Airing from 1974 to 1979, the Norman Lear-helmed comedy Good Times saw the Evans family boldly tackle weighty subjects including child abuse, poverty, and unemployment.
Starring John Amos as family head James Evans, Esther Rolle as his wife Florida, Jimmie Walker as their eldest son J.J., Bern Nadette Stanis as middle child Thelma, and Ralph Carter as youngest child Michael, the show portrayed life as it was for a Black working-class family.
For show star Rolle, there was one topic that she found disrespectful and inappropriate. Although she voiced her disapproval of the episode, Lear went ahead with it.
What the show ‘Good Times’ was about
Good Times was the first television comedy to present a Black family living in an urban housing project. Despite the at-times bleak situations depicted, the show found a way to be funny.
In his 2017 conversation with the Television Academy Foundation, Walker touched on executive producer Lear’s desire to candidly broach subjects that may have been considered taboo up until that point.
“Norman Lear was a guy who…we covered every major subject,” Walker said. “Anything to do with racism, anything to do with reverse racism, VD, senior citizens eating dog food, senior citizens not having a place to live, senior citizens having a sex life. That’s Norman.”
Walker, comparing Lear to another major network producer, noted that The Jeffersons creator would never go for a happy-go-lucky type of program.
“Norman will never be a Happy Days type of guy,” he said. “He will never be a Garry Marshall type of guy, that’s not what he does. He is a guy who loves issues. And you saw that in every show [of Lear’s]: All in the Family, Maude. It’s always issues with Norman.”
The character of J.J. Evans was an artist
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Good Times co-creator Mike Evans who starred in All in the Family and The Jeffersons came up with the idea that “the J.J. character be a painter,” Lear wrote in his book Even This I Get to Experience.
“I visited galleries and artists’ studios and along the way met and collected a number of the modern greats, among them the black artist Ernie Barnes,” he continued.
Barnes’ art was used on the sitcom as stand-ins for J.J.’s artwork. Lear chose to surround “an entire story around J.J.’s latest piece of art,” which upset Florida Evans actor Rolle.
The episode that Rolle disapproved of
As it turned out, the eldest Evans child’s most recent piece of art turned out to be a portrait of Barnes’ vision of Jesus Christ as a Black man. And as Lear recalled, Rolle strongly disliked the story line.
“It was a Black Jesus, which Ernie Barnes took special pride in. To Esther, who was very devoted to her church, the portrait itself and the dialogue discussion that necessarily followed was blasphemous,” the renowned television producer said.
Lear was astounded to have to “defend” the art piece to Rolle and to Amos as well, who the producer stated were “entirely on edge” with the episode’s subject matter.
The All in the Family creator noted: “Odd that the largely white writing staff of a show about a Black family was defending the notion of a Black Jesus to a Black woman, but to me that was all the proof we needed to know what an interesting and multifaceted topic our story had engaged.”