When people ask me why I spend so much time watching old movies, I point to things like the news this week that Sony Pictures intends to do a feature film version of the 1970s CBS sitcom “Good Times.”
I suppose it’s possible that the project could provide some kind of catharsis for series co-creator Eric Monte, who had to deal with so many frustrations when the show aired. Maybe he’ll be the one factor that can give it some credibility, since he could theoretically bring to the movie concepts and situations not possible on network television in the ’70s. My inclination is to be doubtful.
Whatever happens, the announcement is just the latest reminder that Hollywood’s obsession with franchises has sapped much of its creativity.
Thinking how it all looks hand-me down1
Monte’s co-creator on “Good Times” was Mike Evans, best known for his role as Lionel Jefferson on “All In The Family.” Evans was in a position to think that the show could be something special — an honest depiction of a black family. By 1973, he had been a regular on the medium’s most groundbreaking series in decades, a true classic that told many truths, and did so within a solid comedy framework even as it shocked American viewers. If any company at the time was capable of doing justice to Monte and Evans’ idea, it was surely Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions.
Spinoffs were proving to be quite lucrative. Having spun off “Maude” from “All In The Family,” Tandem encouraged Monte and Evans to base their sitcom on the character of Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), the maid on “Maude,” who would move from Tuckahoe, N.Y. to Chicago with her family. On “Maude,” Florida’s husband, then called Henry (John Amos), was a firefighter. In “Good Times,” Henry became James Evans.
The show debuted on Friday, Feb. 8, 1974 at 8:30 Eastern time, opposite the one-season Dom DeLuise sitcom “Lotsa Luck” on NBC and ABC’s “The Six Million Dollar Man,” then in its debut season.
Ironically, “Good Times” was a mid-season replacement for another black-oriented sitcom — “Roll Out,” a show about African-American servicemen during World War II from “M*A*S*H*” TV series co-creators Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds. Garrett Morris, a regular on “Roll Out,” tells a very interesting story in a 2012 Archive of American Television interview about its origin and a barroom incident involving lead actor Stu Gilliam that scuttled the series. He refers to Gilliam as a “dodohead.” Watch that interview here.
At the end of its first season, “Good Times” was a success, finishing No. 17 in Nielsen’s ranking of the Top 20 programs for 1973-74 with a 21.4 rating. CBS had enough confidence in the show to use it as the 8:00 anchor for its Tuesday night lineup that fall.
“Good Times” dominated the time slot against NBC’s fading police drama “Adam-12,” then in its last season, and ABC’s second-year sitcom “Happy Days.” It completed its first full season at No. 7 in the Nielsens, with a 25.8 rating.
Audiences were responding to such Season 2 episodes as “The Gang,” a two-parter which implausibly positioned skinny, silly J.J. (Jimmie Walker) as a recruitment target for a gang led by a vicious kid named Mad Dog (Oscar DeGruy). When J.J. gets shot at the end of Part 1, John Amos, ferocious as James even under normal circumstances, turns in a memorable demonstration of a father’s fury, vowing revenge. Part 2 careers into a maudlin brick wall, however, when James ends up feeling sorry for Mad Dog, who has obviously been harmed by the absence of a father, and has now been abandoned by his exasperated mother (Lynn Hamilton, “Sanford & Son’s” Donna).
The critical reaction to the show was mixed, but whatever praise it received was usually reserved for Amos and Rolle, who clearly gave the series whatever heart and integrity it possessed. But the two leads had become concerned over the increasing emphasis on J.J., whose inane catchphrases (not just the constant “DY-NO-MITE!” but others like “Well, you know — what can I saaay”) and general stupidity (“Algebra? What am I — an Algerian?”) represented a reversion to the worst black stereotypes of decades before. J.J. was shown as having some talent as an artist, which might have been taken in some interesting directions, but Executive Producer Alan Manings, who was white, seemed oblivious to the problem.
