Question: Question: While reading your answer about spinoffs [Jan. 28's column, third answer], I got to thinking about Good Times. If I remember right, didn't Esther Rolle leave the show for a while? If so, why? Thank you and keep up the good work. I'm a big fan of the column. Daphne M., Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
Answer: Televisionary: The late Ms. Rolle, who passed away in 1998 at the age of 78, was unhappy with the show for the same reason Good Times became a hit soon after its 1974 launch the antics of Jimmie Walker's character, J.J. The character, whose "dy-no-mite!" became a popular catch-phrase during the show's mid- to late-'70s run, was uncomfortably close to the oldtime stereotypical depictions of blacks, she and co-star John Amos felt, and that was why both eventually left the series. "We felt we had to do something drastic," she told The Los Angeles Times. "We had lost the essence of the show."
Amos walked in 1976, and Rolle followed suit the next year. And though Rolle returned in 1978, it wasn't enough to save the series. It was gone from the CBS schedule in 1979.
Rolle's displeasure with what she saw as an Amos and Andy-type character shouldn't have surprised anyone. After all, she only agreed to leave her successful New York stage career to play a maid on Maude, which spun off Good Times, because producer Norman Lear assured her it wouldn't be an insulting role. "No! I don't want to be no Hollywood maid," she recalled telling them in a 1974 TV Guide interview. "They don't want a black woman. They want something they cooked up in their heads."
Lear told her that was exactly the kind of backbone he wanted in the character someone who'd hold her own against the opinionated Maude (Beatrice Arthur). Convinced, she showed up for work, but it wasn't an easy blending process. "The first time I saw her I was a little in awe," Arthur said. "She was so sedate and terribly dignified. I didn't think she'd ever loosen up, but she did after the first day."
Rolle stiffened up because from the very first try-out she felt like a fish out of water. "I arrived at the audition, the only black among a sea of white young actresses auditioning for Maude's daughter [a role that eventually went to Adrienne Barbeau]: one fly in a bowl of milk." And when it came time to hit the set, she initially distanced herself as a defensive mechanism. "It was fear. I was terrified. Me one little black folk in this here white folks. I was grand as protective coloring. As a black, I had to prove myself. I was uptight."
As for Amos, he knew early on that Walker was one of the main attractions of the show. While taping a scene in which J.J. was shot, for instance, the actor looked down at his wounded son and ad-libbed: "This'll kill us in the Nielsens if he dies!" And despite that popularity or maybe because of it the actor left.
For Walker's part, Good Times was a day job that paid the bills while he pursued his real love of stand-up comedy. And both careers were a far cry from the years spent growing up in the Morris Avenue area of the South Bronx. "I'll tell you about Morris Avenue," he said in 1974. "There were like 20 guys I hung out with on the street. Five of 'em were dead before they were old enough to vote. The rest of 'em? If they aren't in the slam, or 'away for a rest' someplace else, they're still on the street, hustlin'. And drinkin', smokin', shootin', snortin', sniffin'."
Matter of fact, Walker went away for "a little rest" himself after his one shot at bigtime crime went awry. "One night I and three other guys planned a big caper," he said. "Gonna rip off this candy warehouse. We stole four boxes of Chunkys and made a clean getaway. We thought. Next day the cops come and picked us up, one by one, and took us to the station house. I was put on probation, and that was the end of my career in organized crime."
Good thing, too. After all, the success of his controversial character may have driven his two co-stars away, but since it also helped Good Times to a top-20 Nielsen ranking its first season and a top-10 its second, Walker's second career made for a much more impressive résumé.