Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Jimmie Walker was quite happy doing stand-up routines in comedy clubs, but when everyone he knew started getting on TV, he wanted a shot at the small screen himself—and when Good Times gave him that shot, he became a superstar. Since then, Walker has had a few other series and popped up in several films, but he’s kept making the comedy club rounds all along. In addition, Walker can be seen discussing the process of transitioning from stand-up to sitcom in the latest episode of Pioneers Of Television, premiering April 15 on PBS.
Good Times (1974-1979)—“James ‘J.J.’ Evans Jr.”
Jimmie Walker: A funny guy who came in to do some comedy damage. I think that that was achieved. [Laughs.] He looks to make as much mileage out of every line that he has and to squeeze everything out of it like it’s a lemon, baby! [Laughs.] It’s like, “Let’s get every drop of that thing in there!”
The A.V. Club: How much of the character of J.J. was on the page at first, and how much did you bring to the role yourself?
JW: I think a lot of it was on the page. But I think that, like anything, you need… Well, you can cook a steak well, but for it to be just right, you need to sprinkle some garlic on there, you need your steak sauce, you need a little parsley… and I brought all that. I think I garnished it well. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you find your way onto Good Times in the first place?
JW: That came from doing… [Hesitates.] It’s not convoluted, it’s just the flow. When I was working at the Improv in New York, all my friends—Bette Midler, David Brenner, Steve Landesberg, Robert Klein, Liza Minnelli, and at that time, although I don’t know him anymore, Woody Allen—were doing TV, and I remember I was sitting in this greasy spoon called the Camelot, which is on 44th and 8th. It’s a piece of garbage. It’s still there, which is amazing. I can’t believe it. Where the flies die of heart attacks. It’s a horrible place! [Laughs.] I was saying, “You know, I can’t believe I’m not on TV.” Because Richard Lewis had just done it, and some other of my friends, Mike Preminger and Jimmy Martinez, they’d done it. And David said, “You know what? You should be on!”
At that time, talent coordinators actually left their offices—which is amazing when you consider how it is now—and they went out. We had the talent coordinator from The Tonight Show coming to the club all the time, and this guy Tom O’Malley, from the Jack Paar show [Jack Paar Tonite]. He’d come in and get free drinks. They’d always get free drinks, free everything, when they came to the club, and of course they’d get in free, because they were talent coordinators for the big shows! [Laughs.] So my friends, they said, “We’re going to go talk to some people for you,” and they went and talked to Tom O’Malley and said, “Hey, how about Jimmie Walker? Let’s put him on the show!” And Tom O’Malley said, “Out. Of. The Question. He’s not funny, he’s not good. Get out of here!” And David, Bette, and Steve said, “If he’s not on the show, we’re not on the show.”
So I ended up on the show, but the producer of Jack Paar’s show was Hal Gurnee, who eventually went on to be the producer of David Letterman’s show, and when I met him, he was sitting behind a desk, eating a pastrami-on-rye sandwich with a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. He says, “You know, everyone tells me you’re funny, they say you’re good, they’re putting pressure on me to book you, but I don’t know what the hell you do. I have no idea!” [Laughs.] He says, “Let me see you do your stand-up.” I said, “Oh, are we going to go down to the stage and bring a little audience in?” He says, “No, I know what’s funny. Just do it.” So he’s literally sitting there, eating his sandwich, while I’m doing my thing a few inches away from him. I do about three minutes, and he says, “Okay, you’re on the show.” And I went, “Oh, uh, all right…” And he says, “Can you be back by 5:30?” I said, “Yeah!” He says, “Okay, be back by 5:30.” And then he leans on the intercom and says to his secretary, “Hey, can you bring me another Cel-Ray soda in here?” And that was that!
So I did [Jack Paar Tonite], and luckily there was a laugh or two, and from there somebody called me to do what they call “warm-ups” for a show called Calucci’s Department, which was actually a great idea for a show. No one else has ever tried to bring it back. It was almost like Night Court, but it was about an unemployment office and the wacky people that came in there all the time. It was James Coco, Candy Azzara, Jack Fletcher—they had a good cast, good people. So I did the warm-ups, and again I somehow got a few laughs—I don’t know how it happened—and in the same building, Norman Lear had one of his offices. He had an east coast and a west coast office, because he liked to hire Broadway actors. So [casting director] Pat Kirkland saw me doing the warm-ups, and she said, “You know, I’ve seen you the last few weeks. Would you like to be on a sitcom?” I didn’t even know what the hell a sitcom was—because I’m a stand-up comic—but I said, “Sure!” Now, in this business, people lie to you. People are so full of doo-doo it’s unbelievable. But I said, “Yeah, yeah, a sitcom, put me on,” and she said, “Okay, we’ll be back next week!” “Okay, so will I! I’m getting 500 bucks a set. I’ll definitely be back!” [Laughs.]
