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Video: Jimmie Walker recalls ‘Good Times’ in new book

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TODAY books
updated 6/25/2012 3:57:00 PM ET 2012-06-25T19:57:00

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.

DaCapo

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:

THELMA
(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.

JUNIOR
(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.”

“Why?”

“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

Photos: TV’s greatest families

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  1. I Love Lucy

    Television's portrayal of the American family has changed with the times -- from I Love Lucy , when the word "pregnant" could not even be mentioned to describe Lucy's condition, to Modern Family , on which an adopted Vietnamese baby has two dads. Here is a visit with TV's most memorable families.

    When Lucille Ball became pregnant with her second child during the second season of her smash sitcom I Love Lucy , writers incorporated it into the show, even timing the birth of fictional Lucy Ricardo's child (Little Ricky, left) to her portrayer's scheduled delivery by C-section. But the show never actually said that Lucy was pregnant; in those less permissive days, they used the more delicate term "expecting."

    Original run: 1951-57 (CBS via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet

    The longest running live-action TV sitcom of all time, Ozzie and Harriet starred a real-life family: ex-bandleader Ozzie Nelson, his actress wife, the former Harriet Hilliard, and their two sons. Younger son Ricky Nelson (far right) inherited his father's musical talent and became a major early rock 'n roll star.

    On air: 1952-66 (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Leave It to Beaver

    Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver (far right) was the all-American boy straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting -- mischievous but good-hearted. This warm sitcom about his misadvenures was so iconic that it spawned a sequel series in the '80s and a 1997 feature film.

    On air: 1953-1967 (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Father Knows Best

    TV's prototype for the nuclear family of the Cold War era, Father Knows Best featured Robert Young as the wise patriarch of the middle-class, middle American Anderson clan, a role he had originally played on radio. The show was cancelled at the peak of its popularity when Young tired of the part he had played for 11 years. Interestingly, the series' setting was a town called Springfield -- also the name of the fictional home of The Simpsons .

    On air: 1954-1963 (Screen Gems via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. My Three Sons

    One of TV's longest-running family sitcoms ever, My Three Sons ran an impressive 380 episodes over a dozen years. Fred MacMurray, star of the classic 1944 film noir Double Indemnity , settled comfortably into the role of a widowed aeronautical engineer with the titular three sons.

    On air: 1960-72 (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Addams Family

    Based on macabre New Yorker cartoons by Charles Addams, the “mysterious and spooky” Addamses inhabited a gloomy mansion with their support staff: Lurch the butler, who was summoned by pulling a hangman’s noose, and Thing, a disembodied hand. They inspired a knockoff show, The Munsters , three movies, several animated series and other spinoffs.

    On air: 1964-66 (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Bewitched

    Part of the 1960s boom of fantasy sitcoms, Bewitched starred Elizabeth Montgomery as an attractive sorceress who promised her ad-man hubby she’d renounce witchcraft, but just couldn’t resist casting spells with a twitch of her nose. Family members included her disapproving mom Endora and daughter Tabitha, who inherited her magical powers and later grew up to get a sitcom of her own.

    On air: 1964-72 (ABC via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Lost in Space

    They were a sci-fi version of the Swiss Family Robinson, only these Robinsons were marooned in outer space instead of a tropical island. Though early episodes concerned the entire clan, the show soon narrowed its focus to young Will (Billy Mumy), sneaky stowaway Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), and the Robot, who constantly warned: "Danger, Will Robinson!"

    On air: 1965-68 (20th Century Fox via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The Brady Bunch

    "'When the lady met this fellow, and they knew that it was much more than a hunch, that this group would somehow form a family. That's the way we all became the Brady Bunch!" This classic portrayal of a blended family became a smash hit at a time when divorces and remarriages were on the rise in the United States. But to play it safe, network execs avoided mentioning how mom and stepmother Carol's first marriage ended – leading many viewers to conclude that she must have been widowed.

