“To this day, I hear or receive emails from people who say they raised their kids on Good Times or I want my little girl to watch Thelma because I liked the way that she was. To hear that, truly is an honor.”–Bern Nadette Stanis
About a year ago, I did my last interview for RSR and I would be remiss if I didn’t say, I truly missed doing them. Well, as Austin Powers had to do, I also found my “Mojo” and sought out someone I feel not only would be interesting, but without any doubts, could share a lot with the RSR readers on their career and the sport of boxing that our readers truly love…
In reaching out to Bern Nadette Stanis who played the very popular “Thelma Evans” on the 1970’s comedy sitcom, “Good Times,” which I was able to do through her website, which we will talk about later on in the interview, I found a lady who was not only extremely articulate, but truly passionate about her craft which she has been involved with for many years.
Stanis grew up in Brooklyn, New York, during the 1950’s through the 1970’s and was exposed to many life experiences that only a native New Yorker could really understand. She attended school at the famed Julliard School in New York City with some amazing talents that no doubt, upped her acting chops as well. She remembers those times vividly, and in her voice, you can hear how they still affect her until this very day.
After attending Julliard, a role and a character would come to the small screen via television and would leave an indelible mark for future African American children who may have grown up in the ghetto or the projects, but as “Thelma Evans” and “The Evans Family” always did, they inspired to rise above their surroundings and make a mark in this thing called “Life.”
Bern Nadette Stanis’ last year on Good Times was in 1979 which when you do the math, is almost 30 years ago next year. Almost 30 years later, her character, Thelma Evans, and the show that catapulted her to success has never gone off the air. It’s still as fresh today as it was when I was a young man and watched every episode with my late Father. This is a testament to solid writing and acting without any reservation and sadly, is seldom seen in my personal opinion today on television. Stanis is and will forever be linked with Good Times for her beauty, outlook on life, and love for her family, and in the final analysis, that truly has to be an honor for her I am sure.
Ladies and Gentleman, RSR brings you Bern Nadette Stanis….
BB: You were born in New York City (Brooklyn to be exact) in a very vibrant time in the 1950’s. Talk a little about growing up there and how it shaped your life in years to come.
I think when you grow up in New York City for a long period you learn about reality very early in your life especially if you grow up in a neighborhood that is in the Ghetto. It exposes you to things like a junkie on the corner who may have been a heroin addict who you watched in amazement who goes to the ground, but never falls. Many people used public transportation and I always used it which in turn, allows you to learn a lot about people. Funny thing, no matter how crowded it was on the subway, you never touched anyone or bumped them.
New Yorkers are very observant people and it really does allow you to learn many things about them. It shaped me to be sharp because as I had mentioned, it makes you always look around you to become aware of what is going on and daily, there really is a lot to see.
BB: You attended the prestigious Julliard School in New York City that teaches Dance, Drama, and Music. What was that experience like for you?
It was a wonderful experience for me and you really had to be dedicated to the school. I was elated to even be fortunate enough to get into the school and went for acting. There were a lot of wonderful students in my class who were older than me. Great people like William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin who both went on to very successful careers in our industry. You would just watch people’s body shapes, mannerisms and how things would affect them. Then we had to completely strip down and become someone else.
The late John Houseman was my Director and to have folks like this around you, it allowed me to cut my teeth on the best of them.
BB: In 1974, you landed a role that I would assume not only changed your life, but also you were involved in an amazing TV show that changed many stereo types towards African Americans who lived in the projects growing up. That show was called Good Times.
What was the audition like for you and once over, did you think you landed the plum role of Thelma Evans?
The audition was very interesting because it was my first professional one and there were hundreds of young girls there. We went into a little room where Norman Lear was sitting at a desk and Jimmie Walker (JJ Evans) was standing there. They handed me a script and I asked them would it be OK if I just improvised? They allowed it and both Jimmie and I, had Norman cracking up. From that initial audition, I think Norman thought I would be Thelma, but I still had to go through more auditions. But I do think that first one was the nail for me.
BB: Many people think that just Norman Lear was the creator, but in doing research for this interview, I found that the late Mike Evans (who played Lionel Jefferson on The Jeffersons) was the creator of the show. Talk about both of them and what they brought individually to the show.
Actually, it was Eric Monte and Mike Evans who created the show. From there, they brought it to Norman Lear who developed the show. I always thought Norman Lear was a genius who had his way of putting things together with a golden touch. With hits such as: Maude, All in the Family, Sanford and Son. and The Jeffersons, he really had his hand on the pulse of America at the time and I found that very interesting because most of his characters had a likeable and dislikeable quality to them. He really brought that to the American TV viewers and that was one of his biggest strengths.
As you mentioned, Mike Evans played Lionel Jefferson the son on The Jeffersons and was not really around our show that much. Eric Monte was really around our show a lot more. Mike wrote Good Times which was his family who lived in the Cabrini Green Housing Projects in Chicago. Actually, Ralph Carter who played my little brother Michael Evans was in fact, supposed to be Mike and through his character, told his story.
BB: What do you personally think the impact of Good Times will have on future generations and the children watching it now in re-runs on networks like TV Land?
It really is a staple in America just like the classic “I Love Lucy Show” is. Well, I feel that all these years that black people are really the same in the ghetto and going through these things with nothing much improving for us which is pretty sad in my opinion. This shows that many folks can still relate to issues we acted out on Good Times because we dealt with real life issues and things that hearts and souls and minds to them. Because we did that, it will last forever because all people are basically the same and that particular group in the Ghetto will be the same.
For the children, I think it will affect them positively because as we discussed earlier, I was a product of the ghetto (Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC) and I rose out of that because of the character and upbringing that my parents instilled in me which was very much like on Good Times. I feel it was God’s position to put me on the show because I experienced so much of that and it was, so real for me. So when I played Thelma Evans, I really played her. So with that, I would say, people are telling their children to look at Good Times because we had our morals, ambitions, and dreams along with situations we had to come together as a family to fight. To this day, I hear or receive emails from people who say they raised their kids on Good Times or I want my little girl to watch Thelma because I liked the way that she was. To hear that, truly is an honor.
BB: I would like to throw out some names of people you have worked with and get the first thought that pops into your mind.
A wonderful person and a joy.
Strong, to the point and disciplined.
Fun, sensitive and loving.
Academic, precise, a leader and very much a caretaker.
Cute and just adorable.
BB: One final thought that I feel is very relevant to Good Times is Barack Obama being the Democratic Nominee for President of the United States.
Could you ever imagine back in the days you played Thelma and portrayed a strong black woman that we would have a strong and positive African American nominee who would run for President with his chances being so great to also become the President?
Well, honestly, no not back then. You never really thought about it like even though, we were making strides. We were strong enough to do it, but did not know if we could get in. But now, it’s a whole new day and it’s amazing. They say its Obama’s time and I am right there with him.
BB: What performance do you feel was your very best and you can say to yourself, “I really did nail it.”
I would say the episode where James Evans (John Amos) who was my Father on Good Times died.
BB: Do you have any current movie or TV projects on the table as we speak?
I have a movie coming out called “The Adventures of Umbweki.” Also, we have one out on DVD called: “The Engagement.”
BB: Currently you have a new book out called “Situations 101.” Talk to the RSR readers on what it is about and what you hope readers get out of it.
I put together “101 Situations” and my responses to them. They truly are good, bad and ugly. I wanted to bring them to the forefront because a lot of times people skim over things that go on in relationships. They never talk about or they are embarrassed about, or are the only ones going through it and nobody else can identify with them. I found that America is hurting and a lot of people in relationships are hurting because they don’t know how to keep them going. I know this is very hard so I decided to bring some things to the forefront, that maybe we could have seminars everywhere with men and women. If we talk about these things together then I will know how you feel and you will know the same from me.
BB: I hope you laced your gloves up tight…What is your earliest memory about watching boxing on TV?
Watching it with my Dad when Muhammad Ali was still “Cassius Clay.” My Dad would really talk about it and in turn, that got me into the sport of boxing as well. He really was passionate about the sport.
BB: Let’s follow up on Muhammad since you grew up during his rise to superstardom. With that said, I would like to get your thoughts about Ali the man vice the fighter.
I respect him because he really came into his own at a time when America didn’t understand men like that. He was a gorgeous man who was a boxer and had to deal with that. He was articulate and very intelligent which I really admired about him.
BB: Was there a particular fight that you recall that had you out of your chair and thinking I just saw the greatest fight of all-time?
I really enjoyed watching Sugar Ray Leonard and fights that he was involved in. The one that I was really excited about was his first fight with Tommy Hearns back in 1981. It was a tough battle with back and forth action in it.
BB: Have you ever been to a live fight?
I actually went to one of Muhammad Ali’s fights back in the 70’s, but forget which one it was now…
BB: Do you have any funny stories involving fighters you either new or maybe just met over the years?
I was at I think a BET Awards thing or something like that about five years ago, and Muhammad Ali’s daughter Laila was there. We were all sitting outside and I introduced myself to her because I had just met her dad. I told her I just met your Father and he was very nice to me. She then sat for a long while and then said, “Did my dad try and hit on you?” I thought that was funny… and I responded well…..
Then there was Mike Tyson who I met several years back on Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills, California. He was in his Lamborghini which he had just bought and the salesman was trying to show him how to drive it. There was a big crowd around him and I was introduced to him by someone. He looked at me and said “Oh Yeah” and grabbed me and hugged me. He then gave me the keys to that car, and at that time, I was too scared to take them because I was a coward back then. But today (Laughs), I would take them and come back the next day!
BB: Talking about Mike Tyson, what were your thoughts about him when he was “The Baddest Man on the Planet”?
I felt he was awesome in the ring and very strong. I think when he was satisfied in his heart, he fought at his best and later on, when he was hurt in there and you could tell his heart was not in it, he did not fight at his best.
I can remember when he fought Michael Spinks in 1988. I looked down and then up, and the fight was all over. I was totally surprised by that.
BB: If you had to pick one fighter in your lifetime thus far, who do you feel moved the sport of boxing forward the most and why?
Of course Muhammad Ali, but I want to say George Foreman. I really like him because of his personality and I think that he is a great fighter to have come back at the age that he did and regain the Heavyweight Championship of the World is just amazing. Now that he is not boxing, he still has staying power and I like that.
BB: What fighter’s do you know about today and enjoy watching?
Oscar De La Hoya… He is the one!
BB: What is your favorite boxing movie of all-time?
I loved Rocky and Million Dollar Baby was outstanding.
BB: Do you favor a mandatory retirement fund for all boxers and if so, how would you like to see it accomplished?
Yes, I do. Boxing is a very dangerous sport where one shot can cause permanent damage or even cause a death leaving their family without them. Every time a boxer steps into the ring, they are putting their lives on the line. I think that all the boxers should put a percentage of each purse they make straight into a fund. In addition to that, I feel the Boxing Promoters who make a lot of money on the boxers, should pay into it as well.
BB: Finally, what is the saying you live your life by?
The following saying was told to me by my Father when I was 16 years old and I live my life by it. “Always Be True To Your Heart.”