For Classic TV Producer, Good Times No Longer

The man who created the television program, Good Times, and the movie Cooley High, has fallen on hard times and is now living in a homeless shelter.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In the 1970s, a handful of African-American writers and directors began to break new ground in television and film. They began to try to create black characters who seemed more true to life; they had humor and depth. Eric Monte was one of the most successful screenwriters of the day. He conceived of and wrote the television program Good Times and the motion picture Cooley High. At the age of 62, Eric Monte is now trying to re-establish himself in Hollywood, and he has a long way to go.

NPR's Katia Dunn has filed this report for us.

KATIA DUNN reporting:

When he was at the top of his game as a screenwriter, Eric Monte drove a Mercedes Benz. He had a beautiful home in the Santa Monica Mountains. Today he lives in a Salvation Army homeless shelter.

Mr. ERIC MONTE (Screenwriter): This is my bed, my wall locker. I have my printer here.

DUNN: Monte's room is a 10 by 15-foot cubicle that he shares with a roommate. There are 300 other men and women living in this shelter in Bell, California, just south of downtown Los Angeles. He said it's not an ideal environment for writing, but...

Mr. MONTE: It's relative. It beats the park bench. Believe me.

DUNN: It seems unlikely that a groundbreaking television writer would end up here in a homeless shelter. But considering the other obstacles Eric Monte has encountered in his life, homelessness seems almost mild. He's battled drug addiction, bankruptcy, and to his mind an even greater foe, big Hollywood producers.

Monte's story begins in Cabrini-Green, the notoriously rough housing project in Chicago where he grew up.

Mr. MONTE: I was five years old and I loved cowboys - Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger - and I had this little broomstick horse. And I was running, riding around like it was a horse. And this big old white guy came up to me. Now that I look back at it, he might not have been that big or that old, but he was definitely white. And he said who are you supposed to be? And I rode back on my little broomstick horse and I said I'm the Lone Ranger. So he said you can't be the Lone Ranger, the Lone Ranger is white. So I made a vow that when I grew up I was going to make some black heroes.

DUNN: At the age of 22, he told his mother he was going to Hollywood.

Mr. MONTE: And my mother said they have never ever had a black writer in Hollywood. If they ever get one he's going to be some high-yellow black with a Harvard degree, not some high school dropout from Cabrini. I said Momma, I'm going to do this. A week later, I left with $5 and a suitcase, went out to Route 66, hitchhiked my way to Hollywood, and I had never written a word.

DUNN: When he got to L.A., Monte enrolled in theater classes in a community college. It took him about five years to get his big break. Producer Norman Lear accepted one of his scripts for the television hit All in the Family. Eventually, Monte sold Lear on another one of his ideas, a program about a black family in Chicago. Florida and James Evans and their three children lived in a project not unlike Cabrini-Green. They became one of the first African-American families to make regular appearances in homes nationwide. The show was, of course, Good Times.

(Soundbite of TV show Good Times)

Mr. JIMMIE WALKER (Actor): (As JJ Evans): Hi, gorgeous family. Hello, lovely Momma. Hello, handsome Papa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ESTHER ROLLE (Actor): (As Florida Evans): Get out your wallet, James. That's a can I borrow $5 greeting, if I ever heard one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DUNN: From the beginning of the program, Monte says the producers pushed him to make the oldest son, JJ Evans, more of a clown than a person.

(Soundbite of TV show Good Times)

Mr. WALKER: Dyn-o-mite!

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

DUNN: Soon, says Monte, they wanted more drastic changes.

Mr. ERIC MONTE: The one note I got in every meeting, without fail, was you've got to get rid of the father. A strong, black man in a sitcom don't work.

(Soundbite of TV show Good Times)

Mr. JOHN AMOS (Actor): (As James Evans): Hey, baby. This is it! The word I've been waiting for!

Ms. ROLLE: You got the job?