    On air: 1969-74 (Paramount Pictures Television) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The Partridge Family

    Inspired by real-life family rock band The Cowsills, this sitcom starred Shirley Jones as a widowed mom who finds herself the head of a brood with Top 40 hits. Life imitated art when the show spawned hit recordings, and costar David Cassidy became a real-life teen idol. Susan Dey and Danny Bonaduce also went on to long careers.

    On air: 1970-74 (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. All in the Family

    Creator Norman Lear’s sitcom about “lovable bigot” Archie Bunker, his “dingbat” wife, daughter, and liberal-minded son-in-law broke new ground what topics could be talked about on television: racial prejudice, homosexuality and breast cancer, to name just a few. The show won a raft of Emmys and spawned a sequel series, Archie Bunker’s Place , that ran four additional years.

    On air: 1971-79 (CBS via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The Waltons

    In 1992, President George H. W. Bush said he wanted to "make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." The gentle period drama following a Virginia family through the Great Depression and World War II ran nine years and spawned half a dozen TV-movie sequels.

    On air: 1972-81 (CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. An American Family

    The mother of all reality shows, this PBS documentary series startled the nation with its candid portrait of the Loud family of Southern California, who grappled before the cameras with such painful issues as Bill and Pat Loud’s divorce and their son Lance’s open homosexuality. In 1973, the family appeared on the cover of Newsweek .

    On air: 1973 (Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Good Times

    A spinoff of a spinoff, Good Times was about Florida Evans -- the household maid on Maude , the liberal offshoot of All in the Family -- and her family, who lived in a Chicago housing project. The show was one of the first to candidly portray African-Americans struggling with economic challenges. It made Jimmie Walker a star with the catchphrase "dy-no-mite," but costars Esther Rolle and John Amos reportedly felt Walker's character reinforced a negative stereotype.

    On air: 1974-79 (CBS via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Little House on the Prairie

    Based on beloved books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, this sweet-natured period drama starred Michael Landon as the head of a farm family in late 19th-century Minnesota. The show ran 184 episodes and won many awards.

    On air: 1974-82 (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. One Day at a Time

    This sitcom starred Bonnie Franklin as one of television's first divorcees to be a major character: Ann Romano, single mom of two teen daughters. Nowadays it is better remembered for making stars of Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli. Pat Cooper played their building's super.

    On air: 1975-84 (CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Family

    Prime-time soap Family followed the fortunes of the Lawrences, a middle-class family in Pasadena. The show tackled such topics as infidelity, alcoholism, and teen sex, and is noteworthy for making a star of Kristy McNichol, who played daughter Buddy, and boosting the popularity of Meredith Baxter Birney, who went on to Family Ties .

    On air: 1976-80 (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Eight Is Enough

    This 60-minute comedy-drama was based on a real-life dad who had eight children: Thomas Braden, a journalist who wrote a book by the same title. The dad in the TV show, "Tom Bradford," is a widower who falls in love with a schoolteacher, who becomes stepmother to the eight children. The kids resent her at first, but ultimately grow to love her too.

    On air: 1977-81 (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Dallas

    Dallas , about the wealthy Ewing family of Texas, revived the prime-time soap genre and spawned a host of imitators such as Dynasty . Conniving J.R. Ewing, played with glee by Larry Hagman, became a pop-culture icon, and the Nov. 21, 1980 episode revealing "Who shot J.R.?" became the highest rated TV episode in U.S. history for a time, though later outstripped by the series finale of M*A*S*H .

    On air: 1978-1991 (CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Dynasty

    The success of Dallas inspired imitation prime-time soaps featuring decadent and dysfunctional families, of which Dynasty , about the fabulously wealthy Carringtons of Colorado, was the most successful. Joan Collins revived her career with her campy portrait of wicked Alexis Carrington, who famously grappled in a lily pond with her husband's new wife, Krystle, played by Linda Evans.

