start as one thing and end up as something else. The core premise may remain consistent, but sensibility, tone, and even cast can — and probably should — change, as characters age, actors come and go, and stories reflect a changing world (both real and fictional).
And then there’s Good Times. Very few iconic TV shows evolved quite to the extent that this award-winning 1974–79 sitcom did. And yet, the series was highly rated for most of its six seasons and remains beloved today.
Created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans and developed by Norman Lear, Good Times began as a frank depiction of inner city African-American family life in the mid-1970s. Esther Rolle and John Amos starred as Florida and James Evans, working class parents raising three kids in a Chicago housing project. Oldest child J.J. (Jimmie Walker) is a goofball with an eye for the ladies and a talent for art. Daughter Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis) is serious-minded and responsible, but a terrible cook. And young Michael (Ralph Carter) is the activist of the family. Always dropping by is Florida’s sassy best friend and neighbor Willona Woods (Ja’net Dubois).
As most TV fans know, Florida began life as the Findlay family’s maid on the All In The Family spin-off Maude in 1972. Lear gave Rolle get her own series in 1974, though no mention was made of the Findlays or how the Evans family moved from New York to Chicago in the three days between Rolle’s last episode of Maude and her first Good Times. Nowadays, we’d call that a “reboot.”
Rolle and Amos’ stated mission was to represent a positive depiction of a family “keeping their heads above water.” Early stories focused on financial troubles and James’ search for work. But Walker soon emerged as the breakout star — thanks in part to his “Dy-No-Mite!” catchphrase — and the series shifted focus to J.J. Amos clashed with producers and was written out after the third season; Rolle left after the fourth and ratings fell. Producers lured her back for the sixth season, but the Good Times came to an end in 1979.
Remarkably, for a show that survived as much backstage drama as it did, Good Times remained creatively strong throughout its run. Whether you enjoyed the series back in the ‘70s or are just discovering it today, here are ten episodes that will introduce you to “The EvansVerse.” And best of all, you can catch Good Times every weeknight on getTV!
1. Bookman (Johnny Brown) — The Family Business (Season 2, Episode 17)
The first appearance of building superintendent Nathan Bookman is a bit of a fake out. He’s not the loveable loser we would come to know in later seasons, but rather a by-the-books stickler who threatens the Evans family with eviction for too much noise. He’s still a jerk when he returns a year later for The Rent Party, an episode which shows off nightclub veteran Johnny Brown’s skills as a mimic. With Amos gone, Brown becomes a regular in season 4 and a featured cast member in seasons five and six. Bookman is otherwise known as “Booger” and “Buffalo Butt,” and his wife Violet (Marilyn Coleman) also appears in two episodes. As of this writing Brown is still with us at age 81.
2. Penny (Janet Jackson) — The Evans Get Involved (Season 5, Episode 1)
After Rolle left, DuBois needed a juicy storyline to solidify her new lead status. Enter Millicent “Penny” Gordon, the daughter of a troubled mother (Chip Fields) who can no longer care for her. Willona adopts Penny and she essentially becomes the fourth Evans kid. (Google “Cousin Oliver Syndrome.”) Good Times was Jackson’s first acting gig (at age 11) and she’s adorable in the role. She became a superstar in the ‘80s and reunited with Dubois (as mother and daughter) in the music video for “Control” in 1986.
3. Keith Anderson (Ben Powers) — Florida’s Homecoming (Season 6, Episode 1)
When Rolle agreed to come back for season six, producers once again needed storyline motivation. That came in the person of football player Keith Anderson, who meets, proposes to, and marries Thelma in the span of three episodes. Florida returns from Arizona just in time for the wedding — and the studio audience screams with delight for a solid minute. Powers was best known to TV viewers for the short-lived 1977 revival of Laugh-In (with Robin Williams) and often demonstrates his talents as an impressionist. He went on to be a cast member on Mike Hammer in 1984–85 and died from liver cancer in 2015.
