Esther Rolle's Hope for Good Times
Sept 2017 intro
Any time you meet a payment.
Any time you need a friend.
Any time you're out from under.
Not getting hassled, not getting hustled.
Keepin' your head above water,
Making a wave when you can.
Written by Dave Grusin and Marilyn and Alan Bergman, performed by Jim Gilstrap and Blinky Williams as the theme song to the hit CBS TV series Good Times which aired from 1974 to 1979, is a part of American culture. It’s aspirational, yet recognizes current conditions – written by 3 white musicians and performed by young black singers – in early 1974.
Good Times as a TV series that spun out of a TV series that spun out of another – all from the Norman Lear/Tandem Productions team, almost merits its own podcast. However, today we’re going to focus in tightly on the family’s matriarch Esther Rolle – the character she played, the expectations she brought to the set and her career, which was just as prolific after the series ended in ’79 as it was before.
There's plenty of analysis and first-hand accounting of the Norman Lear shows of CBS. They were provocative, they changed American culture in ways that others attempted and failed. TV shows were trying to reflect the rapidly changing times. The baby boom, first born in 1946, was turning 25 and weighing in on fashion, social mores, music, politics and government. Lear’s first and ground-breaking series for CBS, All in the Family, premiered in January 1971.
What does this have to do with Esther Rolle, you ask? Primarily, that Lear was rapidly viewed as a producer who was steering into the winds of controversy and socially progressive topics, not away. With All in the Family’s growing popularity, CBS had confidence in Lear. That was big.
That confidence translated into 1972’s Maude, starring the accomplished stage and film actress Bea Arthur. Esther Rolle was also a classically trained well known Broadway actress. Really, so many of Lear’s lead characters – middle aged – had extensive training on the dramatic stage. Kind of important experience when you’re about to present well-written, serious comedy to a nation trying to cope with change and inflation.
By the time Rolle was talking to Lear’s team about signing on as Florida, Maude’s housekeeper, she had seen the caliber of talent that surrounded her – Arthur as well as Carroll O’Connor and Maureen Stapleton. In You Tube clips of interviews of Bea Arthur talking about the role of Florida, she noted many important but subtle details about the relationship between the two middle-aged women: Florida would call Maude Maude, not Mrs. Findley. She’d enter the home through the front door. Remember the Season 2 episode where Arthur and Rolle appeared in a charity benefit singing Me and My Shadow? There’s a lot of progress and optimism packed into those 23 minutes.
So, All in the Family was doing well, Maude appealed to a somewhat different audience and had a more suburban approach to challenging the topics of the day. The character of Florida seemed to resonate with viewers, which led Lear to look for a way to capitalize on that.
Actor Michael Evans, who played Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family and later The Jeffersons and Eric Monte, embarked on developing a show originally called The Black Family. The creative team’s idea melded nicely into the Lear portfolio of shows, with the character of Florida as the spin-off point person.
In Maude, we had come to know a bit of Florida’s background. She was married. She needed the job, was ethical and hard-working, but also wasn’t afraid to stand her ground with Maude. Rolle was interested in pursuing the transition but not without a lot of discussion about what America’s first black family sitcom would look and sound like. The accomplished dramatic actress made no bones about how high, how aspirational, she wanted the bar to be set. And who can blame her? This was Norman Lear and Tandem Productions – they were golden!
Makes sense, right? What was it about the high bar that set off debate about the show amongst its creators and leading lady? The question of whether the Evans family would be headed by a single mother or a married couple. The answer held social ramifications for both black and white audiences.
The single mother led household was a stereotype that would reinforce racist assumptions. Having a father figure changed the narrative immediately and would be seen as aspirational, healthy and complete. Anyone who watches TV does so in the hopes of seeing him or herself. Positive representation wasn’t too much to ask.
Rolle had been part of the New York black theater scene for much of her entire adult life, recognized as a leader. At middle-age, she was guided – rightfully so in the company of Norman Lear - by a belief that TV had the power to uplift, inspire and educate. Eight years before the conversations about the make-up of the Evans family, then Professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to talk in depth about a federal report he had prepared as Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson Administration. The report, titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” reportedly first warmly received – by the media? Policy makers? Not sure who, then highly criticized.
Here’s a little exchange from Meet the Press, December 1965.
That was 1965, in the midst of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Eight years later, Rolle was at odds with Lear’s people about the Evans family. Moynihan would become US Senator from New York in 1976. These factors are really important. The impact of the Moynihan Report is well described in Christine Acham’s 2004 book Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power.
