‘Good Times’ turns 50: A look back at the landmark Norman Lear sitcom

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“Good Times,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Feb. 8, suffered from an identity crisis during its six-season run on CBS. So much so, the lead actors — Esther Rolle and John Amos — would leave the popular second spinoff of ‘All in the Family”(Rolle would eventually return) because the sitcom changed focus.

Norman Lear ruled the airwaves in the 1970s. He blew up the conception of a family sitcom in 1971 with the CBS sitcom “All in the Family” which focused on a working class family from Queen lead by the bigoted patriarch Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). During the first season, Bea Arthur guest starred as Maude, Edith Bunker’s (Jean Stapleton) favorite cousin who was the antithesis of Archie-outspoken, much married, ultra-liberal.

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And after a second appearance on “All in the Family,” Arthur got her own series “Maude” in the fall of 1972. The breakout performer on that series was Esther Rolle as the family’s no-nonsense maid who doesn’t suffer fools lightly especially Maude.

Florida’s popularity led to “Good Times.”  Created by Eric Monte (“Cooley High”) and Mike Evans, who played Lionel Jefferson on “All in the Family” and for six seasons on “The Jeffersons,” and developed by Lear, the sitcom looked at working class family living in the projects in Chicago. “Good Times” had no connection to “Maude” other than Florida. It wasn’t set in New York but Chicago. Her husband was named Henry in “Maude” but James in the series. The series was the first to show an African American family with a patriarch. Rolle, who was a force of nature, insisted that Florida had a husband who was a loving, albeit, family man.

And John Amos, late of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” was chosen to play James Evans, who juggles more than one job to make ends meet for the family.  Often he earned money playing pool. The series also starred Jimmie Walker as oldest son, J.J., who’s favorite catch phrase was “Dyn-o-mite.” He was an aspiring artist who didn’t meet a hustle he did like and envisioned himself as a Casanova-in one episode he believes he has a STD! Bern Nadette Stanis played Thelma, as the middle child and the voice of reason in the family. She’s a bright student who excels at high school and junior college. . Ralph Carter played youngest son Michael, who was an activist for black rights. And Ja’Net DuBois rounded out the cast as Florida’s neighbor ad best friend, Willona

The series looked at some serious subjects. In the pilot episode, the Evans family are going to be evicted from their apartment unless they come up with $72 to pay back rent. And in another episode Florida is arrested leading a protest in front of the local grocery store after the family gets ill from eating a roast she bought there.  James nearly accepts a job from an old friend who is now a crooked evangelist until Florida convinces him it’s against his morals. In yet another installment, Michael, who is one of the most intelligent students in his class, performs poorly on an IQ test. The reason? The test was created for certain demographics excluding black people.

“Good Times” was an instant hit with audiences. But both Rolle and Amos were soon unhappy with the direction the series. Instead of looking at serious subjects, the show began concentrating on the comic antics of Walker; producers even insisted he say “Dyn-o-mite” every episode. In 1975, Rolle vented her frustration with Ebony Magazine: “He’s 18 and he doesn’t work. He can’t read or write. He doesn’t think. The show didn’t start out to be that…Little by little—with the help of the artist, I suppose, because they couldn’t do that to me, they have made J.J. more stupid and enlarged the role. Negative images have been slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child.”

Amos also was upset that the series was veering away from social issues and focused his anger on Lear.  At the end of the third season, he was let go. Amos told me in a 2012 L.A. Times interview that though he wouldn’t have changed his “ultimate actions,” he felt in retrospect, “I would have been considerably more diplomatic. I wouldn’t have brought such a confrontational ‘Let’s take it outside attitude.’ I was still recovering from post-traumatic stress from football, boxing and being young, aggressive and angry.”

The two eventually made up. Amos starred in Lear’s 1994  sitcom “704 Hauser,” playing the patriarch of a family who moves into Archie Bunker’s old house. When Lear and Jimmy Kimmel were presenting their second “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” for ABC in December 2019, they recreated a classic episode of “Good Times” and Amos made a strongly received cameo.

Rolle left the series at the end of the fourth season; Johnny Brown’s character of the building superintendent became more prominent, and an 11-year-old Janet Jackson joined the cast as Penny Gordon, an abused girl who had been abandoned by her mother and was eventually adopted by Willona. But it wasn’t “Good Times” for the show’s ratings. The series needed Rolle to anchor the series.

She returned for the sixth and final season after the producers agreed to her demand for a pay raise, better scripts and making J.J. more of an adult. The actress said in a 1978 interview that there were no hard feelings when she returned for the sixth season and ultimate season.   “My cast welcomed me back with open arms. I think they realized they needed me.”

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