Speaker Tell me what you watched growing up. What were the shows that you watch on TV show shows with Sid Caesar?
Speaker Imogene Coca? Howie Morris and all the writers. The Milton Berle Show, Uncle Milty, where two men from Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico, who could forget that Amos and Andy, all the comedy shows that were available. I loved comedy. The children shows the animation wasn't quite as good, but we watched nevertheless, there was something called junior frolics when we got our first TV, all the cartoons were in black and white and they just consisted of a bunch of mice running across the screen doing splits, you know, but it was fun. The first TV we got was a big giant. Motorola must have weighed 1000 pounds. Screen was about eight inches. And all I got to watch for the first few weeks for test patterns because we had no antenna. Ultimately, we got an antenna and then I begin to watch more test patterns.
Speaker So did you know that show was Norman's first game?
Speaker I had no idea who Norman Lear was.
Speaker That was Carl Reiner, my dad, Carl Reiner.
Speaker Yeah. I was aware that Carl Reiner was one of the actors because I'd seen him on other skits. And years later, he was to direct me in a Broadway play called Tough to Get Help. So I got some firsthand Carl Reiner tutelage if he would go talk to him tomorrow.
Speaker Um, so you had no idea who this Norman Lear was at that time? No one was the first time you had when you heard about him?
Speaker Well, the first time I heard of Norman Lear was when I got the chance to see the original pilot for All in the Family. My manager at that time was a gentleman by the name of Wally Amos, who had created Famous Amos cookies. And Wally came to me one day and said, Come up to the office. I want you to take a look at the pilot. I did. And the pilot was for All in the Family, the original cast. And I told Wally after I saw it, I said, they're not going to put that on the air. It's just too wild. It's too crazy. And it's everything they don't want on television. And but this was after I got off the floor from laughing because it was hysterical, but it was obviously breakthrough material. And I just refused to believe that the networks would put it on. Obviously they did and obviously became a big hit. So but Norman's always had his finger right on the pulse of what the American public wants to see, and it hasn't failed him.
Speaker What did he think was funny about it?
Speaker The honesty, the honesty of Carol's Carol Connor's character, Archie Bunker, and his racist attitudes borne out of ignorance and the way I loved the way that Mike Stivic, the meathead, would cut him down and show him how stupid he was, because what he's really holding up a mirror to the world's racism and the country's stupidity in regards to our superficial differences. But Norman always had a knack for being able to do it in such a way that he could count on the most powerful messages in humor. Like, for example, when we did good times, we covered some subject matter that no one is bothering to even try and do today. Things like JJ getting shot and some of the issues we covered are prevalent in the news today. JJ getting shot by a gang member, teenage pregnancy, STDs, all sorts of things, drug use in the community, seniors being forced to eat pet food because of economic constraints.
Speaker Nobody touches subject matter like that today, but we did, thanks to the courageousness of Norman Lear and his writers.
Speaker So. Tell me, going back a little bit. Going way back again, go back to Norman, but.
Speaker Did it ever strike you when you were got this TV and you were starting to watch these shows that did you see people that looked like you, that looked like your family, that you felt like you could relate to? And if so, what were they?
Speaker You mean initially when we first got to TV?
Speaker Yeah, like when you were a kid growing up teen 20s.
Speaker No, they weren't. There weren't any African-Americans on TV at that time to speak of, with the exception of, uh, well, Amos and Andy.
Speaker That was one of my favorites. Julia with. What's your name? Diane, Carol.
Speaker I think she played a nurse and but they weren't they weren't any black families on TV that really to speak of us, so there wasn't a great deal. I can emulate my if I wanted to see someone that looked like me on the screen, it was usually Sidney Poitier in the movies.
Speaker I was about it, um.
Speaker So why did you think that you wanted? Why did you decide you were going to be an actor?
Speaker Well, I got kicked out of every school I ever went to for cutting up and for doing the wrong things at the inappropriate times, you know, cracking the rest of the class up and and always cracking jokes. And then I guess I was a compulsive performer. And I like to write I like to write jokes and I love to laugh, so. It was sort of inevitable that I would think that I could have some fun at it. I never really believed truly that I could make a living at it until I got my first job was performing in television, writing for a local television show. Then I felt like I could do it.
Speaker Do you have any initial thoughts on either of us or about that episode, that episode or.
Speaker Well, that episode in particular rang a bell with me because I had a comparable relationship with my own dad in which he left when I was very young. He went off to the war Second World War, and left my mom and I in New Jersey and I wouldn't see him again until I was in my teens. I was about two when he departed and. He had come back from the service and evidently he and my mom had decided to get a divorce. He took off again and I wouldn't see him again for a long, long time until I actually until I started college here in California from New Jersey. I came out on a football scholarship and I stayed with him for a while. And that's when we got to know each other as father and son. And it worked out fine.
Speaker Did you did you feel that when you did that?
Speaker Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. In fact, Norman turned to me after we finished the final rehearsal and he said, well, you said that Richard Ward really brings a lot out of you, meaning his performance really affected me and it was Richard Ward, but it was also me seeing my father in his position. So in my mind, as the actor, I was really talking to my dad. You know, it was it was poignant. And I think, Norman, for that opportunity, because my father and I became extremely close after that episode because it touched my dad, too.
Speaker And he apologized in an offhanded way and said, I'm sorry, but that's the way things worked out. So it was a good episode and it was true to life.
Speaker Tell me about your character, but what kind of man was you who was? Was James.
Speaker James was really a prototype when my dad was a prototype and I just tried to replicate my father's actions and his decisions when it came to making decisions. And I tried to. I tried to be him. In fact, he asked me one day he saw me, I was at the house having dinner with him and his wife, my my stepmom, my niece. And he looked at me real hard and he said, You're studying me, aren't you? And I said, yes. And he said, Are you going to do me on TV? And I said, yes, and he said, well, you just make sure you do me right now. I said, OK, Pop, I'll do the very, very best I can. So he was aware that I was trying to capture his nuances way. He got angry. He had a short fuse. And I employed that in the character where James could go off at any time without. A tremendous amount of provocation, and it worked, it worked, he had a great sense of humor, is a wonderful, wonderful storyteller, and my mom was really more of the actress, but Pop was the storyteller. So between the two of them, I got the best of both worlds, the ability to tell a story believably. And that's pretty much what I regard myself as now more than an actor. I'm a storyteller or as much a storyteller as an actor, and it's worked out for me.
