The West Wing
As a young man John Amos appeared headed for athletic glory.
He played football at Colorado State University and was a Golden Gloves boxing champion.
After earning a degree in Sociology, Amos signed with the AFL’s Denver Broncos and, later, the Kansas City Chiefs. When he was cut from the Chiefs, his response was unexpected: he asked his coach if he could recite a poem he’d written. When his teammates heard it, they gave him a standing ovation.
At that point, Amos remembers, "My coach said, 'I think you have another calling.'" A torn Achilles tendon further sealed the deal. Amos turned to writing. As a staffer for The Leslie Uggams Show, producers took note of his innate comic timing. That led to his casting in 1970 as Gordy, the weatherman, in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. "I never looked back after that," Amos says.
Yet the actor — who would gain worldwide fame and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of the older slave Kunta Kinte in the epic ABC miniseries Roots — would also struggle with a hot temper that he says came from those years of competing in sports. There were issues on set and, sometimes, the loss of a job, as in the case of the hit comedy series Good Times.
Amos was interviewed in December 2014 by Nancy Harrington for the Television Academy Foundation's Archive of American Television; the following is an edited excerpt of that conversation. The entire interview can be viewed at emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/john-amos.
Q: What was your first writing job?
A: I wrote for a local television show called Lohman & Barkley, a couple of radio personalities who had been given time on Saturday nights. That led to writing for The Leslie Uggams Show. I was the youngest on the writing staff and the least experienced. It was truly a learning experience for me.
I worked with some people who went on to make their mark in television as writers. Lorenzo Music, who became the voice of Garfield [the cat], and Dave Davis [Taxi], among others.
After the producers read one of the sketches we'd written, they said, "You've got a flair for comedy, man.
We're working on a show, and we think you might have a shot at playing one of the characters." When they said it was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I said, "No kidding!" Months later, when Leslie's show was canceled, I got a call: "We're still serious." That was my first national television exposure. I auditioned for Gordy the weatherman, and I was off and running,
Q: What was it like working on that show?
A: One of the reasons that show was so successful — well, there were quite a few reasons, each one of them in the form of a cast member — was the writers. I've always had an affinity for writers. I've always favored the written word because a performer can't do anything without a script.
And I was surrounded by impeccable talent: Ted Knight, Mary, Valerie Harper, Gavin MacLeod and Ed Asner — they all were superlative actor-comedians and stage-trained. It was a wonderful ensemble to work with.
Q: How did Good Times come about?
A: While I was on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, my agent called and said, "Norman Lear is producing a new show. They'd like you to come in and read with Miss Rolle — it's going to be her show." That would be the late Esther Rolle, incredible actress and a wonderful person. So I said, "Sure."
Everybody knew who Norman Lear was, I'd seen the pilot of All in the Family and thought, "There's no way in the world they're going to put that on television." Sure enough, it became a hit. So I went in and read with Miss Rolle for Norman Lear, with just the three of us in his office. When we finished, Norman looked at Esther, and Esther looked at me and looked at Norman and said, "He'll do just fine."
Q: What was important about that role?
A: Miss Rolle had insisted that she have a husband on the show. She did not want it to be a perpetuation of the matriarchal black family. She said, "I want a husband, and he's going to be a working husband. He's going to be responsible, and that's the way I want to run this family."
Everything worked except the jobs. James Evans, my character, was never able to find a full-time job. A lot of people criticized the show for that. "Why can't this man find a job?" They thought it was degrading to black men. The truth of it is, you can only make so much money if you live in the projects. He provided for his family with any job that he could find, We managed to survive, and America loved that show,
Q: You and Norman Lear didn't always see eye to eye....
A: We had a number of differences, as evidenced by my early departure from the show. I felt too much emphasis was being put on J.J. [played by Jimmie Walker] in his chicken hat, saying "Dy-no-mite!" every third page.
I felt just as much emphasis and mileage could have been gotten out of my other two children, one of whom aspired to become a Supreme Court Justice, played by Ralph Carter, and the other, Bern Nadette Stanis, who aspired to become a surgeon.
