ABC’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience promised to be full of surprises while bringing back to life Good Times and All in the Family. But nobody was prepared for the shocking return of John Amos, who portrayed Evans family patriarch James for three seasons of Good Times until his departure from the series in 1975.
At the time, the reason Amos left was said to be because he was looking to further his career on the big screen. But in an interview with Jet Magazine from May 27, 1976, he explained that James was killed off due to he and Norman Lear, who developed the series for CBS, having “several ideological disagreements.”
“Norman Lear called me a month ago and told me my option (with Good Times) was not being picked up,” he said. “That’s the same as being fired. Sure, I want to do my thing in films, but not at the expense of my job.”
The differences in opinion, according to The Los Angeles Times, stemmed from the popularity of the character J.J. Evans (played by Jimmy Walker) and how the focus of the series changed to highlight his catch phrases and antics. This feeling was shared by Amos’ co-star Esther Rolle, who was much more vocal about her distaste for the pivot in story line.
“The writers would prefer to put a chicken hat on J.J. and have him prance around saying ‘DY-NO-MITE,’ and that way they could waste a few minutes and not have to write meaningful dialogue,” Amos told the newspaper in a 2006 article about series co-creator Eric Monte.
Lear addressed the issue during an interview with THR in 2014.
“With all the attention being paid, Esther and John began to feel a personal responsibility for every aspect of TV’s first black family’s behavior. That was quite understandable. After reading and hearing from all the world about the show — their pastors, their families, their friends, the press and, soon, their egos — the weight of believing themselves to be the public image of their race became a bit too much for them, especially when they themselves held different views. The Evans family they thought they should be presenting to the world was becoming too good to be true. Allan and I, their white producers and writers, would often hear from Esther or John, ‘No, we wouldn’t do that.’ Or, ‘Uh-uh, I wouldn’t say that,’ or ‘She would never feel that way.’ Some of the cast’s input was invaluable, and I learned a thousand lessons from John and Esther, not just about black people but about our joint humanity. Still, their hypersensitivity to how they were perceived — by social forces that were not of one mind — cost us all dearly.”
But today, the dust seems to have settled, with both Amos and Lear sharing a stage on Sony’s Culver City lot (Rolle died in 1998) where Live in Front of a Studio Audience rebuilt the classic set of the inside of the Evans family’s Chicago apartment in the Cabrini-Green projects. Amos did not reprise his original role of James Evans, though; that went to Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Andre Braugher.
Instead, he played the role of the snide Alderman Fred Davis, originally portrayed by Albert Reed in the 1975 episode titled “The Politician.” The plot focuses on Davis, who is running for re-election against a young politician named Jimmy Pearson (played by Stanley Bennett Clay in the original, and Jharrel Jerome for Live).
Davis has the support of the male Evans family members James, J.J. (portrayed here by Jay Pharoah), and Michael (Asante Blackk), while Florida (Viola Davis), Thelma (Corinne Fox), and neighbor Willona Woods (Tiffany Haddish) are on Pearson’s campaign. This causes friction in the household, with each side battling for the votes of the people.
The episode, which originally aired on Nov. 4, 1975, served to spark dialog around the topics of women’s rights and voter fraud.
Amos was the only member of the original cast who had an active role on Live, but other surviving cast members Walker, Stanis, and DuBois were also in attendance. The legendary Patti LaBelle and actor Anthony Anderson sang the theme song, with a little help from a gospel choir that charged out of Florida and James’ bedroom.
Another notable supporter of the production was Carlena Evans, daughter of series creator Mike Evans, who sat in the audience.
Good times, indeed.