How a catchphrase derailed a show and, later, a career
- Last Updated: 12:22 AM, July 1, 2012
- Posted: 12:06 AM, June 24, 2012
Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times — A Memoir
by Jimmie Walker
Da Capo Press
“Good Times” was supposed to be more than a sitcom — it was going to be social commentary. Every week, it would speak to the hopes and fears of the African-American underclass, a spotlight on minority hardship in 1970s America.
But those best of intentions all went up in a stick of “DY-NO-MITE!”
In Jimmie Walker’s memoir, the now-64-year-old comic looks back at his “sneak attack” into stardom, how his co-stars hated him for hijacking the show, and how his character, J.J. Evans, came to be ridiculed as demeaning to young black men in America.
The “Dyn-o-mite” line, he recalls, wasn’t even in the original script. It was improvised, he writes, in a scene in the first episode. “I think we got something here,” director John Rich said after Walker snuck it into rehearsals. The show’s creator, Norman Lear, of “All in the Family” fame, originally hated it. “It means absolutely nothing. It doesn’t contribute to the story. It’s asinine.”
Yet at taping, the audience howled. So for the second episode, Walker’s “Dyn-o-mite!” ended the show. When “Dyn-o-mite!” was used twice in Episode 7, the show’s star Esther Rolle threatened to quit and a once-per-episode rule was implemented.
“Good Times” premiered on Feb. 8, 1974 in CBS’s 8:30 p.m. time slot. The show was a hit, seventh in ratings for the year. With his catchphrase, floppy denim hat and gangly ability to get laughs, J.J. became an instant phenomenon. Posters, a doll, trading cards, lunchboxes all hit the market.
Years later, Walker’s portrayal was derided for being “too ghetto,” a demeaning throwback to Stepin Fetchit. Yet, at the time Walker won an NAACP image award and critics called the show pioneering, a “noteworthy step forward in TV’s treatment of black people,” said media critic Lee Winfrey. Black American magazine called it “innovative.”
Meanwhile, Walker’s furious (and no doubt envious) co-stars fumed over the 26-year-old comic’s rise to fame. Before the third season, Rolle, who played level-headed matriarch Florida Evans, told Ebony magazine of the J.J. character: “He’s 18 and he doesn’t work. He can’t read or write. He doesn’t think . . . I resent the imagery that says to black kids that you can make it by standing on the corner and saying, ‘Dyn-o-Mite.’ ”
Walker responded in Ebony magazine: “I don’t think any TV show can put out an image to save people. My advice is do not follow me. I don’t want to be a follower or a leader . . . just a doer.”
Today he admits that “Although I sloughed it off in public, the fact is that Ester’s criticism — some of it very pointed and personal — seriously damaged my appeal in the black community.”
He also defends the character as not all bad. He was lazy, but his aspiration was to be a painter, “the van Gogh of the ghetto.” He wasn’t in a gang. He didn’t use drugs.
The Bronx-born Walker was no actor (his credits included a Sears TV commercial and a bit role as a street hood in the film “Badge 373,” getting pummeled by a cop played by Robert Duvall). All Walker says he wanted was to be a successful stand-up comic, and one whose material wasn’t overly political either.
On the comedy-club circuit, he was peers and friends with David Brenner and Freddie Prinze (and after hitting it big on “Good Times,” at one point hired both Jay Leno and David Letterman to write jokes for him). Even today, he works hundreds of days a year doing stand-up.
But except for a few cameos, Walker’s TV career pretty much fizzled after “Good Times.”
There’s no descent-into-drugs tale to explain why Walker never parlayed his J.J. celebrity into a bigger Hollywood successes. It was stereotyping. In an irony that may have pleased his former co-stars, “Dyn-o-mite” hijacked “Good Times,” but it also hijacked Walker’s career.
That was evident on one of the few movie roles he landed, on 1975’s “Let’s Do It Again,” with Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. Throughout the entire production, Poitier called him “J.J.” After correcting him that his name was Jimmie a few times, Walker just gave up.
To this day, Walker admits, he never says “Dy-no-mite!” on stage.Follow @NYPostOpinion