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Why Esther Rolle Refused to Be a Sell Out

Written by PlayBack

By Evette D. Champion

You may remember Esther Rolle from her role as “Florida Evans” on the television show, Good Times. She played the character of a stern but loving mother; but when the cameras stopped rolling, she was a strong willed woman whose straightforward approach to life made her an admirable person and actress.

Originally, in 1977, Rolle quit the successful show because of contractual disputes. However, she later admitted that she left the show because of the direction the show was going. She was embarrassed by the antics and wanted to disassociate herself from it because she believed it was degrading to people on mainstream television.

Even before she became an actress in Hollywood, Rolle was a very outspoken woman. When she resided in Pampano Beach, Florida with her parents and 17 siblings, she developed a strong sense of personal responsibility, self-respect, and a drive that helped her pursue an acting career. She would go from performing in stage productions to television, all the while continuing to be a strong supporter for Black people who wanted to pursue artistic endeavors.

No matter the role she played, whether a servant or Lady Macbeth, her talent always landed her with substantial roles in quality productions. Her acting as the strong mother in A Raisin in the Sun garnered rave reviews. Her role in the 1978 NBC movie, Summer of My German Soldier earned her an Emmy award.

During her time with Good Times, she encountered typical clichés about Black people, which she dealt with. But when things began to get too offensive, she could not take it any longer. Her son on the show, JJ, played by Jimmy Walker, was slowly being made to look like a buffoon. Rolle said to the producers that she “did not agree to do a clown show for you to degrade young black men.” The network that aired the show, CBS, was able to win her over, but only for one season.

Rolle said that it was an ongoing battle that she was willing to continue to fight if need be. “I ruffle a lot of feathers,” she admitted in an interview with People Magazine in 1990. “And I’m also selective—that makes you a troublemaker. But so be it. I laid a cornerstone for Black actors, and that makes me happy.”

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