Dr. Acham’s book features an entire chapter on the role of black women on TV in the 60s and 70s. The word from the title, “struggle” is a good one to describe the experiences Diahann Carroll of Julia and Esther Rolle of Good Times had to make shows remotely realistic for black audiences, working with teams of white male producers and directors. Occasionally the writers room included a writer of color.
With Moynihan’s words ringing in her ears, Rolle’s ambition for Good Times was the depiction of a black family struggling in the projects – Chicago’s Cabrini Green to be specific – but doing so in a way that inspired hope.
John Amos was retained as James Evans – carried over from Maude, and this accomplished actor shared Rolle’s conviction about the messaging that needed to surround the family, the scripts and each character’s development.
As a mid-season replacement for another black-focused sitcom, the first season did not disappoint. With episode titles like God’s Business is Good Business, Michael Gets Suspended and The Check Up, the writers and actors were treading into fresh space. Family focused plots put the spotlight on the three actors who portrayed JJ, Thelma and Michael - the Evans children – Jimmie Walker, Bern'Nadette Stanis and Ralph Carter.
From the first to second season, stand up comic Walker had started to pull away from the ensemble cast, garnering more lines in the scripts. Those plots were headed toward the very stereotypical situations that Lear, Rolle and Amos had originally eschewed. Four episodes – 2 part episodes with the titles JJ is Arrested and JJ Becomes a Man had shifted the focus.
Rolle and Amos were upset. In an interview clip from the E True Hollywood profile of the series, Ralph Carter, who played Michael, spoke of the context of the traditional black family, which in the mid-70s would not have allowed a son to upstage his father.
Rolle and Amos became openly critical – voicing their criticism in interviews with Ebony Magazine and TV Guide. Rolle’s comments about the JJ character in a 1975 Ebony article,
“He’s 18 and doesn’t work. He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think. The show didn’t start out to be that. Michael’s role of a bright, thinking child has been subtly reduced. Little by little – with the help of the artist – Jimmie Walker, I suppose they couldn’t do that to me – they have made him more stupid and enlarged the whole role. [Negative images] have been quietly slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child. I resent the imagery that says to black kids that you can make it by standing on the corner saying ‘Dy-no-mite!”
The vocal Amos was dismissed. Good Times’ fourth season started with news that James Evans, Sr. was killed in a car accident en route to an out of state construction job. Rolle saw herself slipping into the stereotype she thought had been the series’ antithesis.
In that fourth season, Florida Evans was the single mom, struggling with her family in the projects. Plots weren’t as strong as they had initially been – strong in that positive, aspirational way they had started out as. Veteran stage actress Esther Rolle, recognizing that she was carrying the show, asked for more money.
SOUND EFFECT: SLAMMING DOOR
In the fifth season, the Evans family carried on without parents at all, though neighbor Willona and the building super Bookman, kept plots fresh. Rolle had quit at the end of her contract out of her contempt for how the series had evolved.
Sixth and final season, Rolle returned. Writers tried to shore up plots but the cast was too fractured. The depth of the three Evans children’s characters stagnated. Willona had taken in young Penny, who was trying to escape an abusive home. Penny was played by Janet Jackson. There was some star power there, but not enough to reassert the aspiration and family bond of the first season.
In 1979, Good Times, the series that launched with promise and the gold seal of Norman Lear, led by Rolle and Amos, went out with a whimper.
One might conclude, from this clip from Sammy and Company, Sammy Davis Junior’s talk show that ran from 1975 to 1977, that Rolle could see handwriting on the wall. In venues such as Sammy’s couch, she could either talk about the past – the heavy talk of racial equity, rights and power which accompanied her work with the NAACP and Negro Ensemble Company, she could talk about the present – the buffoonery of Jimmie Walker or she could crystal ball her own future.
Esther Rolle’s career in 1979 – by then she was approaching 60 – returned to amazing storytelling. She earned the first ever Emmy awarded for the outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or movie – when she played Ruth in Summer of My German Soldier. She appeared in Love Boat, Flamingo Road and Singer & Sons episodes, guested on a Murder She Wrote and delivered the memorable role Momma in the 1979 made for TV production of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
In 1990, she was the first woman to receive the NAACP Chairman's Civil Rights Leadership Award. She was honored for raising the image of blacks through her stage, television and movie work. At the time she accepted the honor, she was in the middle of producing and starring in a one-woman show about the life of black educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
Esther Rolle passed away in 1998 at the age of 78. Apart from the NAACP recognition and Emmy for supporting actress in a made for TV movie, Rolle’s only other award nomination came in 1975 – a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy Series. She, along with nominees Maureen Stapleton, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett lost out to Valerie Harper, of the enormously popular series, Rhoda.
