Fifteen minutes with John Amos ('Good Times,' 'Roots,' 'Coming to America')

Posted Friday, September 29, 2017 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

John Amos is best known for his work in the 1970s and 1980s from the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Good Times" to "Roots" and "Coming to America."

His resume in the past couple of decades included stints on "The West Wing," "Two and a Half Men" and "The Ranch." At age 77, he recently came to Atlanta for a few days to talk about animation with his friend Charles West, an African-American owner of a local production company CW Studios, which is located in the Old Fourth Ward hugging the Beltline.

Amos is  an executive producer and voice on West's upcoming YouTube Kids animated series "Nubbin & Friends."

I got to spend a few minutes with the legendary actor, who still resonates with a certain demographic. (A photo I took with him on Facebook has received more than 120 likes, far more than my English bulldog ever gets.)

Amos is also hoping to turn a children's book he just released about race called "A World Without Color" into an animated series and is working with West on that project already.

Amos said he and West "share mutual objectives in terms of the entertainment industry." They are both focused on creating positive educational stories for little kids.

"I have a 10-year-old son," West said. "I run everything by him. He said, 'Dad. We need more happiness!' "

"Nubbin & Friends," West added, is a mixture of "Sesame Street" and "Dora the Explorer," with stories that help kids learn the alphabet and numbers. He met Amos about a year ago and they bonded immediately. Amos, who has been a fan of animation since he was a child, offered up his voice for the project and is actively involved in its creation.

"My high school yearbook reflected my aspiration to be a cartoonist," Amos said. "Then acting jobs started coming so I went with the flow."

He thinks he and West "are going to have a long, prosperous relationship."

When I joked to West that this sounded like a mentor/mentee situation along the lines of Mr. Miyagi and Daniel in the "Karate Kid," West laughed.

"Once you hear his life story, I'm like a younger version of him," West said. "I'm honored and humbled."

Amos admires West for his tenacity and his desire to keep ownership and control of his projects. "He has an appreciation of what animation can be and the power it provides," Amos said. "I think any subject can be covered through animation if written properly if it's got a message that is going to be beneficial for all mankind."

His children's book, Amos said, is targeted to kids five to 10 and focuses on unity. "Children aren't born racist or discriminatory," he said. "They have to be raised that way. This book delivers a somewhat subtle message about diversity."

It starts in black and white in a town called Bleakersville, but new characters carrying new colors eventually turn the pages into a rainbow palette. "Their colors infuse the entire scenario," he said.

Amos, who has lived in New Jersey much of his life, recently moved to Colorado for the space and openness. He said he loved working with TV producer Norman Lear ("All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons") even though the two fought over whether the seminal 1970s sitcom "Good Times" placed black families in a bad light.

Amos was fired after three seasons as a result of his outspokenness, especially over the over-emphasis on Jimmie Walker's "Dy-no-mite" shenanigans.

Time has softened whatever anger Amos held four decades prior. "I don't think there's anybody who had the vision and abilities that Norman Lear brought to the table at that time," Amos said. "He changed the face of television. He saw television as an educational tool and instrument for social change."

And he looks back on his time with "Good Times" with pride. "The messages it delivers today even in reruns are applicable to issues we're still dealing with now."

Amos has worked with many A listers in his career, from Bruce Willis ("Die Hard 2") to Denzel Washington ("Ricochet"). He'd love to share a stage with Matthew McConaughey or Idris Elba.

"You don't retire in my position," he said. "You just fail to show up to work one day.  I still receive offers to do guest shots. I'd love to do 'Power' on Starz. Or 'Empire.' I'd like to play a bad guy. I like playing bad guys. I've played a lot of lovable dads in my time."

His favorite bad guy? Army Special Forces Commander Grant in "Die Hard 2." He appeared to be a good guy in the movie but (spoiler alert!) wasn't. And his "Good Times" role continues to be his favorite good guy role after all these years.

Given all the brouhaha over the weekend regarding the National Anthem at NFL games, Amos had no issue. He aspired to be a professional football player when he was younger but injuries got in the way and Hollywood beckoned.

"It's healthy," he said. "We're exercising our rights. If I were playing today, I'm not sure what position I'd take, whether I'd stand or kneel. I'm a veteran. I feel partially obligated to stand. I took the vows years ago. By the same token, social injustice is happening with unarmed black me and children throughout the country, not just the Deep South as it used to be. It just demands that we draw attention to it."

Amos remains a big Kansas City Chiefs fan because they signed him twice. But he has mixed feelings about the game he loves as evidence of accumulated brain damage has come to light. "It doesn't have to be quite so violent to be entertaining," he said. "Let's face it. It's entertainment. That's what it's predicated on. It draws big entertainment bucks."

He said he feels the accumulated physical ramifications of playing football decades later. He started ticking them off: "I've had Achilles tendon surgery. A shattered nerve in the left foot. Six arthroscopic procedures in the knees. Shoulder surgery. Surgery on my finger that got bent the wrong way. A few chipped teeth. And I had my bell run a few times in my day."

Amos had no idea how devastating brain injuries could be. "I have no way of knowing the extent of my brain damage," he said. So far, he said, he feels great mentally. "So far, so good," he said. "I'm of relatively sound mind - and a rapidly deteriorating body."

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.