But I wasn't the most diplomatic guy in those days, and they got tired of having their lives threatened over jokes. So they said, "Why don't we kill him off? Life's too short." That taught me a lesson — I wasn't as important as I thought I was to the show or to Norman Lear's plans.
Q: How did they let you know?
A: We were on hiatus, and Norman's secretary called and said, "John, Norman would like to speak to you." I thought that was kind of unusual, as we were on hiatus.
Norman got on the phone and said, "Big John.'' I said, "Yes, Norman." He said, "I've got some good news and some bad news. What do you want first?" I said, "Hey, it's your dime, you made the call” He said, "Well, the good news is we've been picked up for another season.'' Then he said,' You want the bad news?" I said, "Sure. How bad can it be?" He said, "You won't be with us."
I said nothing. I didn't say a word. I let that register for a minute. And he said, "You still there?" I said, "Yeah, I'm here, Norman."
"Well, don't you want to say something?" I said, "What can I say? It's your show. Have a good life." Click. And that was it. I didn't curse or anything, I just hung up the phone. He didn't call me back to see if I had anything else to say.
Q: But shortly after your run on Good Times ended, you starred in Roots. How did that come about?
A: I got a call from my agent telling me that David Wolper was working on a project from an Alex Haley novel called Roots. They wanted me to come in and meet with him and Stan Margulies, the producer. So they sent me a script, and the role that they had penciled in for me to read for was not the role that I ultimately got. It was the wrestler on the slave ship, who incites a rebellion between the slaves and the crew.
They called me and said, "Did you read it?" and I said, "Yeah, I read it." I was salivating. They said, "Do you want to do it?" I said, "Absolutely."
Then they called me back and said, "There's another part they want you to read for," and I said, "What part is that?" Now I'm getting disappointed, thinking it's going to be a one-liner. It was for Fiddler, the role that ultimately went to Louis Gossett, Jr. I said, "Oh, man, what a plum role that is! You get to age, it's a sympathetic, empathetic character, and you play the fiddle!"
Q: So, what happened?
A: While I was reading for these two roles, every once in a while they would allude to Kunta Kinte. By the time they'd given me the script with that character more fleshed out, all I could say was, "Man, whoever gets this role, wow! A once-in-a-lifetime role..."
One day they called and said, "David Wolper would like to see you for the role of Kunta Kinte." I almost fainted. I couldn't believe it. It was like I'd hit the lottery. It didn't mean I'd got the role, it just meant that I had a chance,
But I was so stoked. When I went in and met with Wolper and Stan Margulies, I had decided that I was going to use an accent that I'd cultivated on my numerous trips to Africa.
Q: Did they appreciate that?
A: Stan Margulies, or Marv Chomsky, the director, said, "Well, this accent that you're using, we're not sure if that's the correct one, because we had Maya Angelou come in and she read in what she thought was the correct accent." She was married to an African gentleman, or had extensive travels in Africa.
Well, I knew I had the handle on it, not because of ego, but because of when I was living in Liberia. They had an African linguist from UCLA come in who was an expert on different accents, and he gave me a green light — I guess that was the ultimate litmus test. 1 stayed with the accent and I got the role.
Q: Tell us about that job....
A: In the course of filming Roots, I had a spiritual experience on the set, witnessed by some of the crew. They were shooting a scene that had nothing to do with me, some 100 yards away. I was in makeup and wardrobe, and I was talking with a friend of mine.
All of a sudden, I felt like I was having a seizure. I fell to the ground. I don't recall all of it, but from what my friends who were present tell me, I fell and began to talk in some inconceivable language, screaming at times — to the point that the crew down the hill got upset, justifiably.
They called up and said, "What the hell are you doing up there? We're trying to shoot a scene here. Stop the noise." One of them said, "It's Amos. He's having a fit."
And in retrospect, I realize what it was — I've decided that it was my ancestors talking to me, telling me that this was not just a role, but that I was going to be their voice, I was going to be the voice of those slaves who had been captured and enslaved, That I must stay with my convictions as to what this character was.
Q: How did that experience inform your performance?
