Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Florida in Florida

NOTE: This blog does not condone trespassing. 

Esther Rolle (pronounced Roll) was born to Bahamian immigrants on November 8, 1920 in Pompano Beach, Florida.  She was the tenth of 18 children in her family, which included two sisters who were also actresses and one very tired mother.

Rolle was well educated.  She began her college education at Spelman University in Atlanta but would eventually study at Yale. After college, she set her sights on acting.

She moved to New York City in the 1940s, where she joined the Negro Ensemble Company as well as Shogola Obola, a dance troupe that she would later direct.  Stardom was years away however, as she wouldn't land her first rolls on Broadway until 1964.  She is well remembered for her 1977 off-Broadway portrayal of Lady MacBeth, a role for which she would bring great passion and ferocity.  Here's a New York Times review of her performance.

Bea Arthur and Esther Rolle in Maude (1972).
After finding success on the stage, Rolle made her way to Hollywood.  In 1972, she was cast on the sit-com Maude, a spin-off of the very popular All in the Family.  Rolle played Florida Evans, housekeeper to Bea Arthur's title character. 

The character proved popular enough that CBS decided to give Rolle a spin-off of her own.  In 1974, it launched Good Times, the series for which Rolle is most famously known.  It was an overnight success for CBS, due in large part to the relationship between Rolle and her on-screen husband John Amos as Florida and James Evans.  As originally pitched, Florida was to have been a single mother raising three kids.  But Rolle fought for the creation of the James character in order to combat the stereotype of absentee fathers in the African-American community.

Good Times cast photo, 1974.
The series also introduced an up-and-coming comedian named Jimmie Walker, who's character grew so popular that it would shake the very foundation of the series.  Upset with the depiction of Walker's J.J. character and the direction the series was taking, Amos voiced his concerns to producer Norman Lear, who, in a bit of spite, killed James off rather than recasting or otherwise explaining his absence.  The show would never be the same.  Watch how Florida reacted to her husband's death in a deleted scene here.  A year later, Rolle would also leave the series, but would return for its final season

The series ended in 1979.  Rolle resumed her stage career while continuing to appear on television and in films.  She had a memorable appearance in the 1990 film Driving Miss Daisy, and an oddly chosen role in an episode of The Incredible Hulk.  See Hulk smash!

Rolle had a history of diabetes, which affected her ability to work through most of the 1990s.  It ultimately took her life on November 17, 1998, just nine days after her 78th birthday.

She was interred in her hometown of Pompano Beach at the Westview Community Cemetery.

While I mean no disrespect to Rolle or anyone else buried there, Westview is the only cemetery I've ever been to where the burial vaults are above ground.  It truly is a sight to behold.  And you won't have any trouble finding Rolle's final resting place, as her's is the only one that comes with a headstone, honoring her role on Good Times.

Westview is in a sad state of disrepair and neglect, so much so that it is often mistakenly considered to be abandoned.  Great confusion exists as to who exactly is in charge of the park.  Watch one truly disturbing local news report from 2018 here.

I came on a day during normal visiting hours to discover that no one had unlocked the front gate.  But knowing the park's troubled history and seeing other visitors hop the fence, I figured that was part and parcel and followed suit.  While there I met a park employee who told me it's an everyday occurrence.  I asked him why the gate wasn't unlocked, to which he had no answer.

I don't claim to understand why Rolle is buried there or what her family thinks of the situation.  But it is a sad ending to a cherished television icon.

Rest in peace, Florida.

  • Although they played husband and wife, Rolle was actually twenty years older than John Amos.  In turn, Amos is only seven years older than Jimmie Walker.

  • While Good Times was officially a spin-off of Maude, there are great discrepancies between the two series.  While Maude was centered in Tuchahoe, New York, Good Times took place in inner-city Chicago.  No mention of a move was ever made on the series.  In fact, the dialogue often indicates that the Evans family had always lived in Chicago.  There was also never any mention of Maude herself or of any of other characters from that series.  Additionally, Florida was gainfully employed by Maude, but was often out of work in Chicago.

  • Rolle released a gospel album in 1975 entitled The Garden of My Mind.  There's music and a chorus, but Rolle doesn't really sing, it's more of a spoken word thing.  Check out one of her tracks, "I Can Feel Him Moving," here.

  • Rolle won an Emmy Award in 1979 for her role in the made-for-TV film Summer of My German Soldier.  Watch her acceptance speech here, presented by John Ritter and Norman Fell.  Have a hanky ready.  And here's the film in its entirety.

  • Rolle appeared with Danny Glover in a 1989 television adaptation of the play A Raisin in the Sun.  Watch that film here.  And a quick sidebar.  Rolle's Good Times co-star Ralph Carter came to the series from a stage version of Raisin.

  • Fellow blogger and journalist Billie Rae Bates interviewed John Amos in 2014 at the Hollywood Show in Chicago.  Watch him reminisce about the series here.

  • Near the end, Esther appeared in a series of commercials for a phone psychic hotline, My Caring Psychic Family.  View one of those spots here.  And tell 'em Esther sent you!


  1. So sad about the cemetery. Interesting that the news story from 2018 doesn't mention (I guess they didn't know) the famous beloved star buried there.

  2. Checking out you blog, Brian, and am pretty darned impressive.