Black History Month (Unsung Hero Series)
Creator of America’s Popular TV Shows ‘Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son; Movie Cooley High; Screenwriter Eric Monte Fought Hollywood to Change Black Stereotypes.
It’s true. There’s a sucker born every minute. For legendary TV screenwriter Eric Monte, the ‘sucker’ adage doesn’t apply. Opposite to the ‘sucker’ adage there’s a genius born every minute and nothing else describes Eric Monte better. Blessed with superb artistic vision, Monte, a screenwriter, playwright, book author, and TV producer, Eric created America’s most popular TV comedy shows in which black actors starred. Those icons included Good Times, Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons (George & Louise) … and What’s Happening. [See IMDB]
Monte is a genius writer many Americans don’t know about, a name practically lost in the annals of history. His creation of notable sitcom shows depicting 1970s’ African American culture contributed to the dramatic shift in changing the way Black people were portrayed on television.
“I wanted to prove to everyone (Hollywood producers and their writers) that I knew what I was doing, and that stories about Blacks could work.”
Those still around familiar with Monte’s Hollywood screen work will admit Monte is a powerhouse brand in the same realm as iconic TV comedy writers including writers of regular TV shows and drama movies like Tyler Perry, Queen Latifah, Bill Cosby, Bill Duke, Martin Lawrence, Spike Lee, Will Smith and the Wayans Bros.
“I created the television show ‘Good Times,’ the characters George and Louise Jefferson of ‘The Jeffersons,'” Monte told internet journalist Jimi Izrael. “I also wrote the movie ‘Cooley High,’ upon which the television show, ‘What’s Happening?’ was based, not to mention that I created ‘The Cosby show’ and the idea character behind the show ‘Sanford & Son.'”
“Cooley High was made for $750,000 dollars and grossed over $100 million at the box office. All those things, Monte adds, were blockbuster hits and made people hundreds of millions.” But Eric Monte ended up living in a homeless shelter because, he says, “I was cheated out of all the money those things made because of my race and ignorance.”
Monte’s efforts to make serious changes in the way Blacks were given stereotypical roles that primarily demean their character happened to coincide with America’s civil rights struggle amidst the social and inequality upheaval of the 1960s – early 1970’s era.
Eric Monte is a genius writer of Black culture many Americans don’t know about. But Hollywood chews people up and spits them out.
Film industry critics echoed Monte’s concern over how blacks were habitually stereotyped.
“During the early days, roles were limited (for blacks) to gangsters, pimps, drug dealers, or some kind of servitude, or buffoons,” said Tim Cogshell, a film critic for NPR affiliate KPCC.
According to Wikipedia: The presence of African Americans in major motion picture roles has stirred controversy since Hattie McDaniel played Mammy, the house servant, in Gone with the Wind. “Through most of the 20th century, images of African-Americans in advertising were mainly limited to servants like the pancake – mammy Aunt Jemima and Rastus, the chef on the Cream of Wheat box.”
The roles the African-American community were generally offered usually fell into three themes; a tale of rags to riches, thug life, or segregation. “Many researchers argue that media portrayals of minorities tend to reflect whites’ attitudes toward minorities and, therefore, reveal more about whites themselves than about the varied and lived experiences of minorities,” and though these are one group’s (white peoples) opinions it still seems to dominate mainstream media.
The details mentioned above were what Eric Monte wanted to change in the Hollywood film industry.
Even today perhaps millions of Blacks don’t know that Monte was responsible for the creation of America’s first Black TV family, Good Times, starring John Amos, Esther Rolle, Jimmie J.J. Walker, and Willona.
When I spoke to Amelia Jones-Bates, an assistant librarian, in Eudora Arkansas, she had never heard of Monte being the black writer who created the Good Times show and the movie Cooley High. Having watched Good Times for many years the librarian felt strongly that someway, somehow it took a black person to write the way the characters acted on the show.
“The way the actors acted on Good Times It had to be somebody who knew how black people talked and acted,” she said in a interview with NewsBlaze. “I just knew it.” Well, Eric Monte was the man who created them and wrote episodes for the show.
We now know that Eric Monte, this prolific screenwriter, helped pave the way for other blacks to make better movies and TV shows depicting black people. Sadly, as important and valuable as Monte’s work has become in the lexicon of entertainment, he has not been given any appreciative credit or recognition for his artistic work.
In fact, Monte’s creative ideas that made millions for white producers and writers, were, for the most part, ripped off. In 1977 Monte sued prominent Hollywood producer Norman Lear, Mike Eisner, ABC, CBS, Bud Yorkin and others associated with these men for $185 million dollars – for ripping off his Cooley High movie which in turn was used to create the show What’s Happening, Good Times and the Jeffersons.