In a July 1974 Variety article, Manings said “Good Times” wanted to avoid clichés, but, tellingly, he was referring to time-honored sitcom conventions — “the forgotten anniversary, the surprise birthday party” — not racial stereotypes.2
Monte’s and Evans’ hopes for the series were dashed for good when the situation imploded in the show’s third season.
The program’s tapings for Season 3 were delayed by a week when Amos had a contract dispute with Tandem, Ebony magazine reported in its September 1975 edition. Though Amos declined comment for the story, an unnamed source said the conflict also involved “the way black men have been portrayed in this country all along.”3
Esther Rolle was blunt about her concerns in the same article, saying of the J.J. character: “He can’t read and write. He doesn’t work. The show didn’t start out to be like that … Little by little — with the help of the artist, I suppose, because they couldn’t do that to me — they have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”4
Walker, a young actor on the make who had found sudden stardom, was in the awkward position of either continuing to do what had brought him that fame or risking it to gain the approval of his older colleagues. “I don’t think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said [as J.J.],” he was quoted as saying in the Ebony piece. “… I don’t think any TV show can put out an image to save people. My advice is to not follow me. I don’t want to be a follower or a leader … just a doer.”5
Manings’ quotes in the story amounted to a shrug. He said, honestly enough, that the J.J. character had “taken off,” and that the showrunners would do “whatever functions for the purpose of the show.”6
But during the 1975-76 season, “Happy Days” had started to win the 8:00 time period on Tuesday nights, part of a larger pattern that increasingly disturbed CBS President Bob Wussler and Programming Vice President Bud Grant.
CBS had won the ratings battle among the Big Three networks every year since 1956, but the momentum was shifting toward ABC. ABC had dominated the season’s second half, thanks to its Tuesday comedy block — which now included “Laverne and Shirley”; the miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man”; and its spinoff of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “The Bionic Woman.” Though CBS did win again in the 1975-76 season, with a 19.5 rating to ABC’s 18.97, many advertising executives predicted that ABC would be on top by the end of the following season.8
Against that backdrop, the last thing the execs wanted to hear was that John Amos was being “temperamental” on the “Good Times” set. The actor said he got a phone call in April 1976 from Norman Lear, who told him his option for Season 4 would not be picked up. “That’s the same as being fired,” he told Jet for a story that ran in the pocket-sized publication’s May 27 issue.9
“Good Times” ended the 1975-76 season as the 24th most-watched show on TV, with a 21.0 rating.
In Season 4, CBS moved the series to Wednesday nights at 8, where an ABC show again controlled the time slot: “The Bionic Woman.” Even with the time shift and the death of James Evans in the two-part premiere, “Good Times” finished the year at No. 26 in the Nielsen rankings.
The combination of even more J.J. idiocy and the related walkout of Esther Rolle obliterated Season 5. By the end of 1977-78, the show ranked 53rd among regular series, and Rolle’s return for the sixth and last year was just anticlimactic, as “Good Times” limped to a 14.4 rating for the year, good enough for No. 83 on the Nielsen list.
The shame of it is that like other shows from the Lear stable, “Good Times” examined issues worth exploring, including teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, suicide, racial discrimination and the problems of public housing. With a more nuanced approach closer to what Monte and Evans envisioned, the show could have been a masterpiece.
Of course, there would still be no valid reason for Hollywood to consider making a movie out of it in 2013.
– David B. Wilkerson
- Good Times end title ▲
- “Teleseries Starring Blacks: Quiet Revolution A Long Time Coming,” by Dave Kaufman. Variety, July 8, 1974, pg. 7. ▲
- “Bad Times On The ‘Good Times’ Set,” by Louie Robinson. Ebony magazine, Sept. 1975, pg. 38 ▲
- Ibid, pg. 35. ▲
- Ibid, pg. 38 ▲
- Ibid, pg. 36. ▲
- Variety, April 21, 1976, pg. 72 ▲
- “Will the upside go down in television?”, Broadcasting magazine, May 3, 1976, pgs. 21-22. ▲
- ” ‘I Was Fired,’ reveals Good Times’ John Amos,” Jet magazine, May 27, 1976, pg. 57. ▲