Plotting His Next Big Break
Long after “lights out,” he labors quietly at a keyboard. His “room” is a cubicle large enough to hold two cots, two lockers and a shared desk. Among his few personal items: a cellphone, a wireless laptop, a laser printer. “Home” is a shelter run by the Salvation Army; he is one of nearly 300 people who sleep in the former military depot in Bell every night.
For Eric Monte, the last few years have been a blur of disasters. A series of strokes led to a spell of anti-seizure medicines and the loss of some memory. A year of crack cocaine abuse robbed him of money, dignity and a circle of Hollywood friends. Attempts to sell a self-published book drained the last of his savings.
The laptop, he insists, holds the key to a comeback: 30 movie and book projects waiting to be pitched.
And that just might be true.
Thirty-five years ago, Monte was among a group of young African American writers and directors who sparked an explosion of black culture. He wrote and helped create some of the most popular -- and groundbreaking -- movies and TV shows of the 1970s. He started with one episode of “All in the Family,” moved on to co-create “Good Times” and wrote the 1975 film “Cooley High,” which, in turn, inspired the hit 1976 TV series “What’s Happening!!”
With success came an NAACP Image Award, a house in Tarzana at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains, a Mercedes-Benz and the excitement of helping to spur a new generation of programming. Not only would Monte’s shows portray African American families, the individual characters would be multidimensional and the scripts would avoid negative stereotypes. He would break with tradition and illustrate that life for the working poor isn’t all about crime, drugs and cheap laughs.
But Hollywood, he says, did not share his vision.
Monte, considered by some -- even his friends -- to be his own worst enemy, was prickly about script changes and refused to endorse plots he considered degrading to blacks. He wanted more control, but when it came to ownership, he says he was frozen out.
In 1977 he filed 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, he says, he received a $1-million settlement and a small percentage of the residuals from “Good Times” -- but opportunities to pitch new scripts dried up along with his money. He lost the car, the four-bedroom house he shared with his two daughters and almost all the trappings of his successful life.
Today, the 62-year-old Chicago native receives occasional residual checks, enough to cover the $300 a month the shelter charges for housing, three meals a day and counseling. Meanwhile, reruns of his shows continue to be broadcast daily on TV Land and other channels worldwide. When one of his episodes airs on the shelter’s wide screen, Monte doesn’t watch.
“I’m not bitter; I’m angry,” he says. “Bitterness is something that stays with you. Anger comes and goes. When I see those old shows, they make me angry.”
Few of his friends know that he lives in a shelter; those who do suggest that he move on with his life.
“That’s a bitter pill to keep sucking on,” said Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who played Cochise in “Cooley High.”
Glynn Turman, another friend and former “Cooley High” cast member (he played Preach), added: “Eric ran smack into the wall of ‘Don’t Care,’ where this town just doesn’t care about its talent. It has no use for talent; it only cares about survival.” Shelter life has its distractions, but Monte says he has found peace of mind in the quiet routine of his work. There’s time and space enough to create in a place where many of the residents and staff know him as Kenneth Williams, his birth name.
“I feel safe here,” he says. “I feel I won’t get burned, and I’ve been burned too many times.... The lights are paid. The doors are locked. I meet a lot of people from all walks of life. My life has been like a river. I meet people and move on.”
Being homeless hasn’t diminished his belief in himself.
“I’m never that far away from a blockbuster hit,” he says. “They can tell me ‘no’ a thousand times, but all I need is one hit again and I’m cool and the gang.”
Monte was full of stories when he arrived in Los Angeles nearly 40 years ago, a street-savvy high school dropout who grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project. He was homeless then too, living the life of a hippie and selling drugs. Then a series of theater classes at Los Angeles City College inspired him to pursue a childhood ambition. He wrote poetry, and then plays.
His work eventually caught the attention of a fellow student, Mike Evans, who had won a bit part in the 1971 sitcom “All in the Family.” Evans persuaded Monte to write an episode expanding his role as Lionel, the son of George and Louise Jefferson -- Archie Bunker’s African American neighbors. The script, submitted to the show’s producer, Norman Lear, was accepted.
Eric “could be stone-cold sober [and] write a joke that would be funny, let’s say an eight,” Evans recalled. “If he would start drinking cheap wine, he would write jokes and for a while everything out of his mouth would be 10s. Everything would be funny.”
Monte had his foot in the door at what would become one of the most influential shows in the history of television.
Before “All in the Family” debuted in 1971, television sitcoms stayed clear of politically hot issues, said Robert Thompson, director of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
“ ‘Gomer Pyle’ was the No. 2 show in America while the Tet Offensive was going on,” Thompson said. “Television was a parallel universe where none of the bad things happened. The Cold War, the Vietnam War, the civil rights unrest, none of that stuff really made it into entertainment television. ‘All in the Family’ changed that in one fell swoop. Television went from being a medium that virtually ignored what was going on in the real world to one that went in the other direction.”
Evans and Monte say Lear was intrigued by another of their ideas, a sitcom featuring a poor African American family living in a Chicago housing project. That idea became the 1974 hit “Good Times.” Evans and Monte were given credit as co-creators, and Monte was hired as one of the show’s writers. He says he was paid a salary of $2,000 a week, and received another payment for any of his scripts that were accepted.
“Good Times,” one of the first television comedies to feature a mostly black cast since the controversial “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was canceled in the 1950s, focused on a loving black family with hardworking parents, struggling to overcome the real-life dramas of eviction, crime and discrimination. It is widely credited with paving the way for the major crossover black sitcoms -- like “The Cosby Show” -- that followed.
