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Turning page on a life story

Eric Monte was a successful scriptwriter before falling victim to illness and drugs. Now, a new chapter begins.

December 19, 2006|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

As he prepared to catch a flight to Chicago on Monday, Eric Monte savored a moment of anticipation: What would it feel like to be back at home and not living in a homeless shelter?

"I'm excited about the possibilities," said Monte, 62, a couple of hours before boarding his flight at LAX. "I want to see my old neighborhood, my old street. I want to start rejuvenating my life."

Nearly 40 years ago, Monte abandoned Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project and hitchhiked to Los Angeles, chasing a childhood dream to create black heroes for the small screen. He became one of a handful of young African American writers and directors who sparked an explosion in black culture in Hollywood in the early 1970s.

Monte wrote an episode of the groundbreaking TV show "All in the Family," moved on to co-create "Good Times" and wrote the 1975 film "Cooley High," which inspired the hit 1976 TV series "What's Happening!!"

Then came the downward spiral when life stopped going according to script.

There were disputes with entertainment executives and bad investments, a series of strokes and the loss of some memory. A year of crack cocaine abuse robbed him of money and Hollywood friends. Attempts to sell a self-published book drained the last of his savings.

Last year, Monte landed in a Salvation Army shelter in Bell, one of nearly 300 people who were sleeping in the former military depot every night. His cubicle was large enough to hold two cots, two lockers and a shared desk; he paid $300 a month for housing, three meals a day and counseling.

The food was edible, the lights were paid for and the doors were locked. He felt secure, surviving on money that trickled in from residuals. Surrounded by a wealth of characters, Monte wrote new material on his laptop, confident that he was "never that far away from a blockbuster hit."

After an article about his life appeared earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times, there were a few nibbles from producers looking to launch a remake of "Good Times." But negotiations faltered over issues of creative control.

"I've been hurt before, but I won't be hurt again," Monte said.

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Illinois state Rep. Ken Dunkin, who also grew up in the Cabrini-Green projects, read about the writer's plight in the Chicago Tribune and decided to coordinate a small fundraising effort to bring him home. "We want him here in Chicago," said Dunkin, 40. "This man should not be going out like this. I grew up on 'Good Times.' That's me. I grew up in the '70s looking at that show. Our family gathering, bonding moments were around that show. That was our building."

With Dunkin's help, Monte paid for the last three months at the shelter in Bell and bought a plane ticket to Chicago, where he was to be greeted with a welcome home reception and given a chance to get back on his feet.

"He'll be living in an affordable home with social services geared to help folks who are rebounding," Dunkin said.

Monte will live in a subsidized housing complex in the city's South Loop. "He'll get a key to a lovely studio with a nice kitchen in an area where most people in Chicago can't afford to live," Dunkin said.

Monte will also have an opportunity to work with Little Black Pearl, a community arts program for young people, said the legislator, who added: "I'm going to get the film community to help."

Dunkin said there are lessons to be learned from Monte's life: "His story is profound in a number of ways. We are all one or two months away from being an Eric Monte."

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Thirty years ago, Monte's shows help spur a new generation of TV and movie programming. He won an Image Award from the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and he was eager to create characters that would be multidimensional, not stereotypes.

But Monte wanted more control over his creations. There was a lawsuit accusing ABC, CBS, producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin and others of stealing his ideas for "Good Times," "The Jeffersons" (an "All in the Family" spinoff) and "What's Happening!!"

Eventually, Monte says, he received a $1-million settlement and a small portion of the residuals from "Good Times." But opportunities to pitch new scripts dried up along with his money.

He lost his house in Tarzana, at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains. He bounced around. There were a few opportunities, but nothing solid enough to stage a comeback.

Monte suffered through a yearlong addiction to drugs and ended up in the shelter, where residents watched the daily reruns of his shows.

Monte never watched.

Chicago offers Monte another chance at redemption.

"I don't look forward to the cold, but returning will be good for me, just like coming to Los Angeles was good," he said.

Being close to family will also help.

"I'll be around people who want to help me further my career and better my life," Monte said. "There won't be the animosity I received in Hollywood."

He plans to resume work on several movie and television projects and dreams of meeting Oprah Winfrey and showing her his self-published book: "Blueprint for Peace."

In Chicago, Monte said, his daughter will take him shopping for new clothes more suitable for the weather. He still misses his mother, who died six months before he sold his first script, and hopes to surround himself with siblings, nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

Are there any regrets?

"Nobody lives as long as I have lived without having some regrets," he acknowledged. "But basically, I have lived a phenomenal life. I've had a great time, and it ain't over."

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john.mitchell@latimes.com

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