Around 1981, Monte received a settlement of 1-million dollars from the people he sued for stealing his ideas.
As result, Monte says he was blackballed by Norman Lear and his associates, and he never did any significant work in Hollywood, again.
“I was blackballed by Norman Lear and Michael Eisner in Hollywood. You can’t even mention my name,” Monte lamented. A serious question should be asked: why is it that people like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey, and other black Hollywood heavies haven’t tried to help Monte get some work in the film and TV business?
It’s like Monte never existed.
For example, according to Monte in Dialogue Magazine, “the Good Times cast has been on the Steve Harvey show, and Norman Lear did a whole show with Oprah talking about Good Times and the Jeffersons, including the Blackish season finale was a tribute to Good Times that was advertised on Good Morning America … and the View.”
“There was not one question about me, the creator of those shows,” Monte said, in a voice tinged with a hint of sadness.
Being a writer of TV shows, a movie, and stage plays was Monte’s God-gifted talent yet Monte’s undying love for writing and creating memorable characters only led him into a battle with Hollywood executives. He did what he’d always dreamed of doing – write positive, upbeat, family-oriented roles for blacks, tell the stories in a funny but serious way to diminish typical negative stereotypes of black actors and black culture altogether.
Working as a book author later in life, Monte wrote two outstanding books: (1) Blue Print For Peace (2) A Prophet Ranaway based on the life story of slave revolt leader Nat Turner.
The timely, classic movie Cooley High, written by Monte, was actually based on Monte’s life in Chicago while attending Cooley High Vocational school.
“The Cooley High movie was based on my Life,” Monte proudly says.
Moviefone reporter describe Cooley High movie in historical terms, “Cooley High was no exploitation film. Unlike the other black stories being told on screen in the early ’70s, this one wasn’t about crime, racism, drugs, vengeance, or black-power heroes and heroines who stuck it to the Man. It was just about teens doing what teens do – hanging out, going to school, going to parties, hooking up, cruising the streets, and dreaming of the future.”
Yes, according to Susman, “there was petty crime and some tragic violence, but they weren’t the main focus of the story. It was just a slice of life, both specific and universal.” Actor Glynn Turman played Eric Monte as the guy who wanted to leave Chicago and become a Hollywood writer.
As a result, “Cooley High” marked the beginning of the shift in African-American cinema away from blaxploitation toward more diverse stories of black life, although it would take another 20 years for that transition to be fully realized.
Susman further writes, “Cooley High is the most influential movie you never seen, and that the screenwriter(Monte) and the director(Michael Schultz) should be remembered as pioneers.”
Released in 1975 by American International Picture, Monte wrote the script, basing the film and characters on his true-life experience while attending Cooley Vocational High School in Chicago where Monte had lived at Cabrini Green Projects. Entertainment Weekly ranked Cooley High number# 23 as the 50 best High School movies.
Cooley High movie and Monte’s creation of America’s first Black Family TV show influenced generations of screenwriters, movie writers, TV sitcom writers and creators and producers of African-American theme-based shows.
For example, John Singleton’s film Boyz n the Hood, was influenced by Cooley High. Cooley High finale song, It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday, was later adopted as a graduation theme in urban high schools.
The rap video ritual of splashing liquor on the graves of the “brothas who didn’t make it” is a ripoff scene from Cooley High. Legendary screenwriter and filmmaker Spike Lee has cited Cooley High as an influence, a film for all aspiring filmmakers to watch.
Remember The White Shadow TV show, starring Ken Howard? Cooley High inspired this show also.
“I knew Cooley High would be a hit because I am a good writer,” Monte said, (laughing).
Growing Up in Chicago
Eric Monte, whose real name is Kenneth Williams, was born December 25, 1943, in Chicago Illinois. He was raised by his mother Anna Williams with two other siblings on Chicago’s northside in the notorious Cabrini-Green Housing Project, an economically impoverished neigborhood. Cabrini-Green was a tough place to live. Gangs, illegal drug activities, shootings, robberies, high unemployment and even death flourished there.
Cabrini-Green’s reputation got worse when two Chicago police officers were ambushed and killed near the apartments. The City Council voted to demolish the decaying place in 2011. As a kid, Monte felt a burning desire to become someone special to escape the harsh realities of violence and crime at Cabrini Green. During an interview with dialoguemagazine.com, Monte recalled how his mother, fed up with abuse, kicked their father out of the house. Thereafter Monte’s mother worked two full time jobs and a part time job to support her children.
