John Amos

Active - 1971 - 2022  |   Born - Dec 27, 1941 in Newark, New Jersey, United States  |   Genres - Comedy, Drama

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Biography by Derek Armstrong

An actor with hulking presence and a stern countenance, John Amos undercuts his ominous appearance with the kind of warm grin and fun-loving attitude that makes him a natural for comedy. More recognizable as a television actor, the former pro football player has made enough visible forays into film to earn him a reputation in both arenas.

After stints in a variety of divergent career fields -- pro sports, advertising, commercial acting, stand-up comedy, comedy writing -- Amos got his big break with the role of Gordy the weatherman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970. After three years as a side player next to Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner, and Ted Knight, Amos thought he'd get the chance for top billing by signing on to the gig for which he is best known: James Evans, the temperamental patriarch of Good Times. But Jimmie Walker, who played son J.J. Evans, soon gave the show a sassy youthful focus with his catchphrase "Dy-no-mite!" stealing the spotlight from Amos and Esther Rolle, who played wife Florida. Amos asked out of his contract after three years, and in 1976, James Evans was killed off in a car accident.

The decision to leave a hit series did not squash Amos, as it has some others who have made that bold decision. Instead, Amos stepped into the highly celebrated and widely seen role of the adult Kunta Kinte in the 1977 miniseries Roots. The role challenged the actor's dramatic abilities like none of his previous work had, and he won praise for documenting the travails of a captured African who resists his enslavement.

While continuing to turn up in TV series such as Future Cop and Hunter, Amos began making regular appearances in film in the 1980s. Among his more prominent roles were as Seth, companion to Marc Singer's title character in the sword and sorcerer film The Beastmaster (1982); Cleo McDowell, owner of a McDonald's knockoff burger chain and employer of Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall's transplanted dignitaries in Coming to America (1988); and the double-crossing Major Grant, who becomes one of the villains opposite Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 (1990). Settling back into a career of guest shots on TV shows, Amos occupied himself during the 1990s and beyond with recurring roles on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace on NBC's The West Wing.

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  • Played football in college, then had tryouts with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Denver Broncos and the CFL's British Columbia Lions.
  • Worked as a social worker in New York City and as a copywriter at an L.A. ad agency.
  • Did stand-up in Vancouver and Greenwich Village.
  • Was a writer for Leslie Uggams' short-lived 1969 CBS variety series.
  • Left Good Times after two seasons because of his complaints about scripts, but later starred in another Norman Lear show, the short-lived 1994 sitcom 704 Hauser.
  • An avid sailor, he founded the Halley's Comet Foundation (named after his boat—and the 1990 one-man play he wrote and appeared in) to expose inner-city children to maritime activities.