A: I had lived in Africa. I knew the language, I knew the culture, to some degree, at least the West African culture. That encouragement — though it came at the wrong time and I expressed it the wrong way — was what I needed to get me through that role.
There were some moments that I would not trade for anything: the scene where Fiddler is mentoring me about how to survive as a slave in the new world, and the final scene we had together, when Fiddler is fading and we're having a dialogue. And I don't even realize he's passed away, until I put the question to him: "Yeah, freedom, ain't that a wonderful thing to have, Fiddler? Ain't it a wonderful way to be?" And I reach over to get his confirmation and realize he's passed away.
In real life, as we were waiting for the cameras to reload, Louis turned to me and said, "John, we'd better eat this up like a good steak, because we're never going to get a piece of meat like this again in our careers."
Q: How did being cast in Roots feel to you, coming on the heels of Good Times?
A: It was just what I needed. It took the bad taste of Good Times out of my mouth — not that the series had been all bad, but the circumstances under which I left, and the acrimony between Norman Lear and myself.
I realize that I brought on a lot of it. I was not the easiest guy in the world to get along with, or to direct. I challenged everybody. Roots was a vindication. There was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction,
Q: Do you think Roots had any impact on racism in the country?
A: It might have, for a short time. I think everybody — liberal or conservative, racist, bigot or whatever — was affected by it. Everybody knew that something very special had happened. A side of our history that had never been divulged before was being exposed. The truth of it is, we had to water it down to make it palatable for the masses — the atrocities that were committed during slavery, the unbelievable horrors,
Yes, America did take Roots to heart for a while, and I think that the cause for true integration and what the Constitution really stands for were brought to light. But then as time went by, other priorities took place, different wars, different political figures. The impact that it had was dissipated appreciably, so we're back now to Ferguson.
Q: Tell us about your time on The West Wing.
A: Once again, I was blessed to be part of that cast. It's like you called the roll of the finest actors on television, then topped it off by having them read the finest scripts written for television by Aaron Sorkin. The role of Admiral Percy Fitzwallace [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] is one I would have paid to do.
As fate would have it, after the show had been on a year, I was in Washington, and I'd arranged to have a meeting with then Secretary of State Colin Powell. My wife and I sat in the outer office waiting for him. He opened the door, looked at me and said, "Percy Fitzwallace! What kind of name is that for a brother?" He had me on that!
He invited us into his office and said, "Excuse me, I've got to make a phone call." He called his wife and said, "Alma, you'll never guess who I'm sitting with." I couldn't believe it. My career has led me to people I never thought [I'd meet]... to have dialogue with them, laugh and joke with them, have a bite to eat with them.
Q: What do you enjoy most about acting?
A: It's therapeutic. I honestly believe that if it weren't for acting, I would either be in an asylum or prison. I know I had a short fuse growing up, for so many reasons, some of them self-contrived. I brought a lot of grief on myself. Acting gave me an outlet that allowed me to be other people — without getting in trouble. I could be a bad guy, a good guy, a rough guy, a meek guy — I could be someone other than myself.
Q: What's your proudest career achievement?
A: I would say Roots, because of the impact that it had on the nation and the world. It was my proudest and perhaps the most important work I've done on television. I put West Wing right up there with it. There were wonderful opportunities for me as an actor. I appreciated them when they happened, and in retrospect I appreciate them even more.
Q: What's your greatest career regret?
A: Not being more in control of my temper, which was born out of the conflicts of football and boxing. I brought that mentality into an industry where there was no room for it and no call for it. If I had to do it over again, I would have taken the same positions, but I would have been a lot more diplomatic — I'd have tried to be more mature.
At that time all I knew was, "Well, let's take this outside and we'll work out our differences."
People didn't want to hear that. I don't blame Norman Lear for having fired me. I told him that when I attended a celebration of his work in Las Vegas some years ago. He laughed and said, "Well, that's behind us now."
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: As a guy who made people laugh, who made people think a little bit and who didn't hold himself up to be some philosopher — a guy who had a wonderful ride through life, As someone people enjoyed watching and enjoyed having in their homes.