Good Times was a spinoff of a spinoff that premiered on CBS in February 1974. It was the first primetime sitcom featuring an African American family, and during its six-season run it tackled such serious problems as gang violence, unemployment, discrimination, poverty, and child abuse. But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, there was always laughter and love among the close-knit Evans family. Were things just as cozy backstage between the performers? Not always …
1. “LIONEL JEFFERSON” HELPED TO CREATE IT
Michael Evans, who played Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family at the time, had heard through the grapevine that CBS was interested in producing a series about a black family. He approached Norman Lear and asked if he could try his hand at pitching a script. Lear gave him the OK, and Evans collaborated with his friend, Eric Monte. They wrote a script that featured the Black family: father John, mother Mattie, and children J.J., Thelma, and Michael. Lear liked the concept, but he wanted the family to be fatherless. Monte and Evans objected to the change, and the project was put on the back burner.
2. IT WAS A SPINOFF OF MAUDE, WHICH WAS A SPINOFF OF ALL IN THE FAMILY.
The All in the Family spinoff Maude became a ratings hit in 1972 and Lear smelled another spinoff in the making. He decided that Esther Rolle, who played Maude’s housekeeper Florida Evans, could carry a series on her own. So The Black Family pilot script was resurrected and used as the basis for the new series. But Lear was still adamant that there should be no father in the picture. Rolle stood her ground and refused to sign on for the project unless the “James” character was included.
“I couldn’t compound the lie that Black fathers don’t care about their children,” Rolle later explained of her stance. Producers agreed to her demand and hired John Amos, who’d appeared occasionally on Maude as Florida’s husband (although his name was “Henry” at the time) to continue his role.
3. PRODUCERS BELIEVED THAT RALPH CARTER WOULD BE THE SHOW’S BREAKOUT STAR.
The next actor to be hired after Rolle and Amos was 12-year-old Ralph Carter, who was cast as the youngest son, Michael. Michael was nicknamed the “Militant Midget” by James because of his outspoken views on anything to do with politics or civil rights. Producers believed that Carter would be the “breakout” character of the show, not only because he was cute and looked younger than his age, but also because it would be humorous yet poignant that a child would be espousing such zealous viewpoints. Carter was appearing on Broadway in the musical Raisin when he caught the eye of Good Times’s producers, and Lear bought out the remainder of his contract to enable him to appear on the series (as evidenced in the ending credits of the first season).
4. JIMMIE WALKER’S POPULARITY WITH AUDIENCES MADE HIM LESS POPULAR WITH HIS CASTMATES.
Jimmie Walker was a stand-up comic who had been headlining comedy clubs across the country for several years when he landed a job at CBS as the warm-up act for the short-lived James Coco sitcom Calucci’s Department. It was there that Lear happened to catch his act and offered him the role of J.J. He had no acting or television experience, but he had impeccable comic timing and an expressive, fluid face, so he quickly became an audience favorite. And the more laughs he got, the more jokes the writers threw his way, which didn’t endear him to Rolle or Amos.
5. JOHN AMOS WAS DEEMED A "DISRUPTIVE ELEMENT."
While Amos admired Walker as a comedian, he was unhappy about the amount of attention the J.J. character was getting versus the other two children. “Michael aspired to be a Supreme Court Justice and Thelma wanted to be a surgeon, but all the emphasis was on J.J. and his chicken hat and him saying ‘dyn-o-mite’ every third page,” he said in an interview with the American Archive of Television. He also admitted that he wasn’t the most diplomatic person in those days and that the producers “got tired of having their lives threatened over jokes.”
Amos apparently complained one too many times, because he received a phone call from Lear advising him that he was considered to be a “disruptive element” and his services were no longer required. To explain the absence of Amos, the first episode of season four showed Florida receiving a telegram informing her that James had been killed in an automobile accident while en route to Mississippi, where he’d just landed a promising new job.
6. ESTHER ROLLE ALSO GREW DISENCHANTED WITH THE SERIES’ EVOLUTION.
Rolle was similarly disenchanted with the way J.J. was evolving. “He’s 18 and he doesn’t work,” she told Ebony Magazine in September 1975 of Walker’s character. “He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think. The show didn’t start out to be that."
Fed up with the turn the series had taken, in the midst of season four she demanded a raise along with better scripts. She also voiced her dismay that the writers had given Florida a new love interest (Moses Gunn as Carl Dixon) so quickly after James’s death. The producers responded by asking the writers if they could write scripts that didn’t include the mother. So Florida married Carl and the couple moved to Arizona, where the weather would be better for his newly diagnosed lung cancer. Willona Woods, the gossipy neighbor and family friend, was suddenly promoted to the new maternal figure for the Evans children.
7. JANET JACKSON JOINED THE CAST, BUT STRUGGLED THROUGHOUT HER RUN.
In an effort to transform Willona from sassy swinging single to a believable surrogate mother, the writers decided she needed a child of her own. They forewent the traditional nine-month gestation period and instead added Janet Jackson as Penny Gordon, an abused child who is abandoned by her birth mother and adopted by Willona. Jackson was 11 years old when she started on the show and has since stated that she was unhappy during her entire run. She’d begun maturing at an early age, so the wardrobe department had to bind her chest with strips of gauze before each taping.
8. THE SHOW PRODUCED MORE THAN ONE TEEN IDOL.
Walker was the breakout star of the show, but both Carter and BernNadette Stanis (who played Thelma Evans) achieved bona fide teen idol status thanks to their exposure on Good Times, and were in steady competition with the Jackson brothers and Diana Ross in the Hollywood gossip columns. Carter launched a successful singing career during his spare time, and Stanis became a poster favorite and regular magazine cover girl.
9. WALKER RECRUITED A FEW SOON-TO-BE-FAMOUS FACES.
Walker didn’t forget his friends once his television career took off; in fact, he hired several of them who were still struggling comedians to write material for his stand-up act. Two of those pals were Jay Leno and David Letterman. Walker finagled a small guest spot on Good Times for Leno during season three. Years later, after Good Times had been cancelled and Letterman was the star of Late Night, Walker could still phone Letterman at any time and get a spot on his show. “Obviously David Letterman’s a major star,” Walker told The A.V. Club. “He’s got billions of dollars, what does he need Jimmie Walker for? But David told me, ‘You’re my friend, I will always have you on my show, ‘til the last breath in my body goes.'"
10. ESTHER ROLLE RETURNED FOR THE FINAL SEASON.
Following the death of James Evans and Florida’s sudden move to Arizona, audience interest in Good Times began to wane. Eventually, producers decided that Amos and Rolle may have been right—that losing the “family” element of the series may have lost them some viewers as well. So they went back to Rolle and asked her to return; she repeated her previous requirements—more money and better scripts—and the producers agreed. Unfortunately, it was a bit too late. The series ended with its sixth season.