So I came back to do my little warm-up, and Norman Lear’s there. I don’t know who Norman Lear is, but she says, “This is Norman Lear, he’s the executive producer of this show Good Times, Esther Rolle is going to be the star, she’s from Maude,” and this and that. And I said, “Okay,” and I went and did my thing, and they sent contracts to the Improv… because I wouldn’t give ’em my address! They said, “Well, how can we get in contact with you?” I said, “Send ’em to the Improv!” I figured that would end it all. I still do the same thing now: When you see somebody you don’t want to deal with, I say, “Call William Morris, they know me over there.” They don’t even know who Jimmie Walker is! [Laughs.] So they sent the contracts to the Improv, and there was this guy we called Kenny The Drunk who used to sit at the end of the bar, and he was a lawyer, so I picked Kenny’s head up off the bar, and I said, “Kenny, these are contracts from this place called Tandem Productions. Are they any good?” He says, “Yeah!” He puts his head back down on the bar, I shrug and say, “Whatever,” and sign ’em, and the next thing I know, I’m doing the show!
AVC: When you look back at your time on the show, are there any signature episodes that leap to mind, or is it all kind of a blur?
JW: It’s not a blur, but… I was on every episode, you know? I came out, I was trying to be as funny as I could for the time I was out there, and because of my writing team, I was actively involved with my jokes, which is a little selfish, but I had so many great writers: [Jay] Leno, [David] Letterman, Robert Schimmel, and all those cats, man. They were all with me. Jack Handey, from Saturday Night Live, with his “Deep Thoughts.” Jack went on to work with Steve Martin, though. He didn’t need me. He was too big-time! [Laughs.] But all those cats worked with me.
AVC: It’s bizarre to think of Leno and Letterman as having worked on Good Times.
JW: Well, no, I’m talking about working on my act! We also had Byron Allen, who at 14 years old was working for me. I paid him $25 a week, and he was happy, because he was in high school and he had money. Yeah, all those cats, they helped me with my act and my scripts. But they didn’t actually work on the show.
AVC: Leno was actually on an episode of Good Times, though, wasn’t he?
JW: He was! I put him on the show. I battled for him and got him in. And it’s funny, because when we kind of fell out as friends. Every day I’d say to Norman Lear in the hallway, “Norman, you’ve got to use Jay Leno, and you’ve got to use David Letterman.” And he’d go, “Come on, man, I’m trying to do a show here. Don’t come at me with that bullshit.” But I’d say it every day, to the point where he said, “I know! Jay Leno, David Letterman. I got it, okay?” So when Jay got The Tonight Show, I really wasn’t friends with Jay as much as I should’ve been, I guess—but when he got the show, one of the first calls I got was from Norman Lear, and he says, “You know, you fought for this guy and you fought for this guy… I’m sure this must be your proudest day.” And I said, “Yeah.” And I hung up. [Laughs.]
AVC: Who would you say were the MVPs of the writing staff?
JW: We had [Roger] Shulman and [John] Baskin, [Kim] Weiskopf and [Michael S.] Baser. Oh, God, we had Norman Paul, Jack Elinson… All those guys were great, man. And then we had a guy, a cameraman, named Vito. Camera four, baby! [Laughs.] That was my man! He helped me out a lot, man.
AVC: How so?
JW: I would take stuff down, and he was a funny guy, so I’d say, “What do you think of this, Vito?” And he’d give me lines, help me out. He was great!
AVC: Was there a particular point during the early days of the show when you first felt like you had a handle on the character?
