June '00 : Interview: John Amos
The first dad of Black life telling it like it is

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Interviewed by Margretta Browne

When I think of John Amos, my memory automatically pulls from two scenes, of course his famous role as James Evans in Good Times, and his role as the father to Eddie Murphy's love interest in Coming to America. Both father roles portrayed
someone who could be very excitable, and overbearing at times. When sitting down with John Amos, I found that unlike those two roles, he is quite the opposite. He is a man of quiet confidence but approachable, and more than willing to share his vast experiences. There are no boastful airs about him, only an unmistakable dignity that accurately reflects his many accomplishments. He is a man of achievements both on and off stage that all link and come full circle to a career anyone would be proud of.

Amos started in the business as a writer for television on the Leslie Uggam's Show, a one hour variety show, as a result of the Watts riot in 1968. From there he went on to acting, and starred in a great many television shows and several movies. It was his
role as James Evans though in the series Good Times that presented a pivotal point in his career. Though there was a shift in art form, he could not completely leave behind his experiences as a writer. Amos brought with him his skills and creative ideas.

Within these ideas lay his judgments and worries about the stereotypical nature of the characters on Good Times, a sitcom about a Black family's struggles living in an urban ghetto, and the impact they could have. This brought a lot of tension. These differences on the set led to what some predicted would be Amos's demise. He explains: "It was something other than dramatic and creative differences, it was an ongoing struggle to say no, I don't want to be a part of the perpetuation of this stereotype. I was hired as an actor. Despite the fact that I had a writing background, they didn't want to accept whatever ideas I had as a writer. They wanted to take the ideas I had as an actor ,take credit for it and the compensation. So when I would pose arguments about J.J.'s role being too stereotypical, I was regarded as a negative factor.

It ultimately reached a point where it was inflammable, I mean, spontaneous combustion could happen at any minute. They killed my character off and as God would have it, just when they told me I would never work again, I got cast in a little program called Roots, and as they would say, the rest is history. I could have begged and they made it obvious to me that if I wanted to come back and be a good boy... but I'd rather say 'Toby be good nigger' in Roots than 'Toby be good nigger' on Good Times."

What could have ended in bad times for Amos led to good times. Amos went on to star in one of the most powerful and influential mini-series on television, Roots. He played the adult role of Kunta Kinte, a figure that embodied the beginning of history for Blacks in America. His excellent portrayal of Kunta Kinte pulled him an Emmy nomination.

Amos is an accomplished actor not only on camera but on stage as well. He has starred in numerous critically acclaimed productions here in the states and abroad. His current theatrical production, Halley's Comet, is winding down its last year out of a ten year world tour. It is a one man show written, directed, and of course acted by Amos. Amos plays an 87 year old man who at the age of 11, witnesses Halley's Comet and then gets the same opportunity 76 years later to see the comet again. He shares his observations of history over the 76 years with the comet through a plethora of rich anecdotes with a mixture of drama and humor.

Out of this one man show has come another facet of Amos's life, Halley's Comet Foundation. An organization Amos has founded to expose at-risk children to sailing. He spoke very passionately about the mission of his foundation, "a passion that comes from being both a father and a grandfather." He has a, "68ft. vessel that looks like a pirate ship....and captures children's imagination." Amos's goal is just that, to grab the attention and interest of the at-risk child. By at-risk he means, "those kids that society says you have one last shot to clean up your act, or it's going to be some type of penal situation. That's the kind of kid I want....society has just about had enough of him and he has just about had enough of life." He hopes by engaging them in teamwork and making them responsible for the hard work of a successful sail, that it will, "instill knowledge in that kid of who and what he/she can be....prove to them that their potential is unlimited.

Amos's artistic abilities have garnered him success in the arenas of film, television, and theater. His career has spanned successfully over the past three decades and continues. He currently has a recurring role on NBC's The West Wing as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace and is working on two new films. Amos has proved that talent, hard work, and a true passion for one's craft can only lead to one thing, success.

To find out more about John Amos's one man show, log on to halleyscomet.com.

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