Speaker Tell me about. Yes, I do. Do this.
Speaker Trent Lott, was it?
Speaker I said it's a trick we're doing. Oh, OK.
Speaker Almost ready, almost.
Speaker I want to hear about who James was, though, as.
Speaker I'm not sure I understand what the dissembles anything was. He was he. Based on anyone I know, you said he's based on your father.
Speaker You know, I fashioned from my dad, my dad did a tremendous work ethic, which is why James Evans had a very, very strong as did my mom. Both my parents had extremely strong work ethics. And my dad was a self-taught master mechanic. There was no internal combustion engine that he could not repair until the cars became computerized. And then he pretty much gave up on it, on doing repairs because he'd become just too much. And he didn't feel like going back to school to learn computers at his age, particularly automotive computers. So he would just do jobs in his garage, at his house for friends and neighbors. But he was an extremely competent mechanic myself. I've got ten thumbs, but I learned what I could learn from him, but was a little difficult because he was such a proficient mechanic. Anyway, like I said, he had a strong work ethic. I never saw my dad. He just was not one to lay around and wait for things to come to him. He was always out there even when he got older and arthritis had so afflicted his hands that he couldn't properly hold a tool he had in his step. His wife, my stepmom, duct tape the tools to his hands and whatever she needed, she'd get him to rinse. He'd duct tape it to his hand and he would do it. He just at eighty five or six, he was still repairing transmissions and mufflers and and and pulling doing piston jobs on cars. He was an exceptional mechanic with incredible work ethic. I admire or admired him tremendously. And I admired him to the degree that when he had been driving a tractor trailer for other people, sort of like a free agent driver for years. And when good times happened and I found myself in a position, I said to him one day, wouldn't you like to have your own truck? And he said, sure, it'd be great. But I mean, that was pretty much beyond his his dream. And I said, well, let's get one. He said, You Ceressus it. Absolutely. So we begin to shop. And he said, What kind of truck do you think we ought to get when I know anything about trucks? There were a couple of models that I like just from the look of one one. I'm one of them was called a white Freightliner. And the thing that made it unique to me was it had a flat front with a big windshield and you set over the engine. So you're right there in the front of the truck, right at the windshield. And I just like the look of it. And Dad said, you don't want one of those things.
Speaker I said it was I publicity. Oh, you'd be the first one to the accident. And I got to thinking about it. I said, yeah, it would be nice to have a lot more engine out front. So we ended up getting a Peterbilt or was it a KW Kenworth? I think it was a KW, yes. A KW work, which is one of his favorite trucks. Anyway, we put our our name on the side, Amundsen's son and I felt like we had arrived. We'd become part of the American dream, you know.
Speaker So. OK. OK, um, and this was after you were getting your paycheck?
Speaker Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Speaker I had my daughter pick out the colors for the truck and pop and I designed the sign and it was I thought I felt like I'd hit the lottery, you know, it's just.
Speaker Tell me about the first time you went out for the part, did you read a script? What what went through your head when you saw what Norman was trying to get off the ground?
Speaker Well, Miss Roll had insisted that. She would have a husband on the show, she did not want it to be another matriarchal situation. So I was invited by my agent and by Norman Lear to come in and read, come into the studio and read with Miss Role. And that was my first time meeting her. And the meeting went well. It was almost a natural chemistry initially, and we got along fine. And I did the reading for Sheamus, Mr. Lear maybe twice. And when I got finished, she turned to him and said he'll do just fine. And that's I became Judge Daddy only because Miss Miss Roe wanted to husband.
Speaker Uh, she's she's pretty awesome, but the concept of the story, what did what did he think of it?
Speaker That this this family, this demographic, this.
Speaker This living situation. Yeah, it was the first I don't know of any other.
Speaker Situation comedy that what they're already. Were you surprised at it?
Speaker I wasn't terribly surprised. I was gratified that they were going to deal with a complete family, that there would be a father. And I knew modeling the character of James after my own dad, he was going to be a strong father. It wasn't he wasn't going to be the typical television dad who was stupid and letting the kids run his life and tell them what to do. He was a thinking man. He wasn't tremendously educated, but he had a strong work ethic. He loved it, loved his family. And he was determined to have them do better in life. And all those things were. Attributes that my dad had, so it was very easy to fashion James Evans after John Aimer senior.
Speaker So where does the family live?
Speaker Describe the environment they lived in the projects, Cabrini Green projects in Chicago, which are infamous and infamous project development. And there's a lot of crime there. There's a lot of poverty there. And there's a lot of what you might imagine goes on in an inner city project. And the family had been there for the longest time. People really don't know what the dynamics of living in the projects are and that you can only make.
Speaker A certain amount of money, because if you make in excess of that amount, you aren't allowed to live in the projects. So the fact that James could not always find a steady pardon me, a steady job to keep income coming all the time wasn't a terribly bad thing. It made sense from the standpoint that he wasn't bringing home so much money that they had to move out of the projects. He was making barely subsistence wages, but he kicked that in with what little bit that Esther was bringing into the house and JTR painting. And he sold and somehow the family survived.
Speaker Where do you guys where did this family fit is in the American dream, where where did you guys figure it on that?
Speaker I don't know how you would rate us in terms of our income, but we were certainly in the lower strata. OK, one year living in the projects, the man doesn't have a steady job. So I would say we'd probably be in the lower lower percentile, 50 percentile lower. Possibly we never gave it much thought, except. When one of the kids wanted or needed something, we realized we weren't in a position, it wasn't immediately accessible. So it made us appreciate the things that we did have a bit more.
Speaker We had no car, didn't need one, really didn't have the money to pocket and maintain it anyway. So the buses in Chicago, Rapid Transit, worked pretty well and then, as always, walking on a bicycle. So we managed I remember one script where we were in particularly dire straits and Florida turned to me and she said, James, how are we going to make it? And my response, as written by the writers, was very poignant. And my response was somehow. And that that was pretty much the story of that Evans family, a constant struggle for survival, trying to do the right things by their children, see that they got an education. And that was always a bone of contention for me, that I had a son, my youngest boy, Ralph Carter, who we call the militant midget because of his political posture, aspired to become a Supreme Court justice.
