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Esther Rolle of `Good Times' dies

Published: Thursday, Nov. 19 1998 12:00 a.m. MST

Esther Rolle, who went from feisty maid in the hit sitcom "Maude" to strong-willed matriarch in the spinoff "Good Times," has died at age 78.

Rolle died overnight after a long illness, publicist Pat Tobin said Wednesday. No cause of death was given.An actress who fought black stereotypes in Hollywood, Rolle ironically spent much of her career playing maids, on producer Norman Lear's "Maude" and "Good Times" and in the TV movie "Summer of My German Soldier," which won her an Emmy.

On stage, she played a retired maid in the classic "A Raisin in the Sun." She also appeared on the big screen in "Driving Miss Daisy" - again as a housekeeper; and in John Singleton's tragic "Rosewood." She has a role in poet Maya Angelou's directorial debut film, "Down in the Delta," due out next month.

"Good Times," which ran from 1974 to 1979, told the story of a struggling but loving family on Chicago's South Side.

Rolle's character, Florida Evans, was still a maid, but the emphasis was on her home life with her husband, two sons and daughter. It made a star out of Jimmie Walker, who played the older son J.J., and his trademark saying, "Dynomite!," became a national catch phrase.

She once said she was intent on shattering the image of a "Hollywood maid with the rolling of the eyes" who doted on her white charges but ignored her own children.

Rolle demanded that her family be led by a father, a role that went to John Amos, who was introduced on "Maude" the year before "Good Times" began.

Again striving for good role models, Rolle left "Good Times" after three seasons because she felt the J.J. character, who began getting mixed up in shady schemes as the show evolved, was a poor example for black youths. She was persuaded to return after a year.

Rolle - pronounced like "roll" - was born in Pompano Beach, Fla., the 10th of 18 children. Her father was a vegetable farmer. Her manager gave her date of birth as Nov. 8, 1920, though some references list the year as 1922.

Her older siblings wrote skits that she performed for the younger children. After high school, she followed her actress sister to New York City and eventually landed Broadway parts. She was appearing in Melvin Van Peebles' play "Don't Play Us Cheap" when she won the role as Florida in "Maude."

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