Before Jimmie Walker became a television star as J.J. in the iconic and pioneering situation comedy “Good Times,” he was a struggling stand-up comedian from the South Bronx. In “Dyn-O-Mite,” Walker shares the story of his rise to fame. Here's an excerpt.
I went on the “Paar” show again.
“Here’s a guy who did great last time. One of the funniest young comics around…Jimmie Walker!”
I killed again. Thank you.
Dan Rowan called me at the Improv. “We saw you on the ‘Paar’ show. We love what you do. We’re doing our last shows for NBC and want you to come out here and be on.” “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” had officially ended but they were putting together variety specials as a farewell. “Opening Night, Rowan and Martin” would be shot in Los Angeles.
“Sure, send me a ticket.”
The next day at the Improv, Louie, the angry Puerto Rican cook who answered the phone during the day, yelled, “Package for you!”
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Inside was a plane ticket to L.A. and instructions about a limo that would pick me up at the airport, about putting me up at the Sunset Hyatt House hotel on Sunset Boulevard, etc. I thought, “I guess this is for real.” Here I was a kid from the South Bronx who grew up never expecting anything out of life, never counted on anything, and now I was getting flown to L.A., the Promised Land…
A few months later, I returned to New York where once a week I did studio audience warm-ups for a CBS sitcom called “Calucci’s Department,” which starred James Coco. Not many sitcoms were still being shot in New York rather than L.A., so this was a prime gig for a stand-up. My job was to get the audience revved up to laugh during the taping of the show set in a New York State unemployment office. Apparently being out of work was not very funny because the series lasted just a couple of months. Before it folded, however, a woman came up to me after my warm-up act and said she had cast “Calucci’s Department.” Now she was casting a new series starring Esther Rolle, who played the black housekeeper on “Maude.” She wanted to know if I would be interested in being on a sitcom.
I said, “Sure, let me know,” and walked away. I didn’t think any more about it. There are so many people in show business who say they are this or that — and aren’t; who are going to do this or that for you — and don’t; who say, “give me your card” and “here’s my card” — and never call; that you end up not believing anybody. So many gigs and TV shows had fallen through before for me that I was skeptical of everyone and everything. My line is: “Everyone is a liar…until proven full of s__t.” If I had a dollar for every person who came into the Improv with a business card that said “Producer,” I would already have been a rich man.
The next week I was about to do my warm-up and the woman from CBS, Pat Kirkland, is there again. This time with a man wearing a golf hat.
“Jimmie, I’d like you to meet Norman Lear.” I had no idea know who he was.
“Welcome aboard,” he said.
What was he talking about? On board what?
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“We’ll begin shooting in about a month,” he continued. “We’re glad you’re on our show.”
I said to myself, “What show?” and went into my warm-up.
“You’re very funny,” he told me afterwards. “We’d love for you to come in to help audition one of the girls too.” The next day, his people called my people — Louie the cook — and left a message with a day and time to meet them at CBS.
Lear had already scored with the massive hits “All In The Family,” “Sanford and Son” and “Maude.” His new show was called “The Black Family,” at least that is what it said on the pages for the scene I did with the actresses — Chip Fields, Tamu Blackwell, and BernNadette Stanis — auditioning for the character of my younger sister Thelma. Though I never auditioned, apparently I already had the part of a character named Junior. I believe Lear and producer Alan Manings had earlier seen me at the Improv and on the “Paar” show, and approved my casting. But they never told me anything about how they saw the character or what I should do with him. They just said, “Do it.”
That audition scene, about Thelma accusing Junior of stealing five dollars from her, would never make it into the series:
(she snatches his painting off the bureau and goes to the open window…holds the painting out) Give me back my $5.00, or I’ll throw this garbage out the window.
(moving toward her threateningly) Girl, you throw that painting out the window and you gonna hear some new sounds…whoosh when the painting passes the twelfth floor and whoosh again when you pass the painting.
Meanwhile, I was happy doing my stand-up. I had gigs lined up, including the college tour. These people I did not know were talking about taping a sitcom on the West Coast while I was doing just fine on the West Side. Well, they could keep talking; I was going to keep working. I wasn’t going to believe I was on a TV show until I was actually there.
So instead I was in Fargo, North Dakota, playing a college, when the phone in my motel room woke me up at two in the morning.
“This is Tandem Productions in Los Angeles. We’re looking for Jimmie Walker.”
“You got him.”
“Did you get the contract for the show? You were supposed to sign it and be in Los Angeles.”
“We start rehearsals tomorrow. We sent you a ticket and were at the airport to pick you up. You weren’t there.”
“No one told me.” They had sent everything to Louie at the Improv.
“Go to the airport. A ticket will be waiting for you. Get on that plane.”
They met me in L.A. and put me up at the Farmer’s Daughter motel, next to the CBS studios.
I figured I would shoot the first couple shows of the sitcom, maybe get on Carson, then go back to New York to the Improv, call up Lou Johnson and make up the college dates in North Dakota that I owed him.
That was my “plan” as I stood that night on the stage of The Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard — the Store, as comics call it. As it turned out, none of that plan would come to pass.
“The Black Family” became “Good Times.”
Excerpted from Dyn-O-Mite by Jimmie Walker with Sal Manna. Copyright © 2012 by Jimmie Walker with Sal Manna. Excerpted by permission of Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive