45 Years Ago: Esther Rolle Takes a Stand by Leaving ‘Good Times’
Good Times, the TV show that ran on CBS from 1974 to 1979, has been widely and rightfully lauded for being the first show on U.S. television to depict a Black nuclear family. But like many such initial endeavors, a great deal of behind-the-scenes controversy attended the show, and they came to a head in the spring of 1977, when star Esther Rolle decided to leave.
Rolle's story is fascinating: Born in Florida to Bahamian immigrants, she was the 10th of 18 children. She graduated from Yale University and then moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting. She supported herself with a full-time job in the garment district while acting with the Negro Ensemble Company, a haven for minority actors struggling to break into the white-dominated worlds of Broadway and Hollywood.
She appeared in numerous plays in New York in the '60s, and her film debut came in Michael Roemer's 1964 movie Nothing but a Man. But her breakthrough came in 1972 when she was cast as Florida Evans on the CBS show Maude, which was a spin-off of All in the Family, at the time one of the most popular television shows. She played a Black housekeeper who worked for Bea Arthur's character Maude Findlay, a white woman living in suburban New York.
Rolle's character was so popular that less than 18 months after the first episode of Maude, Rolle was given a spin-off of her own, Good Times. Premiering on Feb. 8, 1974, it was the first American TV show to be a spin-off of a spin-off and the first to portray a Black family of the type that in its white incarnations had been dominating sitcoms since the '50s.
Set in a poor neighborhood in Chicago, the show tells the story of Florida and James Evans (John Amos) and their three children: J.J., Thelma and Michael (played by Jimmie Walker, Bern Nadette Stanis and Ralph Carter, respectively). The initial structure of the show was familiar to audiences and in particular those who were familiar with All in the Family and Maude. James worked several jobs at the same time, struggling to keep the family out of poverty, while Florida worked to keep the family together. And there were the usual conflicts between the parents and kids over the topics of the day – whether the kids had jobs, whom they were dating and Michael's social activism.
There were also several recurring supporting characters: a divorcee named Willona Woods who was Florida's best friend, the annoying building super Nathan Bookman, a local alcoholic named Ned the Wino, a neighborhood pimp, the local alderman and others. The show initially used all of these characters to create a distinct atmosphere of life in a Chicago housing project and to tackle social issues.
But almost immediately problems arose. The actors couldn't help but notice that while the cast was almost all Black, the writers of the show were nearly all white. As Amos put it in an interview with VladTV, the writers' "idea of what a Black family would be and what a Black father would be was totally different from mine, and mine was steeped in reality."
This feeling that the show was descending into stereotype soon became centered on Walker's J.J., who had rapidly become the show's most popular character. J.J. was a likable, goofy slacker, and as his popularity increased, the writers drove him into being more and more broadly comedic.
Slowly, the whole show came to be centered on him and his catchphrase – "Dyn-o-mite!" – which producer John Rich insisted he say in every episode.
Amos and Rolle, who both had activist inclinations of their own, were displeased by the turn the show was taking. As Rolle put it in a 1975 interview with Ebony: "He's 18 and he doesn't work. He can't read and write. He doesn't think. The show didn't start out to be that. … I resent the imagery that says to Black kids that you can make it by standing on the corner saying 'Dyn-o-mite!"
Fierce disagreements among actors and producers over the difference between the show's initial socially conscious premise and the new direction it was taking led to Amos being fired from the show after the third season. The writers handled it by having James Evans die in an automobile accident while visiting the south, leaving Florida a widow. A year later, in March 1977, Rolle, too, left the show that had been created for her; the writers handled this departure by having her meet and marry a man named Carl Dixon (Moses Gunn) and move to Arizona.
The show's ratings were already sliding by that point, and even the addition of Janet Jackson to the cast for the fifth season — as a traumatized young girl taken in by Willona — couldn’t save them. In a desperate bid to shore up the show's popularity, the producers convinced Rolle to come back for a final season in 1978-79, but the damage had already been done. Good Times, which had started so promisingly as a show devoted to an actual, if comedic, depiction of Black life, had become just another goofy sitcom in an era dominated by them. The sixth season was to be the last.
Rolle continued to work steadily in film, television and onstage, and in 1979 won an Emmy for her role in Summer of My German Soldier. She died in 1998, credited with being one of the premier Black actresses who did the most to smash the color line on TV. And it was in that role, as Florida Evans in Good Times – a show that never quite lived up to the promise that she and some of the other cast members had believed it could fulfill – that she would always be remembered.