JW: Nah. Because I’m not that “actor guy.” I went at it as a comedian. I don’t get in there and think, “Oh, gee, I’m doing this character, so let me go back and think about the days when he was in the war,” or whatever. I’m not that guy, so I never really had to think about whether it was working or not working in that way. Plus, every time you go out in front of a live audience, it’s like working with live ammunition. It’s a trial by fire every time, and you always know exactly where you are with the audience. I know that M*A*S*H and a few other shows back then were done without an audience, and there are a lot more now—I’ve done Everybody Loves Chris since then—but I just don’t feel like you can do a sitcom as well without a live audience. I’ve done shows without an audience, and there’ll be scenes where they’ll read something, it won’t get a laugh from anyone but the people who wrote it, and they’ll go, “Ah, those other people didn’t know what the hell was funny, we’ll shoot it anyway.” And it’s, like, “Uh, you know, if we did a joke like that on our show and nobody but the writers laugh, then that meant we had to go back and rewrite it!” [Laughs.] That’s how I look at it, anyway. But that’s just me.
Let’s Do It Again (1975)—“Bootney Farnsworth”
JW: It’s strange how I got onto that movie. They saw me do whatever I do on the show, and then Sidney Poitier came into the Comedy Store to find me—because I was always talking about being at the Comedy Store—to ask me to be in the movie. But I wasn’t there. I’d left. But Steve Landesberg, from Barney Miller, was there, and Sidney came up to him and said [In a crisp voice.] “Is J.J. here?” He said, “You mean Jimmie Walker?” He said, “Yes. J.J.” Steve said, “No, he’s gone,” and Sidney said, “I want to use him on my movie.” Steve says, “Well, okay, uh, he’ll be here tomorrow.” And Sidney sent his man Chris—he had this guy Chris who was working with him—and he asks me, “Would you want to be in a movie?” Again, you don’t believe anything anybody says, because so many people are so full of shit, but he said, “We’re over at…” I can’t remember if it was Sony or not, but wherever he said, he said, “Could you come over and meet with Sidney?”
So I go over, and Sidney’s got his monocle on. [Laughs.] Except it’s got a lens as thick as a camera’s! And he’s sitting there, and he says, “J.J., let me look at you.” And he looks at me, and then he gives me a line to read. And I read it, and he goes, “No, J.J., much too big! Take it down. Wayyyyyyy down. Like you’re very tiny.” So I took it down. And I got the part. That was it!
AVC: Did you find working in film significantly different from working in film?
JW: Oh, yeah. It’s much more waiting, there’s no audience, and in my opinion, you don’t really get into the flow of it because it’s not done continuously. It’s shot out of sequence. I’m not really a big movie guy. I like the one shot, where it’s, like, “Let’s go for it, man!” But a lot of people were in that. Denise Nicholas, John Amos, Bill Cosby…
AVC: How was it to work with Bill Cosby, given that you both came from a stand-up background?
JW: Cos is a great guy, he’s fantastic, but—I don’t know if you’ve ever interviewed Cos—but he’s very, very dominant. I’ve always said this about Bill Cosby: If Cosby’s not talking, nobody’s talking. [Laughs.] And the thing with Cos is, he’s extremely confident, but I think he’s proved his point!
At Ease (1983)—“Sgt. Val Valentine”
JW: I loved that. I loved that show, dammit, and I say this all the time: Aaron Spelling, who was the most mercenary cat around, but a great guy, he did all these shows—big, monster hit shows—but he had three failures… and I was on two of them. That pisses me off! [Laughs.] But he was great to me. I had no beef with him.
Going Bananas (1987)—“Mozambo”
JW: [Looks positively horrified.] God. I never… Oh, my God. I mean, holy doo-doo. That was six months spent in South Africa working for the Globus boys.
AVC: That’s really the only reason I asked about it. There’s always a good story with a Golan-Globus film.
JW: Yeah, well, it was an experience being in South Africa, I’ll put it to you that way. Most of the stuff I’ve done—even though it’s whatever when it comes out—I feel like it’s been okay. But that was, uh, one of my weaker performances. I will say that.
The Larry Sanders Show (1994)—Himself
JW: Loved it. I was so honored to be on that show, because I think it’s an iconic show. For me, anyway. Maybe other people don’t agree with me. But I loved it, I was proud to be on it, and I was shocked that they asked me. [Laughs.] But I loved every second of it.
AVC: You’ve done your fair share of talk shows. Did you feel like they nailed the behind-the-scenes experience?
