Actor John Amos was born in 1939 in New Jersey. After graduating college and having short careers as a social worker and a professional football player, Amos became one of the most recognizable actors on television. His fame grew during the 1970s when he was cast in a number of iconic series such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Good Times. Perhaps his most acclaimed role is that of Kunta Kinte/Toby in the record-setting epic mini-series Roots. He later appeared in films like Coming to America and in shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The West Wing. More recently he stars in the Netflix series, The Ranch.
John A. Amos, Jr. was born on December 27, 1939 in Newark, New Jersey to parents Annabelle and John Amos, Sr. He attended East Orange High School and after graduating in 1958, he enrolled at Long Beach City College before transferring to Colorado State University, where he graduated with a degree in sociology.
Although he enjoyed writing, Amos was also an athletic youth and played various sports, including college football and boxing. He earned a Golden Gloves title and later signed to play professional football with the Denver Broncos followed by a stint with the Kansas City Chiefs before he was ultimately sidelined for injuries and released from the team. Before his acting career took off, Amos spent some time as a social worker in New York City, an ad agency copywriter and also performed stand-up comedy.
Career Beginnings: ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ ‘Good Times’ and ‘Roots’
Amos’ career on stage and screen began with a writing gig for The Leslie Uggams Show, a variety show, in 1969. One of his first major roles came in 1970 when he was cast as Gordy Howard, the weatherman on the popular series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. From there he landed a recurring role on The Funny Side (1971), as well as bit parts on various other series. In 1973, he appeared on Sanford and Son before being cast on Norman Lear’s hit show, Maude. But it was his role on Lear's iconic 1976 sitcom Good Times that drew audiences in with his memorable performance as the hardworking dad, James Evans, Sr. opposite Esther Rolle (Florida Evans) and Jimmie Walker (James 'J.J.' Evans, Jr.). Although Lear had intended the series to cover more serious social issues, audiences fell for Jimmie Walker’s catchphrase “Dy-no-mite” and he quickly became the focus of the show. After Amos voiced his dissatisfaction with the direction the show was taking in its depiction of the black family, he was ultimately fired – his character killed off in the emotional two-part episode entitled, “The Big Move.”
In perhaps one of the greatest career rebounds, Amos’ next role came in the biggest television event of the 1970s when he played older Kunta Kinte/Toby in 1977’s epic miniseries, Roots. The series, which received rave reviews, also shattered viewership records, many of which still stand. “Because of the writing and the passion of Alex Haley, I was able to enjoy something the likes of which I'll probably never get to do again in my career,” Haley told TV Guide in 2007. Roots was based on author Alex Haley's personal family ancestry beginning from enslavement through liberation. His performance earned Amos a Primetime Emmy nomination.
Career Highlights of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s
For the next 30 years, Amos continued to be a recognizable presence on television, appearing in countless shows and TV movies including Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story (1980), The Love Boat, The A-Team, Trapper John M.D., Murder, She Wrote, The Cosby Show, Touched By An Angel and Walker, Texas Ranger. He also had recurring roles on the action series Hunter, and was cast in another Lear show, the controversial and very short-lived 704 Hauser, in which a black family moves into what was Archie Bunker’s home in All In The Family. But Amos would soon land a role for a new generation of fans. He was cast on the hit series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, opposite the then up-and-coming Will Smith. He also landed a part on a show featuring another popular rapper, LL Cool J, in In The House.
But Amos' work was not limited to the small screen. In 1988, he starred in the comedy smash, Coming To America. In the film he plays the father of Eddie Murphy’s love interest, played by Shari Headley. He has called the part one of his favorite comedic roles. Other film credits during this time include American Flyers (1985), Lock Up (1989), Die Hard 2 (1990) and All Over Again (2001).
In 2000, Amos starred in the crime drama, The District, as Mayor Ethan Baker. He also appeared in the short-lived All About the Andersons. Perhaps his juiciest role during this period came when he landed the part of Percy Fitzwallace on the popular political drama The West Wing. Other shows Amos appeared in during the 2000s include Men in Trees, Psyche and My Name Is Earl.
Amos remains a ubiquitous icon on television. In 2010, he had a recurring role on Two and a Half Men and made a guest appearance in 30 Rock, among numerous others. In 2016, he starred in the Netflix series, The Ranch.
Having a lifelong passion for sailing, Amos founded the Halley’s Comet Foundation, a organization that introduces inner-city and at-risk children to sailing and possible maritime careers. In the 1990s, he also performed in a one-man play of the same name, which he wrote and produced.
Amos is a veteran of the New Jersey National Guard and is an Honorary Master Chief of the U.S. Coast Guard.
John Amos is married and has been divorced two times. He has two children, daughter Shannon and son K.C., from his first marriage to Noel J. Mickelson.
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