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Obituaries

Esther Rolle; Actress Was Mother on 'Good Times'

November 19, 1998|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Esther Rolle, a sharecropper's daughter who grew up to become a respected actress and role model for other blacks, has died. She was 78.

Rolle, best remembered for her portrayal of the strong mother on the hit television sitcom "Good Times," died Tuesday night in Los Angeles, publicist Pat Tobin said Wednesday.

Adamantly opposed to Hollywood's black stereotypes, Rolle allowed producer Norman Lear to lure her away from Broadway for his "Maude" series only after he promised that she could portray a fully developed character and not "just a Hollywood maid."

She became the outspoken, sassy maid Florida Evans with a mind of her own, occasionally performing work and frequently offering advice to Bea Arthur's liberal, mouthy Maude.

"We worked in the fields as children but my daddy made us promise never to be domestics, because he said, 'I can't protect you in other people's houses,' " she told The Times in 1974, chuckling. "I wonder how he'd feel if he'd lived to see me famous as a maid."

In 1990, the actress who only pretended to sweep floors for the cameras became the first woman to receive the NAACP's Civil Rights Leadership Award for helping to raise the image of blacks.

After Rolle became well known for her work on "Maude," she returned to her Florida roots to address a classroom of crop pickers' children. She told the wide-eyed children that she had picked beans and onions at the surrounding farms.

"I could see them thinking: 'If she could do it, I can too,' " she proudly told The Times. "It was hope I saw in their eyes. No, more than hope--it was possibility."

Directors and others on the "Maude" set started speaking of a "spinoff" before Rolle knew the meaning of the word. One week in the winter of 1974, she bid farewell to "Maude" on Tuesday night and by Friday had relocated to Chicago with sitcom husband John Amos in "Good Times."

The series about the problems of a black family living in a housing project ran successfully until 1979, making a star of Jimmie Walker, who played elder son J.J. Rolle left the series in the fall of 1977, protesting that Walker's occasionally shady though humorous character set a bad example for black youths. She returned to a reformed J.J. for the series' final year.

Ironically, considering her distaste for typecasting, Rolle played maids often--not only in her two best-known sitcoms, but also in the television movie "Summer of My German Soldier," which earned her an Emmy and onstage in the classic "A Raisin in the Sun." She also portrayed the long-suffering housekeeper in the film "Driving Miss Daisy."

Rolle's most recent films were "Rosewood" last year and Maya Angelou's "Down in the Delta," scheduled for release next month.

While working in Hollywood, Rolle remained available for performing on local stages as well. She appeared with the Cambridge Players in "The Amen Corner" at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium and in such plays as "Nevis Mountain Dew" and "Dame Lorraine" at the Los Angeles Actors Theater.

"You need Hollywood for survival, and you need theater for inner survival and revival," she told The Times in 1983. "It rejuvenates you. I love live audiences. You get feedback. I'm still scared to death of cameras. Audiences don't scare me half as much."

Born in Pompano Beach, Fla., the 10th of 18 children, Rolle started performing skits for her family and later followed her actress sister Estelle Evans to New York City. Often saying she became an actress out of shyness, Rolle won Broadway parts and was appearing in "Don't Play Me Cheap" when Lear tapped her for "Maude."

Rolle attended Spelman College in Atlanta, and earlier this month was honored by its alumnae as an important role model.

"You have to take time out to do something meaningful," the actress once told The Times, explaining why she always invited neighborhood children into her home to talk. "Else who am I and why am I taking up space on God's green Earth? I'd better just fold my arms, put a carnation on my chest and say, 'Bye.' "

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