Speaker I thought that was a tremendous amount of mileage that they could have gotten out of that. And the fact that I did and the fact that my daughter Thelma wanted to become a nurse, a surgeon, I believe, and I said there's a tremendous amount of knowledge that can be getting out of that, her trials and tribulations, going through medical school or meeting young doctors, etc., neither of which were touched on to my satisfaction. And the emphasis I felt was on wrongly was unjustifiably put all the time on Jayjay saying dynomite. And that led to their dissatisfaction with my dissatisfaction, which ultimately led to me being killed off the show. A lot of people are of the opinion or under the mistaken impression that I quit. I did not quit the show. I was fired during that hiatus and told that while the show was picked up, my services would no longer be needed because I'd become, quote, a disruptive factor. And I concede that my objections to the scripts and the way they were going, the way the characters were being described and developed was not to my liking. And I was not the most diplomatic guy in those days. In fact, I've said a number of times I even said to Norman, I don't blame me. I would have fired me, too. I mean, for the writers to have their lives threatened over something as mundane as a television script, it doesn't work.
Speaker But I was caught up in the responsibility that I felt I had as a black actor portraying the first black father on TV with a complete family. I wanted it to be right. And I didn't have the diplomacy, I guess you might say the talk. I wasn't mature enough to realize it was a television show and they were mature ways to set with Norman and describe my differences. Instead, I was having football and boxing flashbacks and come on, let's go outside. We'll straighten this out. And nobody wanted to hear that. So as I said, the writers got tired of their lives being threatened over jokes and scripts and punch lines or character development. And finally they reached a conclusion that the show would be better off without me. So they killed a character off. I think James was on his way to Mississippi or somewhere to get a job. I never did know because I got killed. So that's what happened. I became too problematic to be.
Speaker With the show any longer, and I should see and you felt incredible pressure.
Speaker To be what, super, super dad, super?
Speaker Well, I wanted to be I wanted to be the father that was contrary to all the stereotypes that had been perpetuated about black fathers over the eons. One, they always leave the family. I was not going to leave to the lazy, shiftless and never want to work. I was going to try and hold down. Twenty four jobs. If I had, I was going to do every, any and everything three, they don't really care about their children. I cared about Jayjay to the point that when he got shot by a gang member, I let the gang member know it ain't over. That's my son and I love him because again, I transferred and I have a son. And I said, if anything like that ever happened to my son, I'm not sure I could restrain myself and wait for the authorities to do the right thing. There's no telling what my reaction might be. I try to be mature about it, but hopefully I'll never be confronted with that situation. I hope no parent ever has to deal with that. It's a horrible situation.
Speaker Did you were you approached by the.
Speaker By the black public.
Speaker As they come to you and say. That you had a responsibility or was there criticism from the black community to you to sort of stick up for them?
Speaker And on the contrary, the remarks I've gotten. From not just the black community, but from the white community, the Asian community. From particularly from young men, they would come to me.
Speaker You know, after a polite introduction and say, I love your show, you're the dad I never had. That was the most resounding, repetitive phrase I would hear. You are the dad I never had. In fact, wonderful thing happened. I went to see Tom Hanks in his Broadway show, Lucky Guy, and I've always been a Tom Hanks fan. So I went backstage afterwards, which is a tradition. And he warmly greeted me and I walked into his dressing room and Tom broke into he said, John Amus, son of a gun, you're the dad.
Speaker You're the dad. I used to look forward to seeing when I come home from school in Oakland.
Speaker And then he broke into the McDonald's theme song that I'd recorded maybe 40 years ago when they did the first singing dancing commercial. I am backstage with Tom Hanks sing a duet about McDonald's burgers.
Speaker There was nothing so clean as my burger machine. You deserve a break today, so get up and get away to McDonald's.
Speaker Make it so we sing that backstage. We left ourselves sick and he embraced me and he said, Thank you, man, for a lot of wonderful hours on TV. What would good times. So that was that was a big plus because God knows I admire the man. He's one of the greatest actors in the industry and one of the most popular people on the planet. I love him. I love his work.
Speaker I love James.
Speaker Yeah, he loved James. So it all worked.
Speaker I have a couple of. Reviews from that.
Speaker Mm hmm. Uh, do you mind reading that you want me to read in my own room?
Speaker Sure, I'll read them.
Speaker Uh, well, there's two things, actually. Oh, um.
Speaker Do I want to read this? Well, time will tell.
Speaker We'll see. So this was a review. Oh, no, I'm sorry. This was a letter to the editor. Yeah, that would be interesting. And this is something that Castro said and this is something that you said, OK, so any particular order you'd like this.
Speaker OK, let me get I was just.
Speaker Good times, pro and con. This letter comes as a response to your June issues article concerning the show Good Times, I am sick and tired of blacks acting as fools on television. Nowadays, it seems as if blacks must act like Amos and Andy in order to become successful television stars. The talents of all the stars of good times are truly being wasted. We need more dramatic shows on television portraying blacks in a more dignified and proud manner. Why can't we have television shows about black doctors, lawyers, etc.? There are television shows about white doctors, lawyers, etc.. Why can't we have a dramatic television series about a Middle-Class Black family? There are dramatic television shows about white middle class families. We need more black actors and actresses doing serious acting on television and more television programs that will inspire our black children. Our black leaders, such as Roy Wilkins and Jesse Jackson Jr. speak out against this degrading image of blacks being shown on television and in the black exploitation films. You should speak out against such television shows and movies in your editorials. Jessye Norman, Foster City, California, or my response to Mr. Norman's letter? Would be that, first of all, seems somewhat dated because he refers to the television as not having any black dramatic shows we know now. Of course, there are black dramatic shows. There are shows with black doctors. Gyngell was a doctor in St. elsewhere. There have been any one of a number of black doctors on the air since then, including Dr. Huxtable. Why we can't we have dramatic series about middle class black families. We do. So I would say his letters a little bit dated a little behind the time, because all the things pardon that, yeah, it was from that time. So it might have been applicable at the time. He might have had some substance, but not now.
Speaker Is that something that would have offended you if you had read that letter then?
Speaker No, on the contrary, wouldn't it offended me.
Speaker I think it was on the money, except that I don't like it when people refer to him as an Indian, a denigrating way, not because my last name is Amos, but I looked at Amos and Andy as a kid growing up, and I loved it because I realized the comedy of the show. Andy was no more than Dobermann was to Sergeant Bilko. He was his foil, his comedic fault. So I saw maybe I was over intellectualising or. Generalizing, rationalizing, maybe, but I always saw Jimmy Walker as being the comedic foil, he was what we needed.
