Sunday, March 8, 2020

When the Lead Leaves the Show: John Amos and Esther Rolle

This is going to be a series of articles about when a Black lead character leaves a television show and the aftermath of that event.  I will look at the events leading to the departure, how the character was written off the show, and the aftermath to the show they left.

First up, John Amos and Esther Rolle, stars of Good Times that ran on CBS from 1974-1979 and was a huge ratings hit for the network.  Created by Mike Evans and produced by Hollywood heavy weight, Norman Lear, this spin-off of Maude focused on the Evans Family and their daily struggles living in the projects in Chicago.  The Evans family consisted of patriarch James Evans, played by John Amos, matriarch Florida Evans, played by Esther Rolle, and their three kids JJ, Thelma, and Michael.

Rating Success

The show portrayed the typical struggles of a family living in poverty.  Shows about unemployment, hustling, and surviving, were not just in the theme song, they were the theme of the show, but told with humor and heart. The show, much like All in the Family, was to examine taboo topics with humor and looking to build a dialogue about difficult topics. The show was a ratings hit ranking in the top 25 shows on network television in year one and in the top 10 shows by year two, and not appearing outside the top 30 through season four.

John Amos Departs

So what went wrong?  While the show was a hit and tackling topics rarely seen on network television, the shows focus started slowly moving away from Florida and James Evans and focused more on JJ, played by Jimmy Walker.  JJ had become such a popular character on the show and him screaming DY-NO-MITE became a huge cultural phenomenon and JJ often became the focus of the show; not the serious topics the show had been dealing with.  Amos voiced his frustrations to the producer Norman Lear which lead to constant arguments about the script and the shows direction.  At the end of season 3, the decision was made to kill off James Evans off camera as he was looking to get a job and finally move the family out of the projects.  His death lead to this great bit of television and now meme/gif history.

Esther Rolle Departs

Rolle was much more verbal with her disgust with the JJ character becoming the focus of the show. Rolle, in an interview, called  the JJ character, "stupid" and thought he was bringing negative racial stereotypes to young Black youth watching on television. After John Amos was not brought back, she worked to get herself written off the show and by the end of season 4  she married character Carl Dixon and moved off to Arizona leaving the Evans kid to live on their own.

The Aftermath

Losing the two leads of the show tanked the ratings as the producers decided to have the show continue without the two parents who provided much of the heart of the show.  The show shifted its focus to Wilona, played by, Janet Dubois,  looking after the kids who now lived alone and stories focused on JJ and the kids and Wilona.  After Amos leaves, the shows rating dropped to 26.  After Rolle leaves, the rating drops to 55 for season 5.  Producers realized they made a mistake and did everything they could to get Esther Rolle back to give the show back its heart.  Rolle reluctantly agreed to return with a list of demands which included more money and to make JJ less of a buffoon and knock off the racial stereotypes.

Rolle comes back for season 6 and even with the focus on new characters and her return, the show was too far gone to come back.  Season 6 tanked and ranked 91 on broadcast television shows and was cancelled.

So what do you think?  Should they have cancelled the show after John Amos left? After Esther Rolle left?  Leave a comment in the comments section.

The Producer

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