Celebrating Caribbean-American Television Star: Esther Rolle

by Howard Campbell

SOUTH FLORIDA – With June recognized as Caribbean-American Heritage Month, South Florida Caribbean News presents ‘Cariwood’, a series looking at players in the television/movie industry who have Caribbean roots.

When Norman Lear cast Esther Rolle as the lead role in his new sitcom, Good Times, she insisted that the series would not be bound by negative portrayal of blacks.

Rolle, who played Florida Evans for five of the hit CBS show’s six-season (1974-79) run, told Lear and his writers from the outset that her television family should reflect her Bahamian heritage.

Celebrating Caribbean-American Television Star: Esther Rolle
Esther Rolle

“The story was supposed to be about a black woman and her three children. I refused to do it,” Rolle said in a 1985 interview with United Press International. “My father was with his 18 children until the good Lord took him away from here. It would have been an insult to my father to do a show of a black family represented without a father.”

Rolle, who was born in Pompano Beach, projected those roots in a long career that also saw her appearing on Broadway and in films. But she is best known for her role as Florida, the no-nonsense matriarch of the Evans family who lived in a tough housing project in Chicago.

The cast also included John Amos as her husband James; Jimmie Walker as JJ, eldest of their three children; Bern Nadette Stanis as their daughter Thelma, and Ralph Carter as Michael, the youngest child. Ja’Net DuBois, who played Willona, completed the main cast.

Good Times debuted when sitcoms featuring black actors were becoming vogue. There was Sanford And Son, starring Redd Foxx; What’s Happening, and The Jeffersons.

In her UPI interview, Rolle said she and Amos were determined to make Good Times more than just slapstick.

“My comedy of Good Times came out of real situations. The only farcical thing about it was the character JJ, but the rest of that show was hitting home on solid facts. There was school, there was education, there was cleanliness, there was ambition,” she explained.

1970s American actors with Caribbean Heritage

The 1970s saw the rise of American actors with Caribbean heritage. Stanis’ maternal grandparents were born in The Grenadines. Cicely Tyson’s parents were from Nevis. While Antonio Fargas, who played Huggy Bear in Starsky &  Hutch, had Puerto Rican and Trinidadian parents.

Good Times 50th Anniversary

Good Times — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — was a spinoff from Maude, another hit Lear production that starred Bea Arthur (later of The Golden Girls) in the title role. Rolle played Florida, Maude’s spunky housekeeper.

Esther Rolle died in California in 1998 at age 78, and was buried at Westview Community Cemetery in Pompano Beach.

In August, 2006, her family donated over 100 items that belonged to her to the African American Research Library and Cultural Center on Sistrunk Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.


South Florida Caribbean News

The Team provides news and information for the Caribbean-American community in South Florida and beyond.

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