Speaker We dealt with some very serious subject matter and at times we needed to lighten that message with some of Jimmy's unique comedy. I just felt that they relied on it too heavily and they went to that well, too often. And by Norman's own admission, he toned down the dynamite's later. But maybe by then the damage had been done in terms of I felt like the damage had been done in terms of ignoring the other two children and their development. There's a second letter.
Speaker We just we have a wide shot, actually.
Speaker Oh, no, no, no, I'm good. I'm good.
Speaker Yeah, all right. Sure. So wait, before we move on, so stuff that you thought JJ was is a real person, a real character that could exist and that he was all bad.
Speaker You just thought.
Speaker That they leaned on him too much and that they were going too far. Is that.
Speaker I felt that they had found a wonderful catch phrase with dynamite and with Jagjit character, I mean, let's face it, is physically funny comedian and I just felt that there could have been more balance given to the other two children. The other two characters were both fine actors, Ralph Carter. I mean, come on, he just come off a Broadway one, winning an Emmy. I think he could have handled anything they could have thrown at him sitcom wise, but he didn't. His character was not fully developed for my money, nor was that of Bernadette Stantis. So it wasn't being jealous of Jimmy so much as I felt the show could have been a lot better. And we could have had a lot more substance, been more meaningful if we had explored the problems that a young aspiring female doctor has and a young aspiring Supreme Court justice or wanted to go to law school first. Of course, I thought it was a lot of mileage in that it could have been acquired and it was not.
Speaker Do you think the writers or the powers that be? That the American public would not be interested in this storyline.
Speaker Why do they why why didn't they develop it?
Speaker I don't know what the rationale was, other than the fact that it was easier to keep having Jayjay say dynomite as opposed to exploring the other options with the other two children, just. Lazy. You know, the easy way out.
Speaker OK, continue.
Speaker This letter. Reads and they're referring to JJ, obviously said.
Speaker This is written by Estero. This was a quote, this is a quote from Miss Roll herself. Role was vocal about her dislike of Walker's character.
Speaker In a 1975 interview with Ebony magazine, she stated, he's 18 and he doesn't work. He can't read or write. He doesn't think the show didn't start out to be that little by little with the help of the artist, I suppose because they couldn't do that to me. They have made more stupid and enlarger. All negative images have been slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child. In L.A. Times, I stated the writers would prefer to put a chicken hat on JJ and have him prance around saying dynamite and that way they could waste a few more minutes and not have to write meaningful dialogue. I stand by that. Because it's a fact, once he said dynomite. There would be a space of maybe half a page, 10, 15, 20 seconds, which can be an eternity in television where the writers wouldn't have to write, just let him say dynamite and we can coast for we can coast for a while.
Speaker But it got to be a bit much, as I said, when the other two children were being ignored in terms of their development.
Speaker It's really interesting, you really you feel like you're the father, like you were protective of these kids.
Speaker Yeah, especially Ralph, the youngest, because he just come off of Broadway and he was primarily social support for himself and his mother in real life. And he was a youngster. I mean, he was pretty much a baby. And I watched him grow into the role of Michael. And I watch their development since I left the show. And Jinney, of course, has gone on to become a fine artist. She has one woman shows of her paintings around the country. But Bernadette Stenness, who played my daughter Thelma, has become a successful novelist, having written a book called Relationships One on One, which is done very, very well. We run into each other around the country where her book sells like hotcakes to young women and young men to want to know better, more about how to have a good relationship. So they've proven their mettle as totally competent artists as writers. Fine artists and all of that could have been exploited, I feel, had they bothered to.
Speaker Let's talk about Michael's character, yeah, favorite characters of all time.
Speaker What what describe him. Michael was very politically oriented. He was he was hell bent and determined to change things within the system. And he was not afraid to stand up and call out those politicians locally and at the federal level who were doing a poor job or who were doing a worse than a poor job. So through him, we were able to make a younger audience aware of their obligation to become more involved in the political system, to know who is running for office, what that office means, why you should vote or not vote for this particular person, and what the issues are that are affecting young people, cuts in the school budgets, etc.. We had one show in which Michael. Failed a test that was given to him and the reason the test he failed the test were because the test was geared towards Anglo's and a higher school system and the teacher and the person conducting the test was totally ignorant of Ebonics. That is the speech patterns that most that are most prolific and most common to blacks in the community.
Speaker So we gave him a little test and he failed. He didn't know none of the none of the euphemisms that we use in the community to refer to Malcolm X or this, that or the other. And so his computer was worthless as far as we were concerned. But that Joe. Presented a lesson and the difference in cultures where language and semantics can often mean the difference between understanding and not understanding each other. So I thought that was a very good show to to do. We've had so many shows.
Speaker That left a resounding message, i.e., one of the shows in which one of our neighbors invites us for dinner and we're suspicious of the food because we think she's serving us dog food out of necessity. But it's not. She says, I'm going to make you guys a delicious meatloaf and everybody is reluctant to eat it because we know that she's in dire straits. And we saw her by several cans of dog food at the market. So there, again, is a lesson in the deprivation that seniors face and the hardships that seniors face. So many of the shows we did on good times are more relevant today. Or equally as relevant today as they were when we first did the shows.
Speaker Do you think the show could get pitched today and get on TV?
Speaker I'm not sure if it could get on TV today because you got reality shows, which you don't need writers to shows that do have writers on for the most part. You don't really fall in love with the characters, you don't feel like at least I don't I don't feel like I can live with these characters that I care about them enough to to tune in tomorrow night or next week to see what happens in their lives. A lot of the TV characters, sitcoms I can't relate to, I don't know these people. Where do they live? I mean, I don't interact with these people. Who does so on TV isn't quite as courageous. Not tackling issues that are certainly not tackling the issues that we tackled and Norman Lear bravely tackled, you look at Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, I mean, the man took chances. He took chances at his own expense and it paid off. I mean, he turned television around. If you look at television before Norman came, the issues that your principal characters were concerned with, did you really care whether or not Ricky got to use the family car or had to deal with the station wagon? I mean, come on, these were not issues that America was hanging on by their fingernails to see what the outcome was going to be. But with Norman, you got JJ getting shot and other issues, how to make the rent and. Gang violence, a teenage pregnancy, those things just are not dealt with today, not the way Norman dealt with them.