“She would send me and my older sister Judy to the movies every Saturday afternoon,” Monte said. There, they watched cartoons and western (cowboy) shows.
“I love cowboys,” Monte smiled. His mother Anna was an avid reader. She read everything, particularly Sherlock Holmes novels. Monte’s mother’s devotion to reading rubbed off on him.
“I learned to read and write when my mother taught me.”
Monte’s inspiration of becoming a writer someday happened when he was five years old. “I love cowboys the likes of Roy Rodgers, John Wayne, Gene Autry, Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy. And I had this little broomstick horse,” Monte fondly recalls. “One day I was running around on my broomstick like it was a horse. And this old white guy came up, and said, ‘who are you supposed to be?” Proud as a peacock, Monte reared back on his broomstick horse, and said, smiling; “I’m the Lone Ranger.” This older fella, obviously unimpressed, replied to Monte, “You can’t be the Lone Ranger. Lone Ranger is white!” “The only things black on the Lone Ranger is his boots, gun holster, and mask,” the man explained to Monte.
Once Monte watched Lone Ranger again – he discovered the fella was right. “The only things Lone Ranger wore that were black were his mask, gun holster and boots,” Monte told various journalists and reporters down through the years. Doing a little more research while watching TV and theater movies, the future writer never saw any black heroes on TV. Only white actors and actresses were hailed as heroes in movies and television during the 1940s’-1960s.
“I soon came to realize the only blacks I saw in the movies and on television were servants, buffoons, and worse, clowns.” Monte further said people like Amos and Andy, Mantan Morian, Stephen Fetchit and Willy stopped being funny and became an embarrassment.
“For the first time in my life I felt ashamed. So I made a vow that when I grew up I would become a writer and create black heroes,” Monte says he told Dialogue Magazine.
While growing up into a talented but misguided teenager, Monte committed crimes, thinking someday he’d hit a “big lick” to earn a fortune. Though extraordinarily smart in school, Monte would later say that school bored him. Against his mother’s pleas to stay in school, Monte quit high school to embark on a criminal career.
“I thought the only way out of Cabrini Green was to have fame and fortune, because I couldn’t sing, nor was I an athlete,” Monte stated.
Time Magazine Slide Show: Historical Cabrini Green WhereMonte Grew Up; And Where Cooley High Was made
Malcolm X Transforms A Life
By happenstance, human rights activist and Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X instilled a new breath of life into Eric Monte.
One night, Monte and his sidekick named George planned to hit a ‘lick’ in the Hood. For some reason, Monte stopped at a mosque to watch Malcolm X speak. Malcolm X’s words stuck with Monte. His fiery speech transformed Monte’s life.
“If we were smart enough to dodge the police with all their sophisticated devices, smart enough to trick a woman into selling her body and giving you the money, then we were smart enough to run a company, find a cure for cancer, or run a country,” Monte recalls Malcolm X’s speech delivered to the crowd.
Malcolm X spoke directly to Monte’s heart.
“Malcolm X did what all the teachers, preachers, judges, counselors, and officialdom of America couldn’t do,” Monte recalls. “He changed me. I no longer wanted to be a criminal. I wanted to make a contribution to society. I remembered the vow I’d made as a child; to make Black heroes. I made that vow again but this time as an adult.”
Monte continued. “I felt through my writing I could inspire lost, little black children, like I had been, to become doctors, lawyers and world leaders instead of gang members, dope fiends and criminals.” To accomplish his goals, Monte realized he needed a major venue, something big to reach out.
“I needed television,” Monte proudly says.
When Monte excitedly told his mother Anna Williams how someday he’d become a Hollywood writer and create black heroes on TV. Ms Williams, unimpressed, politely told her son, “There’s never been a black writer in Hollywood and if they ever get one, she cautioned her loving son, he’s going to be a high-yellow black with a Harvard degree, not some high school dropout from Cabrini Green.” Other relatives agreed with Monte’s mother’s assertions.
“Momma, I’m going to do this,” Monte promised.
Against heavy odds, and infused with burning passion to create and write about black people in movies and on TV in an uplifting, heroic way to inspire young black people – Eric Monte, armed with a suitcase and ticket traveled to Route 66, where the bus let him off. Running on empty, but full of hope, Monte hitchhiked to L.A./Hollywood California.
Arriving in California in 1965, Monte hung out with hippies, sold drugs, and smoked weed. Finally the Chicago native signed up for playwriting class at L.A City Community College where he honed his writing skills, showing great promise as a stage play writer. Monte wrote and produced his first play “If They Come Back.”