    On air: 1981-89 (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Family Ties

    Culture clash! That's precisely what this popular series captured in the 1980s. Young Republican Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox, adored Ronald Reagan, Reaganomics and The Wall Street Journal – much to the chagrin of his former-hippie parents, Elyse and Steven Keaton (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross). The show became a hit and ran for seven seasons at a time when the country was shifting from the counterculture and liberalism of the '60s and '70s to the conservatism of the '80s.

    On air: 1982-89 (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The Cosby Show

    Based on Bill Cosby’s family material from his stand-up comedy routines, The Cosby Show spotlighted the Huxtables, a family in Brooklyn. When Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable and his lawyer wife, Clair, weren’t raising their five children they were often teaching them lessons of life. Not only did the show break ground in portraying upper-middle-class African-Americans on TV; it singlehandedly revived the then-moribund sitcom genre.

    On air: 1984-1992 (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Who's the Boss?

    What do you get when a former major-leaguer named Tony (played by Tony Danza) takes a live-in housekeeper job for a driven female executive named Angela (played by Judith Light)? Gender-role tensions, romantic tensions and oodles of comedy! Contributing to the antics – and the eventual "one big happy family" vibe – were Tony's daughter Samantha (Alyssa Milano), Angela's son Jonathan and Angela's man-hungry mom Mona.

    On air: 1984-92 (Columbia Pictures Television via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. 227

    Based on a 1978 play, 227 was originally developed as a vehicle for actress Marla Gibbs to capitalize on her popularity from The Jeffersons . Concerning the residents of a Washington, D.C. apartment building, the sitcom raised the prominence of actresses Jackee Harry and Regina King.

    On air: 1985-90 (Colubmia Pictures Television via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Full House

    This show focused on a dad named Danny Tanner, played by Bob Saget, who had to raise three young daughters alone after his wife died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. He needed help, so he asked his best friend Joey (Dave Coulier) and his brother-in-law Jesse (John Stamos) to move in with him and the girls. As the series unfolds, Jesse marries and has twin sons, bringing the total number of people living in the house to nine.

    On air: 1987-95 (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Married... with Children

    America had never seen anything quite like the Bundys when Fox unleashed them as the network's first prime-time series in 1987. But the nation quickly took boorish Al, slatternly Peg and their underachieving children into its heart, and the sitcom ran for a decade.

    On air: 1987-97 (Columbia TriStar Television via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The Wonder Years

    Set during the late 1960s and 1970s, The Wonder Years was built around the reminiscenses of Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) about the trials and traumas he experienced en route to adulthood with his geeky best friend and his childhood sweetheart. Each episode was told from Kevin’s point of view through the narration of actor Daniel Stern. The series won an Emmy for best comedy in 1988.

    On air: 1988-1993 (Warner Bros. via Everett Colletion) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Roseanne

    One of the most successful series of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, this sitcom named for its star, stand-up comic Roseanne Barr, centered on the Conners, an American working class family contending with marriage, children, money, siblings, and parents-in-law. Critics praised the show for tackling such ticklish subjects as poverty, homosexuality, teen pregnancy, obesity, race, domestic violence, and feminism.

    On air: 1988-1997 (Carsey-Werner via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Murphy Brown

    This sitcom starring Candice Bergen as a brittle TV news anchor made headlines when the title character became an unwed mother during the 1991-92 season, drawing criticism from Vice President Dan Quayle about family values. Though the show lampooned Quayle for his stand, in 2002 Bergen remarked that she personally agreed with much of it.

    On air: 1988-98 (Warner Bros. Television via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Family Matters

    Oh, Urkel. How you stole our hearts! Nerdy, brilliant Steve Urkel (played by Jaleel White, far right) didn't appear until the 12th episode of this hit series, but fans loved him so much that he quickly became a main character. A spinoff of Perfect Strangers , Family Matters featured a middle-class family living in Chicago. After The Jeffersons , it became the second-longest-running U.S. sitcom with a primarily African-American cast.