TV Herstorians, what Esther Rolle stood for so much – in terms of the caliber of her own work on stage & screen and off – is nothing short of the American Dream. Her parents were Bahamian immigrants and she was child number 10 of 18. I just have to believe that she saw Good Times as another effort to chip away at the racism that stagnated opportunities for Americans of color. Only with the horsepower of Norman Lear and Tandem Productions, could there be real results, not just effort.
Remember Moynihan quoting statistics that pinpointed the decline and despair for America’s black families taking place 10 to 15 years prior – namely the 50s and 60s.
But somewhere in the business of entertainment, the commercial success of Jimmie Walker and his “dy-no-mite” was too much to pass up. Walker himself was a consummate self-promoter but known by cast mates, he was a serious performer. Rolle, it sounds like, was serious about the message as well as the delivery.
But no one will ever know how an earnest, aspirational Good Times would have turned out. By 1977, the pace of change in American was tremendous. From the first February 8th, 1974 episode of Good Times to its last in August 1979, America was led by three presidents, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. As America emerged out of the recession that lasted 1973-75, was there still an interest in improving everyone’s lot in life or was the dash for prosperity the pent up legacy of the competitive baby boom generation?
As stated at the outset, loyal listener, Good Times is a series that deserves its own podcast. It’s a potent look at social issues, racism and sexism in the 70s. My goal with this profile of Esther Rolle was highlight her courage to stand up for the black family – the nuclear family unit – and the powerful message it would send. She was a hard-working talented woman of TV who did not receive the recognition she deserved.
However, it’s all there for anyone to study further. I recommend you start with the 2004 work by Christine Acham, Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power. Acham is a professor at University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
There’s a 40 minute documentary kind of show on YouTube which aired as E True Hollywood Story. I use the term documentary kind of loosely.
The audio clip of then Professor Moynihan – 11 years before he became the U.S. Senator from New York is also found on You Tube, originally broadcast in December 1965 as an NBC Meet the Press episode, it’s also found on YouTube’s C-Span channel.
There’s even more available about the Moynihan Report than super old episodes of Meet the Press. In 2015, various news organizations took a look at the progress made by African American families and households in the 50 years since the report’s release. If the esteemed Senator Moynihan were alive today, he’d hang his head…. And be joined by the beloved Esther Rolle.
Listeners, with regard to this topic of representation of African American families on TV has touched you, please let me know. There’s so much more to this discussion and given the nature of this podcast and the richness of all the Norman Lear shows, we had to start somewhere. Esther Rolle seemed like the right story of courage – a story most people don’t know.
Let’s face it, if we’re looking to identify with women on TV, we’re outnumbered and out-resourced every day. Our voices are marginalized or dismissed on news analysis panels. Reports indicate that sports coverage of women athletes has become more not less sexist and racist.
We don’t have an hour, let alone weekends’ worth of coverage across numerous channels that covers the actions of women in and of TV. Picture this… Two or three smart women sitting at the desk with screens and a telestrator. An hour dedicated to breaking down the reactions of Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Statistics, body language and context provided by Professor Hill herself.
Or a replay of the NAACP’s salute to Esther… there’s a file or a video out there somewhere and someone who can speak to her life’s work with the respect and context it deserves. Where can women go to have THAT kind of analysis and understanding?
Until such time as that sort of show reaches TV, rest assured you’ll find it here at Advanced TV Herstory. Subscribe on Google Play, Apple Podcast and Otto Radio. Play it directly on Player FM, Libsyn or our podcast website – www.tvherstory.com. Your recommendations mean the world to me and helping someone – a new listener - master the easiest way for them to listen. It’s the greatest compliment. <sigh> If women ran the podcasting world…
Our Twitter handle is AT TVHerstory, our email firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s never been more important for women and girls to see themselves on TV - all colors, shapes and interests we experience in our lives. The only way this will happen is for women to reclaim our status. We need to band together to educate, celebrate and fortify one another. Be a part of this important conversation!
This is why I podcast. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams