John Amos strives to remember a simpler time

January 20, 1999

By MEG H. PARTINGTON / Staff Writer

John AmosThe night John Amos expected to see a cosmic vision he instead witnessed theatrical inspiration.

That fateful evening in 1986, Amos was in his native New Jersey near the Delaware Water Gap to watch Halley's Comet show its flair for the first time since 1910.

It was too cloudy to see the comet, but he got a clear view of a man sharing stories with his family about life since the comet's last sighting, a real-life scene from which a play was born.

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"That turned out to be as valuable as seeing the comet itself," says Amos, 59, whose television roles include the adult Kunte Kinte in the television miniseries "Roots," Gordy the Weatherman in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and James Evans in "Good Times."


His one-man show, "Halley's Comet," draws some material from his recollection of the old man's stories, some from people in his own life and some from his imagination. In it, Amos portrays an 87-year-old man who talks about the significant changes and events he's seen since the beginning of the century, including world wars, nuclear bombs and fast food.

John AmosHe is bringing the show and its variety of characters to Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md., Friday, Jan. 22.

Since the debut of "Halley's Comet" in 1990 at John Harms Theater in Englewood, N.J., Amos has been the lone star, performing 35 to 38 times a year throughout the United States and abroad. This year, he is considering sending other actors out on the tour and letting them do their own interpretations, he said in an interview from his 68-foot boat docked in Marina del Rey, Calif.

He uses the vessel, named after his play, not only for his own pleasure, but to teach at-risk youth about sailing, the ocean and ecology.

He earned a degree of sociology from Colorado State University and says he has used his social work skills for more than 30 years.

"You never really stop. You just find different ways to apply it," he says.

Amos' career has spanned television, cinema and theater, starting with stand-up comedy in New York's Greenwich Village. In 1968, he made his theatrical debut in the Los Angeles production of "Norman, Is That You?" which he later produced in Denver.

Also in 1968, he began his television writing career with "The Leslie Uggams Show." He also lists the Emmy Award-winning "Loman and Barkley Show" among his writing credits.

Amos took bit parts and commercials - including some for Right Guard, Midas Muffler and McDonald's - to pay the rent, he says.

Playing a range of roles has prevented him from being typecast.

"I think the variety is essential," he says.

Amos says he was fortunate to work in television at a time when shows were well-written and well-performed. That is not the case today, he says.

"It's deplorable for the most part."

Amos says he was to have a meeting last week with Sony to discuss a "Good Times" television reunion movie. The original cast included Jimmie Walker as J.J. and Esther Rolle, who played James Evans' wife, Florida. Rolle died Nov. 18 at the age of 78.

Among his favorite cinema roles was that of Chet McDowell in "Coming to America," which co-starred Eddie Murphy. Some other movies in which he performed include "Die Hard II" with Bruce Willis, "Let's Do It Again" with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier and "Ricochet" with Denzel Washington.

He says he would like to venture into film producing and directing.

Asked to name the worst roles he ever took on, he says, "There's none ... that make me break into a cold sweat."

"My favorite medium to perform in is live theater because you get a direct response from the audience," says Amos.

He says he wants audience members to leave "Halley's Comet" feeling like they've spent two hours with an older relative they remember from childhood telling them of a simpler time.

Want to see "Halley's Comet?"

  • What: "Halley's Comet," starring John Amos
  • When: Friday, Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Weinberg Center for the Arts, 20 W. Patrick St., Frederick, Md.
  • Tickets: $10 to $20.
  • Information: Call 1-301-228-2828 or use the telecommunications device for the deaf at 1-301-228-2838.
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