Speaker Did the black press like the show, some did some didn't some. I found out a long time ago, no matter what you put on television, you're not going to please everybody.
Speaker You just cannot do it. Norman even had Black Panthers come to his office and visit him and admonish him about the stuff that he was putting on TV. They called him the garbage man and he said his shows were garbage. And I was a little bit over the top reaction. I thought, I mean, he could have sat down with the man and had a calm dialogue about the subject matter and how to deal with it better. But to come into his office and call him a garbage man and demanded the garbage be taken off the air, that's a little bit over the top. They were talking about good times. They were talking about good times. They were talking about Norman Lear in general.
Speaker Oh, yeah.
Speaker Oh, no, not just Archi, but any black characters that Norman had on IIJ on the rest of the day, they put him in the realm of buffoonery and they they didn't want to hear anything. But ultimately, Norman prevailed. More people fell in love with the show, good times and the rest of his shows than people that did not like it. So he was successful.
Speaker Who tell me who who came to see the show, who was in the audience, black people.
Speaker White people.
Speaker Every race we had it, we had a good demographic mix and the thing that was beautiful was that it was a live audience, so their laughter was not can none of the laughter we used on good times or any of the shows I was involved with for Norman used canned laughter. And you had black people, white people, Latinos, Native Americans, you name it, you name the ethnicity. They were there and they were laughing to tears came out of their eyes because we were hitting on human subject matter. They could all relate. And that's a good feeling when you present something of a comedic nature and the entire audience responds as one. That's that's a blessing. I mean, it's terrific. But that was a gift. And Norman had he could write for the masses.
Speaker So when did you so you say you were fired. How how did you process now it seems like you you know, you're a grown, more grown and more mature.
Speaker I'd like to think so. Grown up. And it's about time, don't you think?
Speaker In the nick of time. Um.
Speaker Change your mind, did you say, oh? He was right, I was wrong or I handled that wrong, or how long did it take for you to go through that process?
Speaker After I was killed off of good times, Norman and I would continue a relationship of sorts in that months later, of course, I was offered the role of Kunta Kinte in Roots and that established me as a dramatic actor.
Speaker And by then the swelling had gone down from good times. And Norman and I spoke and I was informed by my agent that he was doing another pilot. Somebody called Here comes Mr. Dugan, in which I would take over the office of a recently deceased incumbent congressman or senator or congressman, I believe it was. And while it was very well-written and we had a lot of fun, it didn't fly. That is a pilot wasn't picked up. Then Norman came to me again. We'd really made peace and offered me the role of the father of a family that moves into Archie Bunker's House, 704 Hauser Street.
Speaker And I had a very conservative young son, in fact, so conservative that. That's the only way he could be branded was an ultra conservative and he's having a relationship with a young white female, which my character doesn't entirely enthusiastic about having a little bit of Archie Bunker and him, you know, I prefer to stick with his own, quote, unquote. So it was like a play on the Archie Bunker attitude mentality, but wasn't quite as wasn't quite as rabid as Archie, you know, about race. But that show had a tremendous amount of potential from a political educational standpoint, as well as watching the father, who is a black liberal with a conservative son who for all practical purposes might be might as well be a Yale yuppie.
Speaker I mean, he was. Again, Norman had put together some elements that just screamed for attention and development, but Network didn't give us a chance to run with it.
Speaker How many?
Speaker I think to my knowledge, we only did a couple of episodes and it didn't fly.
Speaker OK. So even though he fired you, we still wanted to work with you and I wanted to work with him, but that's the way it is.
Speaker I think with passionate artists, we forgive each other's passion and our success during those moments of creativity or madness or while we're right in the trenches trying to grind it out. And then you step back away from the arena a few weeks. A couple of months. You said, what was that all about? I was very hardheaded, pigheaded, about some points I wouldn't give him, but as I've been reading Norman's book. And this, too, I get to experience. I see I was up against a guy who also was hard headed and was determined to have his way when he felt he was right, but he would also acquiesce. So I found in reading that book. I found out more about Norman.
Speaker Had I known all these things, everything that he had experienced when I was working for him on good times in particular, we would have had a better relationship. We would have had a different relationship. I look back, I look at that book and I say, man, this is uncanny, Norman worked in burlesque, I worked in burlesque as a kid in high school, I got a dream job. You're in high school. Your hormones are raging and you get a job working in a burlesque theater. How could it be any better than that? I would rush from school sometimes. I wouldn't even wait for the bus. I'd run 35 blocks to get to the theater. And I was selling refreshments at Minsky's Burlesque Theater in Newark. And the way it was set up, I would be selling ice cream and novelty items and cold drinks between the stage shows and the real bad cowboy movies, they would show because the routine was usually so one or two cowboy movies and wanted to see strippers would come on each trip. Then they show another bad moving and a B list stripper or two and then another bad moving. And finally the finale with the star stripper in her entourage.
Speaker And for me to be selling ice cream and orange drinks and novelty items, if you hold this up to the light, ladies and gentlemen, particularly you gentlemen, if you hold it up to the light in a certain way, you'll see a man and a woman in what can best be described as compromising positions. You know, you can hold them up to the sun. You weren't going to see me. And then we had all these other novelty items, you know, give the lady just a little taste of this and she won't be able to keep her hands off. Yeah, right. I'm not even work. I tried it. Oh, I loved it. I loved it because I was emulating the hooker who I've seen guys like him at Coney Island amusement parks. So I emulated his voice, you know, ice cream, hair, ice cold, orange drinks, potato chips and Hershey bar here, ice cream. And it was fun. I felt like I was really in show business.
Speaker You know, Norman was a hawker at Coney Island.
Speaker What Norman was I think Norman was a hooker at Coney Island, and I know he had experience writing and performing and working with some of the vaudeville comics, that's where I learned the discipline that goes into being a comic because these vaudeville comics, as I said, they would do the same show twice a day, sometimes three times a day.
Speaker And I watched the discipline as they did each script for Batum the same way they'd done it early. They make allowances for laughs or, you know, the other actor having a moment or two. But basically it was a verbatim of the same show that they'd done twice that damage. Wow. Look at the discipline. Whether the laughs were there or not, they would do them. They would do the lines. So that's where I really learned the discipline required to become a successful stand up comic or successful comic performer.
Speaker What what else did you learn from the book that touched you?