Mr. AMOS: Listen here. The letter says that I, James Evans, have passed the written aptitude test for the Union Apprentice Program.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. AMOS: Furthermore, I got an interview at the Dearborn Building at 10 a.m. today. I'll be making 2.50 an hour, and when I complete the program, I'm going to go all the way up to four and a quarter an hour.

Professor TODD BOYD (Professor of Cinema and Television, University of Southern California): The thing is, you know, Hollywood's not a industry based on social issues, it's an industry that's very much interested in making money.

DUNN: This is Todd Boyd, a Professor of Cinema and Television at the University of Southern California.

Prof. BOYD: This was really a new thing and I don't know that anybody on either side had figured out how to make that work. The studios and the networks and, you know, others involved were probably very, very, very cautious and deliberate about, you know, what they would agree to represent.

DUNN: After four years in television, Monte was fed up. In 1975, he turned to film and wrote and produced the hit movie Cooley High.

(Soundbite of music from Cooley High)

It was a seminal moment in African American pop culture.

(Soundbite of movie, Cooley High)

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Character) This is for the brothers who ain't here.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As Character) Hey, man, you're pouring out our wine.

Unidentified Actor #1: This is for the brothers who ain't here.

Unidentified Actor #3: (As Character) Forget them, man, they ain't here, they don't get none.

Unidentified Actor #1: Man, there's a lot of brothers that's dead or in jail, and we just got to give them a little bit of respect, understand?

DUNN: At this point, Monte's story gets murky. In 1977, he successfully sued ABC and CBS for using his ideas in sitcoms like Good Times, The Jeffersons and What's Happening without giving him credit.

Mr. ERIC MONTE (Television Writer): As soon as I filed that suit, all my offers dried up. Nobody in Hollywood would talk to me. I was blacklisted.

(Soundbite of music)

DUNN: Monte was awarded a million dollars, but now says that that suit was the beginning of the end of his career. He says Hollywood marked him as a scriptwriter who was too hard to work with. He named Norman Lear in the suit and their relationship ended. Lear declined to comment for this story. Over the next 30 years, Monte drifted in and out of the homes of various friends and family. He says he always liked to drink, but it started getting out of control. Worse, he developed a crack cocaine habit.

And then ten months ago, he found his way to the Salvation Army homeless shelter where he's allowed to come and go as he pleases. Living at the shelter allows Monte to write. He recently self-published a book called Blueprint for Peace. He lays out seven basic principles for achieving world peace. He's shopping it around, but publishers haven't expressed any interest. And still he writes.

Mr. MONTE: I write here, then when I go to class, I write in the class and then when class is over, I come back here and I continue to write. Sometime I write like 15 hours in a day. I sleep like four hours.

DUNN: He occasionally receives residual checks, enough to pay the $300.00 a month that the Salvation Army charges. He carries his laptop wherever he goes in the shelter. He says he has 30 movie and book projects waiting to be pitched. And in the little community, he's something of a celebrity. Some people there even count Monte as a significant cultural influence in their life. Robert Weiss(ph) is a friend and fellow resident.

Mr. ROBERT WEISS (Friend): I've seen Cooley High a couple of times. I got the DVD at the house too. When I was in high school, I seen this movie and it inspired me, you know, his story I was raised up on.

DUNN: The Los Angeles Times discovered Monte in the spring and wrote a front-page profile of his story. But Monte says recognition has never been his motive.

Mr. MONTE: My living in the shelter and my being broke, I see that as a minor inconvenience. Life is way too short for me to let some idiotic thing like that make me unhappy. Please, no, I'm not sad about anything. I love life. I'm as happy as a sissy in Boys Town. My work ain't over.

DUNN: From the day he hitchhiked to Hollywood as a young man, Monte's biggest goal has been to write about African American characters facing genuine problems.

Mr. MONTE: Goals are like life, you don't reach them, you keep fighting to attain them.

DUNN: Monte says by those standards he's still at the top of his game. Katia Dunn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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