But almost from the start, Monte says, the “Good Times” plots were laced with stereotypical images and dialogue written by white writers who didn’t understand black life.
The show’s stars, John Amos and the late Ester Rolle, fought with producers over the show’s emphasis on their TV son, Jimmie Walker’s character J.J., with his toothy grin, bug-eyed antics and trademark catchphrase: “DY-NO-MITE.”
“The writers would prefer to put a chicken hat on J.J. and have him prance around saying ‘DY-NO-MITE,’ and that way they could waste a few minutes and not have to write meaningful dialogue,” said Amos, who added that he was ultimately fired from the show for being too outspoken.
Monte says he left the show when production began on 1975’s “Cooley High,” an autobiographical film he wrote in an attempt to dispel myths about growing up in the projects.
“I grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project and I had one of the best times of my life, the most fun you can have while inhaling and exhaling,” he says.
In the final scene of his bittersweet tale about a group of high school friends coming of age, the lead character, Preach, stands at the edge of his best friend’s open grave, twists the cap off a cheap bottle of wine and pours a few drops on the ground “for the dudes who ain’t here.” He takes a swig, bids farewell and heads to Hollywood to become a successful screenwriter.
Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinema and Television, calls “Cooley High” a “great movie.”
“No one had seen anything like this imagination of black characters,” he said. “It captured the black experience from a particular time in a way that very few other black films have done.”
A year later, “What’s Happening!!,” a sitcom loosely based on “Cooley High,” aired on ABC. Monte was given credit as creator but says he received no money. He filed a lawsuit seeking $400 million from ABC, CBS and the producers of “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and “What’s Happening!!”
“Eric would pitch an idea, and the next thing that would happen is there would be a character in a series and he was barely getting paid for it,” said attorney Virgil Roberts, who represented Monte at the time his suit was filed. “He’d come up with an idea for a show, but when all the dust cleared it was their show and he was going to be hired [only as a writer]. After I filed the lawsuit, nobody would work with him.”
By early 1980s standards, the $1-million settlement was a lot of money and an indication that Monte’s case had merit, Roberts said.
Lear declined to comment on the case. “I don’t want to traffic in that,” he said in a phone interview. “Whatever the credits reflect I’m happy to go along with. It pains me deeply to hear that he’s homeless.... Eric is a lovable, knowledgeable, sweet human being who just had no control of himself. He got in his own way emotionally. He was a dear lost soul. It wasn’t a pleasant time dealing with Eric.”
Unable to get work in television, Monte turned to theater. In 1988, he says, he used $700,000 of his own money to finance his play “If They Come Back.” The results were disastrous.
Wrote a Times reviewer in 1988: “Eric Monte, who wrote, produced and staged ‘If They Come Back,’ reportedly also spent a good chunk of his own money to move it from the Inner City Cultural Center to the Henry Fonda Theatre where it’s now playing. Reviews were mixed at Inner City, and Monte might have saved himself a bundle if he had believed them.”
Over the years he continued pitching scripts for episodic television, but only two were bought: for the sitcom “Moesha,” and the “The Wayans Bros.” Both shows debuted in the mid-'90s.
By 2003, Monte had developed a craving for crack cocaine.
“People around me were getting high on crack and I decided to give it a try, and that was a major mistake,” he says. “The only thing crack did for me was give me a tremendous desire for more. I did it for two years and gave it up.”
He left Los Angeles to live with his daughter, Deborah Williams, in a suburb of Portland, Ore. “He had no money and had to get away from those people who were nothing but users,” she said. “Once he came up here, no drugs, no this or that. He was able to get back on track.”
With $10,000 from a “Good Times” movie option, Monte self-published a book, “Blueprint for Peace.” In it he wrote that peace could be achieved if humanity followed seven basic principles: merge all nations into one, stop manufacturing weapons of war, adopt one universal language, eliminate money as the medium of exchange, abandon the concept of land ownership, abandon the concept of inheritance, and control population growth.
Monte rented a booth at last April’s Los Angeles Times Book Festival, but he failed to sell a single copy of his book.
“I just have to figure out how to market it,” he says. “I know that as soon as it starts selling, it will sell for 1,000 years.”
In the meantime, he was out of money again. “I do it all the time,” he says. “I don’t care about being inconvenienced. That’s how I look at being broke, as a minor inconvenience.”
He was on the street again too, living in a park and then a downtown hotel. When he showed up in August at the shelter in Bell, traces of marijuana were found in his system. He was told that that shelter had a strict policy against drugs and alcohol. He hasn’t tested positive again.
At the Salvation Army shelter, Monte has not been pressured to find a 9-to-5 job, and he’s been given leeway to pursue his goal of returning to scriptwriting. He uses his laptop to tap into the Internet, something the shelter hadn’t allowed before.
“We were concerned that people would use it to start downloading pornography, and we are a faith-based organization,” said Douglas Loisel, the shelter’s executive director. “He said that ‘just because a few people drive drunk, they don’t revoke everybody’s license.’ When you have no comeback, you have to change the policy. So we did.”
It’s 5 a.m. The fluorescent lights flicker on high above the beds where more than 100 homeless men spent a quiet night in a section of the cavernous shelter. A voice on the public address system breaks the silence: “Good morning! It’s that time of day again.” Breakfast is ready.
Eric Monte eases out of the sleeping bag on one of the metal cots in his cubicle. As men drift by on their way to the cafeteria, Monte begins his morning routine of push-ups and other exercises.
“Hey, Papa Doc,” one man says. “How goes it?”
“I’m alive and well in Southern California,” Monte responds.
Skipping breakfast, he turns his laptop on and begins revising one of the projects he has stored in his computer.