10 Things You Might Not Know About Good Times

CBS
CBS

Good Times was a spinoff of a spinoff that premiered on CBS in February 1974. It was the first primetime sitcom featuring an African American family, and during its six-season run it tackled such serious problems as gang violence, unemployment, discrimination, poverty, and child abuse. But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, there was always laughter and love among the close-knit Evans family. Were things just as cozy backstage between the performers? Not always …

1. “LIONEL JEFFERSON” HELPED TO CREATE IT

Michael Evans, who played Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family at the time, had heard through the grapevine that CBS was interested in producing a series about a black family. He approached Norman Lear and asked if he could try his hand at pitching a script. Lear gave him the OK, and Evans collaborated with his friend, Eric Monte. They wrote a script that featured the Black family: father John, mother Mattie, and children J.J., Thelma, and Michael. Lear liked the concept, but he wanted the family to be fatherless. Monte and Evans objected to the change, and the project was put on the back burner.

2. IT WAS A SPINOFF OF MAUDE, WHICH WAS A SPINOFF OF ALL IN THE FAMILY.

The All in the Family spinoff Maude became a ratings hit in 1972 and Lear smelled another spinoff in the making. He decided that Esther Rolle, who played Maude’s housekeeper Florida Evans, could carry a series on her own. So The Black Family pilot script was resurrected and used as the basis for the new series. But Lear was still adamant that there should be no father in the picture. Rolle stood her ground and refused to sign on for the project unless the “James” character was included.

“I couldn’t compound the lie that Black fathers don’t care about their children,” Rolle later explained of her stance. Producers agreed to her demand and hired John Amos, who’d appeared occasionally on Maude as Florida’s husband (although his name was “Henry” at the time) to continue his role.

3. PRODUCERS BELIEVED THAT RALPH CARTER WOULD BE THE SHOW’S BREAKOUT STAR.

Ralph Carter's credit from 'Good Times'
CBS

The next actor to be hired after Rolle and Amos was 12-year-old Ralph Carter, who was cast as the youngest son, Michael. Michael was nicknamed the “Militant Midget” by James because of his outspoken views on anything to do with politics or civil rights. Producers believed that Carter would be the “breakout” character of the show, not only because he was cute and looked younger than his age, but also because it would be humorous yet poignant that a child would be espousing such zealous viewpoints. Carter was appearing on Broadway in the musical Raisin when he caught the eye of Good Times’s producers, and Lear bought out the remainder of his contract to enable him to appear on the series (as evidenced in the ending credits of the first season).

4. JIMMIE WALKER’S POPULARITY WITH AUDIENCES MADE HIM LESS POPULAR WITH HIS CASTMATES.

Jimmie Walker was a stand-up comic who had been headlining comedy clubs across the country for several years when he landed a job at CBS as the warm-up act for the short-lived James Coco sitcom Calucci’s Department. It was there that Lear happened to catch his act and offered him the role of J.J. He had no acting or television experience, but he had impeccable comic timing and an expressive, fluid face, so he quickly became an audience favorite. And the more laughs he got, the more jokes the writers threw his way, which didn’t endear him to Rolle or Amos.

5. JOHN AMOS WAS DEEMED A "DISRUPTIVE ELEMENT."

While Amos admired Walker as a comedian, he was unhappy about the amount of attention the J.J. character was getting versus the other two children. “Michael aspired to be a Supreme Court Justice and Thelma wanted to be a surgeon, but all the emphasis was on J.J. and his chicken hat and him saying ‘dyn-o-mite’ every third page,” he said in an interview with the American Archive of Television. He also admitted that he wasn’t the most diplomatic person in those days and that the producers “got tired of having their lives threatened over jokes.”

Amos apparently complained one too many times, because he received a phone call from Lear advising him that he was considered to be a “disruptive element” and his services were no longer required. To explain the absence of Amos, the first episode of season four showed Florida receiving a telegram informing her that James had been killed in an automobile accident while en route to Mississippi, where he’d just landed a promising new job.

6. ESTHER ROLLE ALSO GREW DISENCHANTED WITH THE SERIES’ EVOLUTION.

Rolle was similarly disenchanted with the way J.J. was evolving. “He’s 18 and he doesn’t work,” she told Ebony Magazine in September 1975 of Walker’s character. “He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think. The show didn’t start out to be that."

Fed up with the turn the series had taken, in the midst of season four she demanded a raise along with better scripts. She also voiced her dismay that the writers had given Florida a new love interest (Moses Gunn as Carl Dixon) so quickly after James’s death. The producers responded by asking the writers if they could write scripts that didn’t include the mother. So Florida married Carl and the couple moved to Arizona, where the weather would be better for his newly diagnosed lung cancer. Willona Woods, the gossipy neighbor and family friend, was suddenly promoted to the new maternal figure for the Evans children.

7. JANET JACKSON JOINED THE CAST, BUT STRUGGLED THROUGHOUT HER RUN.

In an effort to transform Willona from sassy swinging single to a believable surrogate mother, the writers decided she needed a child of her own. They forewent the traditional nine-month gestation period and instead added Janet Jackson as Penny Gordon, an abused child who is abandoned by her birth mother and adopted by Willona. Jackson was 11 years old when she started on the show and has since stated that she was unhappy during her entire run. She’d begun maturing at an early age, so the wardrobe department had to bind her chest with strips of gauze before each taping.

8. THE SHOW PRODUCED MORE THAN ONE TEEN IDOL.

Walker was the breakout star of the show, but both Carter and BernNadette Stanis (who played Thelma Evans) achieved bona fide teen idol status thanks to their exposure on Good Times, and were in steady competition with the Jackson brothers and Diana Ross in the Hollywood gossip columns. Carter launched a successful singing career during his spare time, and Stanis became a poster favorite and regular magazine cover girl.

9. WALKER RECRUITED A FEW SOON-TO-BE-FAMOUS FACES.

Walker didn’t forget his friends once his television career took off; in fact, he hired several of them who were still struggling comedians to write material for his stand-up act. Two of those pals were Jay Leno and David Letterman. Walker finagled a small guest spot on Good Times for Leno during season three. Years later, after Good Times had been cancelled and Letterman was the star of Late Night, Walker could still phone Letterman at any time and get a spot on his show. “Obviously David Letterman’s a major star,” Walker told The A.V. Club. “He’s got billions of dollars, what does he need Jimmie Walker for? But David told me, ‘You’re my friend, I will always have you on my show, ‘til the last breath in my body goes.'"

10. ESTHER ROLLE RETURNED FOR THE FINAL SEASON.

Following the death of James Evans and Florida’s sudden move to Arizona, audience interest in Good Times began to wane. Eventually, producers decided that Amos and Rolle may have been right—that losing the “family” element of the series may have lost them some viewers as well. So they went back to Rolle and asked her to return; she repeated her previous requirements—more money and better scripts—and the producers agreed. Unfortunately, it was a bit too late. The series ended with its sixth season.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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