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.

Josh Trank Wouldn't Mind Erasing Fantastic Four From Film History

Ben Rothstein, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Ben Rothstein, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

It’s not every day that you hear a director talking about wanting to completely erase one of their projects from film history. But when the topic of the 2015 box office bomb Fantastic Four comes up, director Josh Trank isn't mincing words. The director tweeted that he would “gladly” donate to a GoFundMe page to have his failed adaptation erased from the cinematic history books.

It's no secret that Fantastic Four is a sore subject for Trank. The production was plagued with rumors that there was a bit of friction on set, particularly between the director and star Miles Teller. Even once the film had wrapped, reports about the troubled production plagued Trank, and eventually led to him parting ways with Disney, for whom he was supposedly developing a standalone Boba Fett movie. (It didn't help that Fantastic Four tanked at the box office and even won a Razzie for Worst Picture).

The topic of starting a GoFundMe page for the film started after Trank responded to fans rallying for a page to get the rat at the end of Martin Scorsese's The Departed digitally erased. When asked if he would support a page to get rid of Fantastic Four, Trank seemed to oblige (though he has since deleted the tweet).


It’s no secret the previous Fantastic Four movies have had little success, but now that Disney and Fox are joining forces, the series could be entering into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe now these superheroes will finally get the movie they deserve.

Hollywood's Brief Love Affair With Young Einstein Star Yahoo Serious

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The theater owners and exhibitors attending the ShoWest convention in February 1989 had a lot to look forward to. In an attempt to stir their interest in upcoming studio releases, major distributors were showing off stars and footage: Paramount led with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Columbia had Ghostbusters II. But it was Warner Bros. that caused the biggest stir.

In addition to Lethal Weapon 2, the studio had Tim Burton’s Batman, a straight-faced adaptation of the comic, and Michael Keaton—who slipped into a screening of some early footage—was no longer being derided as a poor casting choice. Then, in the midst of all this star power, the studio brought out a 35-year-old actor-writer-director with a shock of orange hair and an Australian accent.

The man had never appeared in a feature film before, much less starred in one, but Warner was gambling that his forthcoming comedy about a Tasmanian Albert Einstein who invents rock music and runs into Thomas Edison would be a hit. It had already become the sixth highest-grossing film in Australia's history, besting both E.T. and Rambo: First Blood Part II.

The man’s real name was Greg Pead, but Warner Bros. introduced him as Yahoo Serious, Hollywood’s next big comedy attraction.

 

To understand Warner’s appetite for an unproven commodity like Yahoo Serious, it helps to recall the peculiar preoccupation American popular culture had with Australians in the 1980s. Energizer had created a hit ad campaign with Mark “Jacko” Jackson, a pro football player who aggressively promoted their batteries in a series of ads; meanwhile, Paul Hogan parlayed his fish-out-of-water comedy, Crocodile Dundee, into the second highest-grossing film of 1986. (Serious would later bristle at comparisons to Hogan, whom he referred to as a “marketing guy” who sold cigarettes on Australian television.)

Born in Cardiff, Australia on July 27, 1953, Serious grew up in rural bush country and mounted car tires at a garage in order to pay his way through the National Art School. When he was expelled for illustrating the school's facade with satirical jokes that the faculty didn’t find particularly funny, Serious moved on to direct Coaltown, a documentary about the coal mining industry, and pursued painting.

Serious would later recall that the desire for a larger audience led him away from art and into feature filmmaking. ''It hit me like a ton of bricks one day,” Serious told The New York Times in 1989. “I remember having a cup of coffee and I went, 'Well, look, there is a giant canvas in every little town everywhere around the world. And on this giant canvas there are 24 frames of image on that screen every second and it's the most wonderful living art form.'” It was around this same time, in 1980, that Serious changed his name.

To get a feel for the language of film, Serious sat through repeated viewings of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove; he aspired to have the kind of total autonomy over his movies that directors like Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin enjoyed.

In 1983, Serious was traveling along the Amazon River when he spotted someone wearing a T-shirt depicting Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. The image is now pervasive, appearing on posters and other merchandise, but it seemed unique to the performer, who was struck by the idea that Einstein was once young and never took himself too seriously. And the concept for Young Einstein was born.

 

Serious's idea, which transplanted Einstein to Tasmania and imagined encounters with Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, and the atomic bomb, took years to assemble. He borrowed camera equipment and sold his car to help finance the film; he shot an eight-minute trailer that convinced investors he was capable of making a feature. His mother even cooked meals for the crew on set.

In order to maintain creative control, Serious gave up profit participation in Young Einstein, which he starred in, co-produced, co-wrote, and directed. When the film was released in Australia in 1988, it made an impressive $1.6 million at the box office and drew the attention of Warner Bros., which likely had visions of a Crocodile Dundee-esque hit. American press had a field day with Serious, who appeared on the cover of TIME and was given airtime on MTV.

Critics and audiences weren’t quite as enamored. The Orlando Sentinel suggested that "Tedious Oddball" would be a more appropriate name for the film's creator. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that, "Young Einstein is a one-joke movie, and I didn't laugh much the first time." In the U.S., Young Einstein grossed just over $11 million, a fairly weak showing for a summer comedy. It was bested in its opening weekend by both Ron Howard’s Parenthood and the Sylvester Stallone action-grunter Lock Up.

 

Although American distributors quickly cooled on Serious, Australia's enthusiasm for the filmmaker didn’t dampen. When Serious released 1993’s Reckless Kelly, a fictionalized account of outlaw Ned Kelly, it made $5.4 million in Australia—three times as much as Young Einstein. Serious took a seven-year sabbatical, then returned with 2000’s Mr. Accident, a slapstick comedy about an injury-prone man who tries to thwart a scheme to inject nicotine into eggs. Meeting a tepid critical and financial reception, it would be his third and (likely) final film.

At roughly the same time Mr. Accident was released, Serious took issue with upstart search engine Yahoo!, alleging the site was piggybacking on his popularity. He filed a lawsuit, which was quickly dropped when he failed to prove the URL had damaged him in any way.

Yahoo Serious attends an event
Paul McConnell, Getty Images

The amused headlines stemming from that incident were the last examples of Serious capturing attention in America. Having completed just three films, no other projects have come to fruition; Serious launched a website detailing some of his background and to air some of his Yahoo!-related grievances.

Now 65, Serious currently serves as founding director of the Kokoda Track Foundation, an Australian aid organization dedicated to improving the living conditions of Papua New Guineans. The board’s website lists him as Yahoo Serious, which is the name he claims that all of his family and friends have called him since he changed it in 1980.

“You can choose every aspect of your life,” Serious once said. “Why not your name?”

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