    On air: 1989-98 (Warner Bros. via Everett Collection.) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. The Simpsons

    Originally an interstitial cartoon on The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons became one of the first hits on the fledgling Fox network. Winner of 25 Emmys, the show about the dysfunctional yellow people from Springfield was still going strong after 21 seasons and more than 450 episodes, not to mention a feature film.

    On air: 1989- (Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

    After topping the music charts, rapper Will Smith turned to acting in the sitcom is about a Philadelphia teenager who was sent to live with his wealthy relatives in Los Angeles and had to adjust a luxurious new lifestyle. The entire premise of the show was laid out in its memorable and popular theme song. Executive producer Quincy Jones could be seen in the opening sequnce as the cab driver who takes Will to his aunt and uncle's mansion.

    On air: 1990-1996 (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. The Sopranos

    A critical and popular smash and pop-culture milestone, this HBO drama followed New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano and his brood. It won 21 Emmys and five Golden Globes, and is widely considered one of television's greatest achievements. The final episode's abrupt and ambiguous ending stirred water-cooler debate from coast to coast.

    On air: 1999-2007 (HBO) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. George Lopez

    The Cosby Show broke ground by portraying a middle-class African-American family on TV. George Lopez played a similar role for Hispanic Americans, and stand-up comedian Lopez became one TV's few top-billed Latino stars. Though the sitcom was never a hit during its run on ABC, it has proved highly popular in syndicated reruns.

    Original run: 2002-07 (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Reality-TV families

    The success of The Osbournes (upper left) brought a rash of reality shows about families, including The Real Housewives of Orange County (top center) and Living Lohan (top right); (middle, left to right) Jon & Kate Plus 8, Hogan Knows Best, and Growing Up Gotti ; and (bottom, left to right) Breaking Bonaduce, Meet the Barkers, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians . (MTV, Bravo, E!, TLC, VH1, A&E, VH1, MTV, E1) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Arrested Development

    With the patriarch in prison, an alcoholic mother, three grown kids completely unable to take care of themselves, two cousins in love with each other and one man trying to hold the clan together, the Bluths were one of TV’s most dysfunctional -- and hilarious -- families. The show was filmed in documentary fashion, with handheld camera shots and flashback footage. Produced by Ron Howard, Arrested Devlopment was canceled after three seasons despite winning six Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. The show became a cult hit on DVD.

    On air: 2003-06 (Fox via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Two and a Half Men

    This hit sitcom played off the rakish reputation of its star, Charlie Sheen, a swinging bachelor who welcomes his strait-laced brother (played by Jon Cryer) and young nephew into his beach house. In 2010, production of the show paused when Sheen entered rehab.

    On air: 2003- (CBS) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Everybody Hates Chris

    Inspired by the teenage experiences of comedian Chris Rock, the show revolves around the everyday life of Chris and his family living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn in the mid '80s. The series featured many famous guest actors, including Jackee Harry ( 227 ), Ernest Lee Thomas ( What’s Happening!! ) and Jason Alexander ( Seinfeld ).

    On air: 2005-2009 (The CW via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Big Love

    Surely one of the most unconventional family dramas ever to come to television, Big Love starred Bill Paxton as a member of a polygamist sect in Utah with three wives, played by Chloe Sevigny, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Ginnifer Goodwin. The Church of Latter-Day Saints criticized the show for blurring the distinction between its characters and mainstream Mormons.

    On air: 2006- (HBO) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Modern Family

    This mocumentary-style comedy series is modern indeed: Among the three interconnected clans it follows are two dads with an adopted Vietnamese baby, as well as a man in late middle age with a Colombian bombshell wife and (pictured) a youth-obsessed dad who thinks he's "down" with his three kids. The show drew critical acclaim and a number of awards.

    On air: 2009- (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
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