This play featured a group of young leaders post-civil rights movement. Word spread like wildfire that L.A. Community College had a young writer on fire.
Around 1971, Eric Monte befriended an actor name Mike Evans. Evans, played Lionel Jefferson on the “big hit” sitcom “All in the Family,” starring lead actor, the bigoted Carroll O’ Connors as Archie Bunker. Evans was impressed by Eric Monte and asked Monte to help expand his role on All in the Family.
Monte recalls the time he first met Evans. “Evans said, I heard that you was a great writer; ‘I am on this All in the Family show; it is just a little part saying stuff like, I’m going to get my edumacation.'” Evans convinced Monte to write a show centered on his character. “I will put both of our names on it and we”ll get paid and get the screen credit,” Evans assured Monte.
Hoping to get the break of his dreams, Monte wrote a script with Evans’ character included, gave it to Evans, And, Evans gave it to Norman Lear. Lear accepted the script. He asked Evans to have Monte call him. After meeting Lear, Lear hired Monte for the show. The script Monte created for Evans had Evans as George and Louise Jefferson son – thus The Jeffersons show was created. Though Monte created the actual Jeffersons character and the pilot, he never wrote episodes for the show because it wasn’t until he left Good Times when Lear acquired the Jeffersons ideas as his own and made the hit series.
Lear had told Evans the Jeffersons was too controversial to air when Monte pitched the script. “They told me they”ll never put a black man on TV who calls a white man a honky,” Monte remembered the bigwigs saying.
Good Times TV Show Created
Monte had created an idea for a situation comedy about a black family living in a tenement building. Monte set the tone and place similar to Chicago Cabrini Green where he grew up. Monte envisioned the family as a close-knit, blue-collar family struggling to survive in the projects.
The show would cover hot-topics that plagued black communities, drugs, gangs, teenage pregnancy and unemployment. Yet in Monte’s creation neither character would act buffoonish or do stereotypes, though they would be intelligent, the characters would be amusing, to make the audience laugh and be proud of them. Monte conceived the family as a husband and wife, with three children, and a noisy neighbor.
“I pitched Good Times in 1971, but it didn’t go on the air until 1974,” Monte says. Monte accused the white writers and producers of forcing their preconceived ideas upon the characters who played in the show which featured John Amos and Esther Rolle as James and Florida Evans.
“All the white writers wanted stereotypes. I refused. Every week we’d argue and fight,” Monte recalls vividly. “They would ignore what I suggested and take all that ‘Yassuh Boss’ stuff to the cast and John Amos and Esther Rolle would have a fit.” Then, according to Monte, when Amos and Rolle read his script they’d shoot it and put it on the air. [See Good Times on wikipedia]
Monte hit another snag when the producers wanted the father character of John Amos eliminated.
“Norman Lear kept telling me to get rid of the father(Amos) because people wouldn’t accept a strong black father in the home,” Monte now bitterly recalls. Amos’ character was based on Monte’s stepfather in Chicago, named Bill Haynes.
Lear’s racially prejudiced views of blacks, particularly believing no black fathers were at home with their families in 1970s’ was terribly narrow-minded and nonsensical. Matters got more complicated when after the first season Monte did 80 percent of rewrites on the show, he dropped this piece of discrimination against him. “I was demoted and the white writers were promoted because I sided with the cast.”
“In 1975, I got the contract to write Cooley High, a movie chronicling the antics of black teenagers living in Chicago’s Cabrini Green apartments where I grew up. When American International Pictures and Samuel Arkoff sent the cast to Chicago to shoot the movie, I left Good Times,” Monte said. When Monte left the show Norman Lear fired John Amos.
A year after Monte’s resignation, Norman Lear came out with a show called The Jeffersons – a spinoff of All in the Family which starred the characters George and Louise Jefferson in their own sitcom.
Even though it was Eric Monte who created the characters George and Louise Jefferson, Norman Lear took the credit and billed himself as creator of the show. The show ran for eleven seasons and was regarded as the most successful African American sitcom in history. The Jeffersons paved the way for shows like The Cosby Show which also chronicled the adventures of an upper-middle class African American family.
Another ripoff: During the early 1970s, Norman Lear told Eric Monte about a potential remake of a British show called “Steptoe and Son” (Sanford and Son) which was an all-white show dealing with a junk dealer. The remake was to be created shortly after All in the Family took off into stardom. Eric Monte told Norman Lear the show should star African American comedian Redd Foxx, at the time, Norman Lear had no idea who Redd Foxx was and was insistent upon creating the show with an all-white cast – months later, subsequently, Redd Foxx was cast in the show and Eric Monte did not receive credit.