Speaker I learned about his military service, which gave me a tremendous amount of respect for Norm, and I had no idea that he'd flown missions in the Second World War. And at one point, I was invited to pay tribute to Norman. I forget the organization that was honoring him, but it was in Vegas and it was quite odd to do. They had film clips from some of his shows, but also from his personal life. And it showed him in his aircraft with his bomber crew. And my respect for him went off the chain because he never made a big deal about his service record. He never even mentioned and I never even knew he was in the service. And I did not know what his upbringing was like. But reading the book, I get to know the man. And he didn't just spring full blown into CBS. I mean, he'd been in the trenches forever and a day. And I admired that. And I felt kind of foolish for some of the positions I'd taken and some of the arguments I'd had with Norm and some of the stands I'd made and which I was very inflexible.
Speaker He also didn't have a father. I mean, his father also failed him.
Speaker Yeah, we had similarities in our lives. I think that's what made us respect each other so much. He said at one point, I've learned so much from you. John and I thank you. He verbalized it and I said, pardon me, I said the same to him. I said, I have learned more about television and how to get a message across to people. In a way that will stay with them. I've learned more from you than I have in all the years I've worked in the industry.
Speaker So how could he possibly. Jewish men possibly know anything about.
Speaker Black poverty. How could he how could he get that? How is that possible?
Speaker I think he got it because he had an open mind and he didn't make any assumptions that the values. That prevailed across the rest of America. We're going to be the same values upheld in that household. By that I mean we had. Certainly had moral integrity, but, you know, we had moral fiber, but the money wasn't there and he had suffered financial hardships himself. So like a coin is like a coin, regardless of whether you're black, white, Mexican or whatever. And he sure he related to that and he appreciated it. He appreciated the way the family stuck together and got through the hard times together and managed to laugh through some of the worst spots. And that was the thing that I found about Norman. He always was able to balance, no matter how critical the situation was, he was always able to balance it with some humor.
Speaker He would see the humor in whatever situation we were in as a family, and that was the saving grace, because that's the way people must deal with real life. You got to find the good in everything.
Speaker What about The Jeffersons? What do you think of that show? What about them specifically, um.
Speaker Afterwards, I thought that was a good thing because it showed another strata of the black society chose it. Yeah, it showed the businessman I like The Jeffersons because it portrayed a successful businessman and business woman, a couple he had his own not just, say, cleaner, but perhaps several cleaners. And that took me back to my own childhood and my own family. And I realized I came from an entrepreneurial background. My aunt my dad is my mother's older sister. Cecilia Gregory and my Uncle Gregory. They stayed on in Birmingham, Alabama, where they were born and through the years of segregation. They were able to build a little mini mall. They had three contiguous businesses right on the main drag in Birmingham. Mr. and Mrs. Gregoris grocery store, where you could buy groceries for the whole family, also get a sandwich. For lunch and a few odds and ends for the house.
Speaker Mrs. Gregoris Beauty Parlor, which your wife would go to, one of the ladies would go to to get the hair done, because obviously being a black lady, you couldn't go downtown to the white hairdressers. And then finally there was Mr. Michael Gregory's cobbler shop where he made shoes from scratch and he was a master cobbler. He could make a pair of shoes that he could defy Stacy Adams to distinguish between his shoes or Florsheim and the ones my uncle had made. He was that good a cobbler.
Speaker So I knew I had an entrepreneurial background and that didn't. Hold me in good stead when I got to Hollywood, because I was just supposed to be a cog in the, you know, in the machine and not have any ideas or not have any certainly and not have any aspirations for management. But I said. This doesn't set too well with me, I just don't want to be an extension of someone's ego, I'd like to be contributing. I started as a writer and I felt like my writing was as good if given the opportunity as anybody else is, and that didn't pan out to be. So that was a source of frustration. Good times. As I look back on it, it was a wonderful experience from a standpoint that I got to show America what a black father feels.
Speaker How he acts when in moments of crisis is not the stereotypical behavior that is perpetuated in the media all the time. He cares about his children, certainly cares about his spouse, and he cares about the future. And he's constantly trying like every other father, most other good fathers, to elevate their position in life.
Speaker And that is that for you, the big take away of the character in the show.
Speaker Yeah, that he never stopped trying to better his family's life and he was going to be protective. He's going to be protective of Tom and his baby girl from lecherous, you know, suitors. And no man was going to be good enough for his daughter, you know, and he was going to watch out for JJ, as crazy as he was and certainly for Michael, his youngest boy, to see that whatever aspirations they had, they would have at least have the opportunity to go after those aspirations, those dreams.
Speaker So what do you think about?
Speaker How black families are portrayed today. You can't say it before you, there's there's more variety.
Speaker Social well, economics.
Speaker Yeah, you've got you've got some shows that.
Speaker I don't know how to get on, I don't want to pick out any particular show, but The Real Housewives of this are The Real Housewives of Bette.
Speaker It baffles me, it baffles me why? People feel compelled to tune in and watch. These women go at each other, the language they use, there's some people that can sit back and say, you see, that's the way black people are, that's that's exemplary of the entire race. And there's so many of those shows, it's hard to get a balance. That contradicts that imagery, so I'm not a big fan of reality shows, as I said, there's a place for them, obviously, but the one thing I don't like about him is the no writing.
Speaker So it all comes out of the stream of consciousness of the characters or whatever. But that's not always a good thing when you don't have skilled professional writers structuring a script. You're going to get what gets thrown up against the wall.
Speaker That's your garbage. Yeah. So you're disappointed with the direction that. That black I mean, there's a few shows, but in general you're not happy with.
Speaker I don't watch I don't watch a great deal of television anymore. There's a couple of shows that I like that I make it a point. Most of them are historical shows. The dramatic shows that I like are few and far between. And that's usually predicated on the actor or the subject matter of the show, as opposed to just tuning in them because it's on it's like football with me. I mean, I have a favorite team, but I also feel good about watching outstanding players, you know, in big games. Pretty much the same with television.
Speaker So. I.
Speaker I heard I heard Norman talking at events recently and he was talking about working with actors and it was a question of continuity came up and he mentioned that at some point.
Speaker You cut all your hair off middle of season or something like that. Mm hmm. Um. Why did you do that?