JW: Yes. Without a doubt. They did the whole thing, all the bickering and the network shit and everything. It was just a great show. I loved it, and I’d loved to be on a show like that again. And the fact that Garry Shandling comes from a stand-up background makes it even better.
Everybody Hates Chris (2006-2008)—“Grandpa Gene”
JW: Loved that, too! You know, people ask me all the time, “Do you want to do a sitcom?” and at this stage, I always say, “Yeah, I want to do a sitcom, but I’m not going to get one, ’cause the door’s shut on Jimmie Walker.” So for Chris Rock to give me a shot at doing one, and then to bring me back a couple more times… I mean, in my humble opinion, I do think it was a good performance. [Laughs.] But I was very proud that somebody actually saw that.
Somebody called me the other day and said, “Hey, are you going to watch the Golden Globes?” But I’m so not involved in that anymore. I’m just out. [Laughs.] And when you’re out, you just have nothing to do with it. You’re nothing, you’re gone. So I don’t even pay attention to it. I mean, in my day, of course I was looking at the awards shows, watching and maybe even going. But now I’m just out. So for Chris to even give me that shot, I was very much flattered.
AVC: When I talked to Antonio Fargas last year—
JW: Tony Fargas!
AVC: —he made a point of praising Chris and some of the other people who’ve offered him roles by saying, “The work you did helped make me who I am, and I want to say ‘thank you’ by giving you an opportunity.”
JW: I’m not kidding: I was stunned when I got the call. I’m very proud to have been on that show.
George Lopez (2002-2007)—“Lionel”
JW: George Lopez is another guy who gave me a nice little shot on his show when he had it. I think a lot of that was because I had only spoken to George as a stand-up. But whenever he was a little depressed or something like that, I was always the guy who’d say, “Hey, man, come on! You can do it! You’re gonna beat it!” With all the Latino comedy going on, I said, “George, you’re the smart Mexican.” [Laughs.] He loved that.
The Concorde… Airport ’79 (1979)—“Boisie”
Airplane! (1980)—“Windshield Wiper Man”
JW: Oh, I loved that. That… [Hesitates, then grimaces.] Oh, wait. You said Airport. That’s different. That was… okay. That was two weeks of work at decent money, that’s what that was. But Airplane! was with Howard Koch. There wasn’t much to it, but I still loved it.
JW: You know, it’s so strange, because I do so many shows on the road, and everybody always has Good Times stuff—J.J. dolls, albums, whatever—but about once a week, there’s a guy who shows up with a Guyver poster or picture or something. Everybody else is like, “Oh, I loved your show, I grew up with it,” but that guy is going [Lowers his voice.] “I saw Guyver, and I have it on DVD and VHS, and I watch it every week.” In every town, there’s always that one subterranean guy. I always tell the bouncers, “You’re gonna watch this guy. He might have a gun. He likes Guyver, so he’s obviously a sick bastard. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did that gig come about?
JW: They saw me on Good Times. And I was liquid and fluid in those days, and they thought, “We need this wild, zany, kooky character,” and these were two cats from Japan. This was a comic book. I didn’t even know what the hell this Guyver thing was, but it’s a comic book in Japan, it’s a huge thing, and these guys came over to do this thing. The star of it is the guy from Star Wars, Mark Hamill, and, boy, they loved him! So he’s in it, and they just got the kookiest characters they could get to be in this thing. But I’ll tell you the honest-to-goodness truth: I still don’t know what the movie’s about. [Laughs.] I have no idea what the movie’s about.
But we shot down in this thing at, like, 1 o’clock in the morning, which is frightening. I mean, there’s homeless people, there’s people living in sewers… You’re just going, “What the fuck is happening down here?” [Laughs.] You know, you never even think about it, but we shot down there. There’s, like, a river flowing through it, and there’s people coming up out of it like zombies, and I’m just going, “What is this?”
Battle Of The Network Stars (1976-1978)—Himself
JW: I loved Battle Of The Network Stars. It was the stupidest show in the world, but I took it very seriously.
AVC: You and Robert Conrad.
JW: [Laughs.] Well, a lot of people didn’t. But I took it very seriously. And what happened was… we got our asses kicked, CBS, every year. By Penny Marshall. She fucking destroyed us, every year. So one year, Bo Svenson… I forget the name of the show he was on, but it was a show about a sheriff or some garbage. But we had never won, so Bo Svenson got in contact with everyone, and he said, “We are gonna win this fucking thing!”