After the critical success of Eric Monte’s film Cooley High, Monte created a television series based off the movie called “What’s Happening!” The show was a success and ran for three seasons.
In 1977, Monte filed a lawsuit accusing ABC, CBS, producers Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin and others of stealing his ideas for “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and “What’s Happening!” Monte received a $1-million settlement and a small percentage of the residuals from “Good Times” and one percent ownership of the show (Evans).
Monte, due to his lack of business knowledge and experience as well as legal representation, would not receive royalties for other shows which he created. However, Lear and other Hollywood producers outraged over the lawsuit, blacklisted Eric Monte and labeled him too difficult to work with (Dunn). During an NPR interview with Eric Monte, Norman Lear was asked by the news outlet to respond to details of the court settlement which proved that he is a fraud – however; Lear refused the news outlet’s request for a response.
Many years later, Norman Lear, reportedly worth over $700 million, recalled the cultural race-based clashes he had with Monte and the cast of Good Times, wrote about the tumultuous incidents in his memoir … Even This I Get to Experience. In an interview with a Hollywood journalist, Lear said “After the show began, Esther Rolle and John Amos (lead actors) felt personal responsibility for their behavior and every aspect of TV’s first Black family show.”
“After hearing from friends, family and even their pastor, ‘John and Esther believed themselves to be the public image of their race.”
Lear went on to say, “Allan Maning and myself, their white producers and writers, would often hear from Esther, saying, things like, ‘No, we wouldn’t do that.'”
Tensions often ran high between Amos, Rolle, Lear, including Lear’s white writers and co-producers of Good Times.
“Neither Esther Rolle nor John Amos wanted to do that ‘Yassuh this’ and ‘Yassuh that,’ all that stereotype stuff that I was against,” Monte said. “Lear always wanted to get rid of John Amos character because he didn’t think America would accept a strong black father(John Amos) on the show.”
“Norman Lear was a racist, a hypocrite, thief, and a liar,” Monte has often said during online videointerviews. [Hollywoodreporter]
Eric Monte’s life eventually took a nosedive into dismal circumstances. After settling the lawsuit in 1981 against Norman Lear, Mike Eisner, ABC and CBS for 1-million dollars in 1981 – Monte embarked on making a self-produced stage play, pouring over $500,000 into the project. Despite Monte’s talented efforts, the play flopped like a raggedy doll.
Prior to 2006, Monte lost his mountainous Santa Monica home, money in the bank, Mercedez Benz, bevy of pretty women, and worse, Hollywood Bigwigs blackballed him. That prevented Monte from writing and selling TV scripts to major networks. Monte’s life teetered on the edge.
He grew despondent. His dreams of becoming the Hollywood TV writer that triggered the changing of stereotypes imposed upon Blacks in showbusiness had been partially accomplished. He knew more work needed to be done.
Things got so bad for Hollywood’s hottest sitcom writer that he was evicted from his apartment (after losing his home). Homeless and wandering the streets, Monte slept on park benches, living off occasional low paying writing jobs, and residual income from Good Times, the show he largely helped to create. While homeless, Monte fell into a crowd that introduced him to crack cocaine. He became an addict, suffered a series of strokes, and wound up living in a Salvation Army homeless shelter in the L.A. area.
“The first time I hit that crack pipe, it gave me a tremendous desire for more,” Monte said during interviews.
Word of Monte’s homelessness and drug addiction touched Norman Lear to make a comment in L.A. Times. “It pains me deeply to hear that he’s homeless. Eric is a loveable, knowledgeable, sweet human being who had no control of himself.” Lear further said. “He got in his own way emotionally. It wasn’t a pleasant time dealing with Eric. He was a lost soul.”
“I knew something was wrong with my dad,” said Deborah Williams, Monte’s daughter, upon discovering her father’s condition. He moved in with his daughter Deborah in Beaverton Oregon. [Chronicle]
“Nobody lives as long as I have lived without having some regrets,” Monte acknowledged to a reporter. “But basically, I’ve lived a phenomenal life.”
Monte finally left his daughter’s home, returning to the L.A. shelter. Monte brushed off the shelter’s daily rules as minor inconveniences. Overall, the beauty part of the shelter allows this writing genius the peace and privacy to create, write and rewrite T.V. and movie projects stored away in his laptop, projects he intends to sell someday.
Editor’s note: Former Hollywood Screenwriter & TV sitcom writer Eric Monte recently sent his book “Blueprint For Peace” including a Happy New Year and Thank You Card, to our NewsBlaze reporter & investigative journalist Clarence Walker.