Speaker I don't know. I was just a quirk I was in Norman was livid. I mean, he was high. Can you tell me the story? OK. I went to the barbershop before taping. We we'd already taped, I think, part of the show or we were in between one way or the other. It was certainly was the wrong time to get a haircut and a radical haircut at that.
Speaker And I came back to the show and my hair was cut off and he said, God bless America. So what he didn't say, what the hell did you do? And I said, I fell asleep in the chair. I tried to play. He said, Oh, no, no, no, no, I'm not going for that. He said, You're going to get a wig and you're going to pay for it. I'm not paying for that wig. I said, OK, Norman, you're going to get it today. So he contacted a wig maker, wig maker, came in. She made me a wig, which I paid for.
Speaker And but he was that didn't mollify him. I mean, he was still highly disturbed. He said, I've never seen such a self-destructive person in my life. And that ring that hit me hard, I said, jeez, I didn't know you saw me that way. And I said, I guess it was a pretty self-destructive move. Wouldn't it change the look of a character halfway through the taping? But anyway, we got the wig and we finished it, and that was seven or four houses. Street show still got canceled or the pilot didn't get picked up.
Speaker It was on that show.
Speaker It was on that show that I did it. Yeah.
Speaker Was that passive aggressive? No, I don't know the.
Speaker So that's a good story. Many more stories, I was a good one.
Speaker Yeah, I got a few of them. I don't know if they're a little pass muster, but I got a few.
Speaker Give me one.
Speaker Well, Norman always likes to wear his little hat, you know, so we were doing a run through a reading really for one show. I can't remember what it was, what it was, seven or four houses, St.. No, it wasn't good times. It might have been seven or four houses Street or here comes Mr. Dugan, one of the subsequent pilots, and he didn't have his hat. And we certainly were trying to grind the script out and I just felt something was wrong. After a while, one of his assistants brought his hat in his little white hat and he put it on and I said, now get the good stuff.
Speaker He looked at me like, just shut up, you know, like this and I'm going to make no difference. I got a brain fart going on. So but it worked out already. And then Norman could do some unexpected things. Does it totally disarm you? One day we had a birthday party for one of the crew members. And when the cake was delivered, Norman sing Happy Birthday with all the rest of us. And he nose dived right into the cake, came up with cake all over his face, blew everybody's mind. I mean, Mrs. Norman Lear, the serious architect for television, but he had a sense of humor. And when he wanted to, he could be very self-deprecating, too.
Speaker You know, I look back and I say I was very, very fortunate, extremely fortunate to be cast as a principal. And directed by a man who changed the face of television. He put my name out there alongside some of the icons, historical icons and TV for that, I'll always be grateful. There's a wonderful opportunity to show the world what my dad was like and what other black fathers and what fathers, black, white or otherwise, are like because fathers would get into getting a bad, bad rap on TV, you know, historically with stupid, with dumb, you know, indecisive.
Speaker And it was nice to have a role that was contrary to the stereotype.
Speaker And do you see any other people out there, any other? Norman Lear's That Can.
Speaker Continue the drum roll, the provocative important subject matter to the popular.
Speaker In the genre of sitcom.
Speaker Second, I had the pleasure I had I'm sorry, I had the pleasure of working on a show called The West Wing written by Aaron Sorkin, and the writing was just absolutely phenomenal. I mean, I'll be lucky I said when I was working on Route's. Actually, was Louis Gossett Jr. that said it to me, said John, during one particular scene, we were waiting for the cameras to be reloaded. He said, we better eat this up like a good steak because we're never going to get a piece of meat like this again. And I agreed with him and we didn't get a piece of meat like that again until I got something very close to with the West Wing when Aaron Sorkin and the character of Percy Fitzwallace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Speaker And to write. The way Aaron Sorkin writes is a gift.
Speaker We used to say the actors just say you have to learn to speak zucchinis because he writes the way some people talk not. In a linear form, you know, where we thought as follows, every thought you might jump from subject to subject, but he's a master at that.
Speaker And if anything, I wish I could have stayed with that show that killed my character off again. Admiral Percy Fitzwallace got blown up on a mission somewhere in the Middle East, ran over an IED. And I often wondered, I said, well, what's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs doing on a live mission? But my not to question my mind, but to go and die, OK?
Speaker So, yeah, evidently. Yeah. But that was wonderful, wonderful writing. The good thing about me, when I came along in television, I learned at the foot. Or at the knee of some of the best writers for television, the people who are writing the less young show Lorenzo music among them, who was later become the creator and the voice of Garfield, the Cat and so many other wonderful writers. Dave Davis, who would go on to be part of the creative team behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which offered me a job. As to weather man, so I begin to connect the dots and see that I was. More fortunate than maybe 90 percent of the actors to go from one hit show to Mary Tyler Moore Show to good times, which became a hit in itself, that's very unusual. It's like catching lightning in a bottle twice. So I felt real good about I love the chemistry with the actors on Mary Tyler Moore Show. And I realized that going to good times as a co-star, I was going to have more responsibility. You make more money, but you've got more responsibility and you're going to work a hell of a lot harder, a hell of a lot harder. So it was a trade off.
Speaker Do you think if there had been more black writers on that show, that the characters would have been written differently? I know there were some.
Speaker But was it the I don't I actually don't know how it broke down, I know that there was at least two black writers on that show, but.
Speaker How many white writers were there?
Speaker Well, obviously the black writers were in an extreme minority.
Speaker Do you think that was part of the problem?
Speaker It was as far as I was concerned, because I felt the perspective gave the case. Case in point, we had one and I thought about this last night, we had one episode in which two white gentlemen, gentlemen, I used the term loosely came into the House. I can't remember the premise or what precipitated them coming to the house. They were both civilians. I don't think they were law enforcement. I'm not sure they were criminals. I can't remember the situation, but they had a very heavy emotional dialogue with James and on leaving one of them spit on the floor.
Speaker I said, cut, I stop the action right then. That was unacceptable.
Speaker That was no way, no rationale in my mind that James Evans would not allow another man to come in and spit on his family's floor. So we had a few words about that. And I had a pretty strong voice at the time. And I let it be known this is not going to happen. This cannot happen, there is not a situation in which with was cut out.