We went out, and we took rowing lessons, we took swimming lessons, we took basketball lessons, and son of a sea dragon, when the actual game came, it was easier than the training! We destroyed everybody. And I loved it. And I still… [Starts to laugh.] I know it sounds stupid, but it’s one of the highlights of my career, winning the Battle Of The Network Stars. Thank God we finally got ’em. We kicked Penny Marshall’s ass!
AVC: It is my personal quest to get Battle Of The Network Stars released on DVD.
JW: Well, it still plays on ESPN Classic, I think. But don’t get me wrong: It might be a career highlight for me, but, oh my God, it’s horrible. [Laughs.]
Rabbit Test (1978)—“Umbuto”
JW: Oh, that was Joanie [Rivers’] thing. Joanie and Billy Crystal. [Shrugs.] They gave it a shot. That’s about all you can say.
AVC: It was Billy Crystal’s film debut, but it’s only given just a one-line mention in his autobiography.
JW: I am not surprised. [Laughs.]
Murder Can Hurt You (1980)—“Parks The Pusher”
JW: The reason I loved that movie was because of John Byner and his craziness. And Burt Young was on it. It was just fun. In fact, that was probably one of the most fun film experiences I ever had, just because of everyone who was there.
Space Ghost: Coast To Coast (1996)—Himself
JW: I don’t even know what the hell that is! [Laughs.] Was I in it?
AVC: You were. Only for about two seconds, but I’ve seen the clip.
JW: Well, I have no idea what it even is, so you know more about it than I do!
The White Shadow (1980)—Himself
JW: That was a celebrity thing. A bunch of celebrities coming in and playing themselves, and I was one of ’em. It was bull-doody. It was a long day. Gwyneth Paltrow’s dad, Bruce, was the guy in charge. But it was garbage. [Laughs.]
Scrubs (2001 and 2002)—Himself
JW: Scrubs was such an amazing thing. It was interesting, because I was just sitting around one day when Fred Westbrook, my alleged agent, calls me and says, “You want to be on this show Scrubs?” I said, “If they’re paying, I’m saying: ‘I’m in!’” So I go and do it, and I do, what, one line? Maybe even just one word! And Fred calls me and says, “Well, how’d it go?” I said, “Fred, I didn’t do anything! I just showed up, I did this thing, and that was it.” He said, “All right, good!” Two weeks later, Fred calls again and says, “They want you back!” I said, “I didn’t do anything!” He said, “Well, whatever you did, they want you back!” So I went back and I did one line again.
I said, “Okay, that’s it. Fred, we’re done here. I’m not doing this again.” But, son of a sea dragon, they called me again to do it! I said, “Are you kidding?” The funny thing is, I never actually said anything to anybody who was actually on the show! They were complete non sequiturs, stuff that didn’t really make any sense. But I liked doing them. I mean, they flew me in, picked me up in a car, they paid me double-scale to do it, so what’s not to like? But, anyway, the kicker is that the last time I was there—I think it was the last episode of their first season—as I left, I made a point of taking the time to say to the producers, “Gee, thank you so much for having me, and I really would like to come back.” And I was never invited back again. [Laughs.]
Late Night With David Letterman (1987-1993) / The Late Show With David Letterman (1994-2010)—Guest
AVC: John Witherspoon has said that there are only a few people beside himself who have carte blanche to call David Letterman and get a spot on his show whenever they want or need one, but he cited you as one of them.
JW: Dave Letterman is… [Smiles and sighs.] I always tell this story, but it’s the one that’s the best. Some time back when I did the show, it was during the break, during the commercials, and we’re talking, and I said, “Dave? Thank you for having me on the show. I know you don’t need me, you got all the big stars, but I really appreciate you having me on the show.” He said, “You’re my friend. I will always have you on the show, ’til the last breath in my body goes.” And it really moved me. I mean, to say something like that… I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the audience of his show, but when you go a break, there’s suddenly like 97 people coming around the desk doing this and doing that. But Dave shooed them all away, and he just talked to me. And, you know, obviously David Letterman’s a major star, he’s got billions of dollars, what the fuck does he need Jimmie Walker for? Even though he started with me and the whole deal like that, what the fuck does he need me for? He doesn’t! I still can’t believe he said that. He’s just the greatest.