John Amos was already a TV legend when he assumed the role of Cleo McDowell, the proud proprietor of McDowell’s, a Queens fast food restaurant that bore a striking resemblance to another burgers-and-fries chain.
“They got the golden arches, mine is the golden arcs,” the character explained. “See, they got the Big Mac, I got the Big Mick.”
As the father of Lisa McDowell, Prince Akeem’s love interest in “Coming to America,” Amos had some of the best lines in a movie that seemed to be constructed of nothing but comedy gold.
Now Amos, 80, is reprising the role for “Coming 2 America,” the sequel to the 1988 classic starring Eddie Murphy. This week the actor will also be honored as an inductee to the New Jersey Hall of Fame, which is hosting its ceremony virtually due to COVID-19.
“It’s a tremendous feeling, being honored by your home state,” Amos tells NJ Advance Media. The pre-recorded ceremony is set to air on TV and social media Oct. 18.
“I feel very good about it,” he says. “I wish I could be there physically to acknowledge it.”
Amos, born in Newark, pursued a career in football, playing for the Colorado State Rams and later the Jersey City Jets, among other teams, before becoming an actor. He went on to star in several iconic series that would define 1970s television — “The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Good Times” and the groundbreaking miniseries “Roots.”
The actor, who was also a member of the New Jersey National Guard, got his start as an East Orange Panther. He played on the football team in the late ’50s when Dionne Warwick — another member of the New Jersey Hall of Fame set to appear at the ceremony — was a cheerleader.
“My high school memories are my fondest,” Amos says of his Jersey upbringing. “It was a wonderful school to go to, East Orange High School. It was an outstanding school academically, as well as from a from an athletic standpoint. They offered just about all the sports, and we seemed to always do well.”
Amos lived in Tewksbury until about 10 years ago. He now resides in Westcliffe, Colorado, which is where he’s spent most of the COVID-19 pandemic, apart from a few trips for work.
“I’ve been doing some writing,” he says, speaking by phone from his home. “That’s primarily my main thrust in the industry right now … The industry is obviously slowed down, almost come to a complete halt, as far as filmmaking goes, but I look for things to gear back up shortly.”
“Coming 2 America,” directed by Craig Brewer (“Dolemite Is My Name”), is reportedly slated for a Dec. 18 release from Paramount Pictures, though Amos is unsure of the actual premiere date. While a trailer is reportedly expected soon, since March, most every film this year has been subject to change of date or method of distribution.
Joining Amos and Eddie Murphy in the long-awaited sequel are original cast members Arsenio Hall as Semi, Shari Headley as Lisa McDowell, James Earl Jones as King Jaffe Joffer and Louie Anderson as Maurice, a McDowell’s employee.
Newcomers to the world of Prince Akeem (who is set to become king of Zamunda) are Tiffany Haddish, Leslie Jones, KiKi Layne, Wesley Snipes, Rick Ross, Jermaine Fowler and Tracy Morgan, who lives in Alpine.
While talk of a sequel has been in the air for years, Amos thinks it’s just the right time for the McDowell family and the royals of Zamunda to make a comeback.
“We need to laugh,” he says. “Obviously the entire country, the world needs some laughter right now. And there’s no greater source of humor for my money than Eddie Murphy. He’s a genius and a comedic icon of course, justifiably so. So I’m looking forward to the film … and I think the movie is going to be on time with the subject content, and also with the fact that a lot of people are looking forward to seeing a sequel to ‘Coming to America.’”
For Amos, being on set for “Coming 2 America” was a true homecoming.
“It was like a high school reunion in that I hadn’t seen a lot of these people or worked with them since the original movie,” he says. “So it was wonderful to be in everybody’s company again, all of them, because I have nothing but wonderful memories from the first version of ‘Coming to America.’”
What would Cleo McDowell when faced with the events of 2020?
“I’m sure he’d have some opinions,” says Amos. The actor, known for playing James Evans on “Good Times,” had his first major TV role in 1970 as weatherman Gordy Howard on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
In 1977, Amos was nominated for an Emmy for “Roots,” the acclaimed miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book. The series, which put America’s legacy of slavery front and center in homes across the nation for the first time, tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an African teen (initially played by LeVar Burton) who is captured in the 1700s and sold into slavery. Amos portrayed the adult Kunta Kinte in the eight-part series, which became a cultural phenomenon. The finale is the third most-watched TV broadcast in history behind the “who shot J.R.?” episode of “Dallas” in 1980 and the 1983 series finale of “M*A*S*H”.
Later in his career, for several years until 2004, Amos played Percy Fitzwallace, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff on “The West Wing.” Last year, he had a brief but memorable cameo in the movie “Uncut Gems” as a neighbor who refuses to let Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) son use his bathroom.
The role, originally intended for Phylicia Rashad (who turned down the part) was meant to go to someone associated with being “wholesome,” director Josh Safdie told Vulture. Amos fit the bill for his association with James Evans, the patriarch of a Chicago family in “Good Times,” one of the first sitcoms to star a predominantly Black cast.
Amos first played the character, originally named Henry Evans, on “Maude” (which was itself a spinoff of “All in the Family”) before the character and his wife, Florida Evans (Maude’s housekeeper, played by Esther Rolle), got their own series, which ran from 1974 to 1979 on CBS.
Amos, however, was fired from “Good Times” in 1976. While the show wove important subjects like gun violence, racism and addiction into its comedy, Amos often felt that the characters were not behaving in realistic ways and that the portrayal of a Black family was not authentic. Though Amos and other cast members would make suggestions for changes that were implemented in the series, “Good Times” did not have any Black writers. The conflict between Amos and the writers created tension behind the scenes and he was ultimately let go for threatening the writing staff.
“We had our differences, we resolved them,” Amos says of his relationship with prolific writer and executive producer Norman Lear, who developed “Good Times” and co-created “All in the Family” and “Maude.”
When Lear returned to stage old episodes of “The Jeffersons,” “All in the Family” and “Good Times” with new actors on ABC’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” last year, Amos welcomed the chance to play a part.
Andre Braugher, the Emmy-winning “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” star who lives in South Orange, played James Evans, but Amos generated a hefty round of applause as alderman Fred Davis. Viola Davis played Florida Evans (Esther Rolle died in 1998), and original cast member Bernnadette Stanis, who played Thelma, made a surprise appearance, as did Jimmie Walker, who played James Evans Jr, or J.J.
“It was wonderful to have a chance to work with those actors again,” Amos says. “Unfortunately, Ja’Net DuBois, who played our neighbor Willona in the series, she passed away (in February, after making an appearance in the December special; Tiffany Haddish played Willona) … It was great to be in their company again. I didn’t know if I’d have a chance to work with most of them again in my career. We were all glad to get together again to see that everybody’s still doing it.”
Amos reconnected with Lear when they were working on the special. The producer stood by his side — as did Patti LaBelle, who sang the show’s theme song with Anthony Anderson — as the cast rolled out an 80th birthday cake for the actor.
“When we did the reunion show, I had a chance to express my appreciation for Norman as a producer, as a director and as a human being,” Amos says.
Lear, 98, became the oldest person to win an Emmy in 2019, and then again in September, for the live specials, executive produced by Jimmy Kimmel and broadcast in May and December of 2019.