A Hollywood Life Unattained
Reflecting on the missed opportunities of my early career as a Hollywood actor.
Not many people know I was the original James Evans on the hit 70s TV show, Good Times. Due to failed contract negotiations as well as my lack of a strong, masculine chin, I was quickly replaced by John Amos. It has taken over 40 years for me to be able to talk about it publicly without bitterness but, as they say, “time heals all wounds.” I always believed that to be true, until recently seeing those Jimmie ‘JJ’ Walker social security supplement commercials.Trigger warning! Were you aware the fire department’s bill for removing a TV set from your roof is practically the same as purchasing a brand new television? Insane.
In the early 80s, I was asked to star in a revival of Chico and the Man with Norman Fell, but unfortunately I was deep into drugs and alcohol and my mom wouldn’t let me. Hard to see it at the time, but that grounding saved my life. Wish now I hadn’t said such horrible things to my mom or sent those racy photos to Norman Fell, but we all learn and move on.
WOW! Just found this photo! Talk about a blast from the past! During the later years of M*A*S*H, the ratings were sagging lower than Harry Morgan’s décolletage, so the network started toying around with adding a second head to Hawkeye. They did a few test episodes and who do you think they contracted to play the additional head? Me of course! The idea was that the second head, which they considered naming, “Headeye,” would serve as a kind of straight man for Hawkeye’s jokes. The head would occasionally talk him into terrible surgical decisions, resulting in the maiming and occasional loss of a patient. We all hated the idea and, as it turned out, so did test audiences. I was released after two unaired episodes and ignored after proposing a concept where I would play Hot Lips’ third boob. Nonetheless, it was my most treasured Hollywood moment and provided the first role of my long career as cranial talent. You might imagine, the cast was a dream to work with. Well, with one exception. It’s common knowledge now but Jamie Farr forced all guest actors to shave their lines into his back and quote them while tracing each one with their fingertips. Sure, it sounds bad today but it was the 70s and everyone did it, so who was I to question? SAG has since added several actor protections because of that situation but you can Google it all for yourself.
You learn to grow thick skin in Hollywood but I’d be lying if I said this one didn’t hurt. Mindy Cohn was holding out for more money and threatening to quit Facts of Life so I was brought in as replacement. “Natalie” was the first role I ever felt “click” on a deep, Stanislavsky level. To my shock, I was promptly dismissed before shooting even a single episode and was instructed to never return to the studio. I didn’t get the warning then but I certainly know it now. One did not tell Charlotte Rae “no.”
Last one from the “Hollywood Vault.” On an episode of Seinfeld titled, “There’s An App For That” I played Kramer’s cousin, Shlomo Simon. In this particular episode, I invent an iPad® app that forces everyone I point the device toward to see me nude. None of the cast could keep a straight face during shooting and, eventually, they had to bring in a body double. The episode never aired due to a lawsuit by Apple® (It would be another 15 years before the actual iPad® was invented), although the episode was accidentally released in the Icelandic Box Set, so good luck on getting a copy. Fortunately, an assistant director took the only surviving photo and gave it to me earlier this year after, apparently, carrying it around with her for several years. Also, Michael Richards, you owe me a chili dog! (Private joke. Ha ha!)