4. Carl Dixon (Moses Gunn) — A Stormy Relationship (Season 4, Episode 19)
Nineteen episodes after James’ death, Florida meets Michael’s boss at the local hardware store. Carl asks her out and soon proposes, but the euphoria is short lived when he receives a cancer diagnosis. Florida accepts his proposal and the two travel to Arizona for treatment, where they marry. Sadly, Carl succumbs to his illness as the kids and Willona learn when Florida returns for season six. Gunn was a Tony-nominated stage actor and a founder of the Negro Ensemble Company, of which Rolle was also a member.
5. Henry Evans (Richard Ward) — The Family Tree (Season 3, Episode 15)
While researching the Evans family history, Thelma discovers that her grandfather is actually alive — despite what James has told them. It’s unwelcome news for James, who has never forgiven Henry Evans for abandoning his family 35 years ago. Ward, who began his career as a child performer in Vaudeville, would appear as Henry Evans in two more episodes (both after James’ death). Fun fact: “Henry Evans” was the original name of Florida’s husband when John Amos appeared on Maude.
6. “Weeping” Wanda Williams (Helen Martin) — Florida Flips (Season 2, Episode 1)
Helen Martin appeared in seven episodes of Good Times over five seasons. In her first, she’s a wise-cracking member of a woman’s support group complaining about her husband. In her next, it’s revealed that she’s Florida’s neighbor. And in her third episode, the Evans family hosts a rent party for Wanda when she’s down on her luck. But it’s in her fourth episode where she earns her tearful nickname, crying uncontrollably after James’s funeral. A decade later, Martin starred as Pearl Shay on 227.
7. “Looting” Lenny (Dap Sugar Willie) — Florida’s Night Out (Season 4, Episode 11)
Lenny is fur-coat-clad thief with a bouffant hairdo who makes unforgettable cameo appearances in seven episodes. He tends to speak in rhyme, as in his first show when he meets Willona and Florida in a singles bar. “You may have had man-y,” he says, “But until you’ve had Len-nay, you ain’t had an-nay!” He makes four appearances in season five, most memorably in the episode where Willona gets a job doing store security. It’s here where he self-identifies as “Looting” Lenny for the first (and only) time. In his final appearance in season six, Florida rhymes back at him. In real life, Dap Sugar Willie was a standup comic from Philadelphia.
8. Alderman Fred C. Davis (Albert Reed) — The Politicians (Season 3, Episode 9)
Alderman Davis is a pompous, corrupt Chicago politician who helped the Evanses get their apartment. James considers him a friend, but every other Evans thinks he’s useless. In season four, he enlists J.J. to help with youth outreach for his campaign. In season five, we finally get to see his office, when Willona complains about Bookman getting fired. And in the season five finale, he returns when the local daycare center is in danger of closing. In season six, Davis’s niece competes with Florida for a job as bus driver. The Alderman has two running gags: he intentionally mangles Willona’s name and he refers to the Evanses as his “favorite project family.”
9. Marion “Sweet Daddy” Williams (Teddy Wilson) — Sweet Daddy Williams (Season 3, Episode 19)
Loan shark Sweet Daddy is introduced in season three when he hires J.J. to do a painting of his girlfriend. The next time Teddy Wilson guest stars (season four) he plays a different character (nightclub owner Stanley Byrd). Sweet Daddy returns in season six when J.J. needs a loan for Thelma’s wedding (with Bubba Smith playing his bodyguard). He makes his final appearance in the hospital, where he needs a blood transfusion from J.J. to survive a rare illness. Like Rolle and Gunn, Wilson was a member of the Negro Ensemble Company.
10. Ned the Wino (Raymond Allen) — Springtime in the Ghetto (Season 1, Episode 10)
Ned is introduced in season one, when good-hearted Michael brings him home to dry out on the day the apartment is being inspected. He appears again at James’ wake and as Carl’s drinking buddy when he’s diagnosed with cancer. But Ned’s biggest claim to fame may be a show in which he didn’t even appear. In the famous Black Jesus episode, it’s revealed that J.J. used him as the model for his portrait of Jesus Christ.
For airdates and times, visit the Sanford and Son show page.