Speaker Yeah, to my knowledge, it was cut out. I was reluctant to watch the show, but I'm pretty sure they cut it out. I think our director told the actor, don't do that. And that sufficed for me. I didn't see him do it again while I was there. Then it was an episode in which a gun was brought into the house and lives were threatened. Or after JJ got shot, I said, well, James is going to have to have a pistol. And he said, Oh, no, absolutely not. You can't have a gun. I said, Let me see if I got this right. A man can come into my house. This is a separate occasion from JJ and shot. A man can come into my house in the projects with a pistol, but I can't have a gun. What is that what mentality dictates that the white man can come in to my house with a gun, but I can't have a gun to defend my family and then work.
Speaker So they became more and more situations where I realized. I was up against a stacked deck. From where I was sitting, I didn't have the maturity or the diplomacy to express myself, to get the lines cancelled out or, you know, mediated or modified. My thing was take the crap out or let's fight. And nobody wanted to hear that. I didn't even want to hear it. I didn't want to say it, but I felt I had no recourse.
Speaker And is it possible not to say that? Not to say that everybody doesn't take their work. Personally or seriously, but were you taking it too personally?
Speaker Yeah, I was taking it extremely personally because I knew what that black father figure meant, that family meant to hundreds of millions of black people around the country. They wanted to see a James Evans. They wanted to see him stand up for his family.
Speaker And if I was over the top in my performance of being loyal and working or whatever I say, fine, I can live with that as opposed to playing something that was less than a man and less. And had less than a strong work ethic, I didn't want to do that and I didn't. So know I might have taken it. In fact, I did take it to personal. I think Norman was on the money in his book when he realized he said he realized that Esther and I both had assumed the responsibility.
Speaker Of being the first black family on TV, she the first mother made the first dad as an awesome responsibility because people all over the country had not seen a black couple with children.
Speaker In the projects before we had to show them how these people lived, these are human beings with human aspirations, et cetera.
Speaker And you were worried about what white people would think of what black because I was worried about what people would think.
Speaker Young people, older people, black, white, I didn't want to be seen in.
Speaker A role that was going to disparage and denigrate a black family. I wasn't going to do it.
Speaker And I felt that there were too many lines, too many times when. They chose to go that way, as opposed to elevating the family are, like I say, pay more attention to. The two children who had lofty aspirations.
Speaker There's a lot of pressure.
Speaker Always pressure. All right, it was pressure, right, to the point that I might have been fighting over lines and really shouldn't have even been discussed. I was trying to make it perfect. And you couldn't do perfect. We still got some very, very important messages across two very important messages.
Speaker I love the show. Thank you.
Speaker Peanut gallery.
Speaker Oh, yeah, I have one. OK.
Speaker Thematically, I think this whole interview is very father son related, which I which always speaks to me. And knowing that Norman is 17 years older than you were there times 40 years ago, that you when you were having these issues with it, a father son type relationship, that's the first question. Then you as a storyteller, when you were saying that you feel that that's your responsibility as a storyteller to tell stories. What advice would you give that thirty five year old 40 years ago that was having the issues with Norman said, well, if I if I could turn the clock back and be that guy again and listen to Norman, I would have heeded his advice when he said John.
Speaker Don't take this quite so seriously. He said you're being paid a handsome salary, you've got a wonderful role, you should enjoy it. Don't fight for every line. Pick your battles. He said, But you're doing a wonderful job, but you just taking on too much responsibility. I wish I had listened to him then my road might have been a lot easier, but he was he was a mentor to me at different times. Case in point, when he saw that I was really having a hard time making the adjustment to interacting with the writers in a civil way, he called a friend who really wasn't a friend at that time. We had the most incredible history. When I was trying to play football, I had to sign with the Denver Broncos a free agent contract, which brought me to the training camp while in training camp.
Speaker For the one day that I was there, I saw a large player walking through the hallway and he had a pallet, bunch of paints and brushes in his hand. I turned to one of the other veterans and I said, Who's that guy? And he said, That's Ernie Barnes. We just got him in a trade from the charges.
Speaker He's an old pro guard. I said, Yeah, I follow football pro Guarda. Wow. I said, what's with all the paints and the pallets? He said, Well, he's a fine artist. I said what? He said, yeah, he's a fine artist. He guy paints years later. I'm doing good times. Who does the paintings for J.J. Ernie Barnes. Well, Norman, when he found out that we'd had a very, very brief history because I got cut from the Broncos within 24 hours, he said, Ernie, I want you to come in and do something to come and talk to me. He said, look, you're a pro football player. Talk to John Amos, tell them this is not pro football, this is comedy. You don't take it. So you have to threaten people's lives, you know, over these sketches if he doesn't like it. Let's talk. And Ernie Ernie, talk to me as best he could. And I could see it was like talking to. A rookie that had just ran the wrong way on the football field, he was patient, but he's also exasperated because he could see that I was so hell bent on being a tough guy and toughing this out and making a lot of unnecessary grief for myself.
Speaker He just about threw up his hands, but he said, you got to calm down, man. You got to calm down. Well, by the time I calmed down, I'd been killed off the show so they'd had enough of me. And I don't blame them. I told Norman I should've known I would have fired me, too.
Speaker Let's face it, we were worse than fire. You killed you.
Speaker That was to make sure I couldn't come back. Yeah, except as a ghost. But ironically enough, it brought me back and took two more pilots at least. And to this day and to this day, we still have a relationship.
Speaker I wrote a one man show, Halley's Comet, which I've been performing around the globe for the past 20 years. I told Norman about it and Norman produced the show right at the Playboy Theater, right on Sunset, and he loved it. He'd let me add me. He had me put the show up twice and he only had one note for me, which because the show had been by that time, had been touring for 15 years around the world and around the country to standing ovations. But he had to one note for me and I took it to heart. He said the one note was I'd make the old man a little bit more vulnerable. And that registered I mean, that resonated with me. I said, OK, I can do that. But he loved the show and he's been supportive of my writing efforts since then, which is even more important to me than him liking my acting or being a fan of my acting.
Speaker I think I think we're good. You think so? Yeah, I think so, like. I can't believe he fired you.
Speaker Well, people make up, you know, you have to let the swelling go down and evidently enough time had passed that Norman had forgiven me. I have forgiven him for whatever wrongs I assumed that he had done.
Speaker But as I said, as I got to read his book, I realized I was blessed to have such a mentor to work for someone who could teach me whatever he wanted me to learn, plus some things that I needed to know. Norman, I'll be eternally grateful for good times and the character of James Evans. It's highly unlikely that we'll work together again at our respective ages, but one never knows anything could happen.