JOHN Amos says opportunities in film and television for black actors, writers, and production crew are far greater now than the 1970s, when his career was taking off.
Amos, 83, is best known in Jamaica for his roles as Kunta Kinte in the groundbreaking ABC mini-series Roots, as James Evans Sr in the sitcom Good Times, and as Kansas City Mack in the movie Let's Do It Again.
"It was extremely tough back then. There weren't enough roles for every aspiring African-American actor. We were always the last to be included in the scripts, unless the script was focused on aspects of our lives. The opportunities were less in front of and behind the camera, and most importantly, the writers. It was a learning experience, watching an emerging industry at that time," Amos told the Jamaica Observer at a seaside villa in St Mary.
Amos, who has been to Jamaica several times, was introduced to the country by Jamaican actress Madge Sinclair, who played Belle, his wife in Roots and together in the hit movie, Coming to America.
Sinclair, who was best known for her role in the hospital drama series Trapper John MD, died in 1995. Her son is former Flow Country Manager Garry Sinclair.
Early on, acting was never on the cards for the New Jersey-born Amos who wanted a career in professional sports.
"I was an aspiring football player, but I never made it to the National Football League. I just tried several times. Consequently, my son KC [an actor, writer and producer] is named after the Kansas City Chiefs, with whom I had two try-outs. I'll be forever grateful to the late Hank Stram, the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs championship team. He gave me direction for the rest of my life. He said, 'John, I don't believe that you are a professional football player'," he disclosed.
"But I had read something that I had written prior to my departure from the team, which was called The Turk, which is a euphemism for that character that comes and cuts you in the middle of the night and tells you're no longer with the team and that it's time for you to move on with your life's plan. And as a result of those two opportunities that Hank gave me, I was able to read the poem that I had written to the rest of the team and it was then he said, 'I think you have another calling'. And it was true. My fortunes, fame and future were to lie in the world of entertainment and not in athletics. So, I was grateful to Hank for having given me the opportunity and that direction that he gave me," Amos added.
His first acting experience came during the 1960s in a California television series. And although it was limited to a regional audience, Amos considered it "a great education". His break came as Gordy Howard, weatherman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, another Lear production that introduced him to Norman Lear, who became the most influential name in American television in the 1970s.
Lear's hit series also included All In The Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. The latter focused on the Evans family of which James was head; the supporting cast had Esther Rolle as his wife Florida, Jimmie Walker as JJ, BerNadette Stanis as Thelma, Ralph Carter as Michael, and Ja'Net DuBois as Willona.
Amos explained how he landed the role as James Evans Sr.
"Had it not been for the late Esther Rolle, she was given the opportunity to star in her own series, coming off Maude. She said she didn't want to be a matriarch alone or a widow, she wanted a family with a husband. Then it became a matter of who would play her husband. A number of us auditioned for the role on camera with Miss Rolle and Norman Lear and some of his associates were watching. Miss Rolle said, 'that's my husband'. I've never been so glad to be chosen because I know it was gonna be a tremendous opportunity and challenge for me," he recalled.
Amos said the episode where JJ was shot, stands out as his favourite from Good Times.
"That episode was a very important episode. Street gangs were having a negative impact at the time. Children of friends of mine were being killed before they even reached their late teens. Everything that Norman did on that show in regards to furnishing us with scripts, I was always excited about what the next script would be, because I knew it would be important enough to put on television," he noted.
After differences with producers over the direction of the series, Amos left Good Times in 1976. Rolle, who was born in Miami to Bahamian parents, died in 1998; Amos tries to keep in touch with his former Good Times co-stars.
"BernNadette Stanis, who played my daughter Thelma, called me recently. We don't keep in touch that often and we don't meet often enough due to our hectic schedules. The balance of the cast including Ralph Carter lives on the east coast and we try to maintain some degree of contact over the years," said Amos.
As for his most challenging and important roles, his turn as Kunta Kinte is a stand out.
"I would say Roots hangs right in there at the top. It gave me so many opportunities to correct so many negative stereotypes of Africa. That was a pivotal role, it was a wonderful opportunity. Also, the role of Admiral Percy Fitz Wallace in The West Wing," he said.
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