Classic Hollywood: John Amos is still cutting it in Hollywood

Amos lends a dramatic element to the new comedy "Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection" as a minister who is about to retire.
(K.C. Bailey / Lionsgate)

If it hadn’t been for famed Kansas City Chiefs football coach Hank Stram, John Amos may never had a four-decade long career in Hollywood, including memorable acting roles in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Good Times” and “Roots.”

A running back at Colorado State, Amos had tried out unsuccessfully for the Denver Broncos and was cut twice from the Chiefs. Stram, recalled the 72-year-old Amos, told him, “Young man, you are not a football player. You are a young man who happens to be playing football.”

Amos had sustained a season-ending injury, a torn Achilles tendon. “To console myself, I sat in a tub of hot water with a pint of Jack Daniels and wrote ‘The Turk.’” The poem’s title, Amos explained, was “an euphemism for the character that comes in the middle of the night and knocks on your room door and tells you to report to the coach and bring your playbook because you have been subsequently released.”

Stram, said Amos, “gave me permission to read the poem to the team and they en masse gave me a standing ovation. When he saw the team’s reaction to the poem he said, ‘I think you have another calling.’”


Amos put his writing skills to work as an advertising copywriter. “I would work as a copywriter during the day and then the chance came to moonlight as a comedy writer in television.” Amos was hired to be part of the writing staff for the 1969 CBS musical variety series “The Leslie Uggams Show.”

Though the series starring the African American singer-actress was short-lived, it led to Amos being cast as Gordy the weatherman in 1970 on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’” Some of the writers from “Uggams” were working on the Moore sitcom and thought he would be a perfect Gordy.

“They wrote me a few lines on’The Mary Tyler Moore Show’and thus Gordy was born and quite frankly I never looked back after that,” Amos noted in a phone interview from his home in New Jersey.

(Amos still writes. For the last 22 years he has toured the country in a one-man show he wrote called “Halley’s Comet,” about an 86-year-old man awaiting the return of the comet.)


Along the way, Amos has had roles in dozens of TV shows, including recurring roles in such landmark series as “The West Wing,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Hunter.” Versatility has been the key to Amos’ success in show business, according to Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York.

“I think that John Amos is one of the most dependable actors but is also one of the most underrated actors,” said Simon. “He is able to play almost any part and really give dignity to a role. He is very much part of the ensemble — he doesn’t do star turns. It’s amazing how many very important series he was in.”

It’s all the more remarkable because his career nearly derailed in 1976 when he was let go after three seasons on the CBS sitcom “Good Times” in his starring role as the patriarch of a lower-middle class African American family, married to Esther Rolle’s Florida and living on the south side of Chicago. Amos didn’t like the path the sitcom was taking by veering away from social issues and focusing instead on the comedic antics supplied by Jimmie Walker, who played the jive-talking son J.J.

But Amos’ career didn’t suffer. He resurfaced the following year, earning an Emmy nomination as the adult Kunta Kinte — his slave name was Toby — in “Roots.” The epic ABC miniseries was based on Alex Haley’s bestseller about the life of Kinte.


Though Amos said he wouldn’t have changed his “ultimate actions” considering “Good Times,” he feels in retrospect, “I would have been considerably more diplomatic. I wouldn’t have brought such a confrontational, ‘Let’s take it outside attitude.’ I was still recovering from post-traumatic stress from football, boxing and being young, aggressive and angry.”

Amos and “Good Times” producer Norman Lear eventually made up. Amos starred in Lear’s 1994 sitcom “704 Hauser,” playing the patriarch of a family who moves into Archie Bunker’s old house.

“I matured to the point if I had creative differences, I would say ‘Norman, can I speak to you?’ instead of threatening to do bodily harm,” Amos jokes.

His latest film role is in “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection,” which opens Friday. It’s a broad comedy about a Wall Street investment banker (Eugene Levy) and his family who must relocate to Madea’s house to avoid the mob.


But Amos’ story line is anything but comedic. He plays a preacher who is recovering from a serious illness and hopes to retire. Unknown to him, though, his son (Romeo Miller) had invested the money to pay off the church’s mortgage in a fund that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme.

Amos was “pleasantly surprised” working with Perry.

“I don’t know what preconceptions I might have had as to what he was like as a director, but I was gratified to find that he was totally organized,” Amos noted. “He’s very economical in his shots, plus he has a good feel for comedy, obviously.”