As the lanky, comically over-confident eldest son, J.J., on the popular sitcom "Good Times," (CBS, 1973-79), Jimmie Walker was one of the first African-American comics to achieve mainstream success. His run on the popular 1970s sitcom went beyond mere celebrity and transformed the actor into a cultural icon, thanks in large part to his catchphrase "Dy-No-Mite!" which became permanently etched in the public's consciousness, despite Walker's initial reservations in using it. Though he was embraced by white audiences, Walker was the subject of strong criticism from the black community, many of whom felt his character was cartoonish and insulting, particularly because the show centered on a poor inner-city family struggling to get by in a Chicago ghetto. His outlandish depiction of blacks on the show led to tension both on and off the set, causing cast members to air their frustrations in public. Nonetheless, Walker relished an ongoing recognition beyond his "Good Time" years, though he failed to reach that height of popularity ever again.
Born June 25, 1947, Walker was raised in a tough South Bronx, NY neighborhood where he harbored dreams of playing professional basketball. Though he had the athletic ability, he lacked both height and girth, putting him at a serious disadvantage. Dejected, he quit high school and took a series of odd jobs around the city, including delivering groceries for $47 a week. He soon found a renewed interest in school and began attending Theodore Roosevelt High School at night to earn his degree, then later enrolling in Search for Education, Evaluation and Knowledge (SEEK), a federally funded program that served as an educational bridge between high school and college. SEEK paved the way for him to pursue his education at the RCA Technical Institute, where Walker earned his license as a radio engineer. He went right to work at WRBR part-time, earning more the twice his grocery delivery earnings, while he continued to study math and literature at SEEK. It was during a writing class that Walker learned he was funny, making his fellow classmates laugh with a piece he wrote that soon led to an interest in performing stand-up comedy.
In 1967, Walker finally left SEEK and was introduced by a friend to a militant poet troupe, "The Last Poets," where he performed a five-minute opening act and spent the next 18 months developing his repertoire. His performances caught the eye of comedian David Brenner, who helped Walker and several other comedians - including Steve Landesberg and Bette Midler - get their shots playing the famed Improv in New York City. The quartet soon became regular performers, taking their shot at the "big time" after receiving calls to perform on "The Tonight Show" - except for Walker. Brenner, Midler and Landesberg then got their chance to play "The Jack Paar Show," but all refused unless Paar gave Walker a shot as well. The host relented and Walker delivered a great performance, attracting the attention of Dan Rowan of "Laugh In" fame, who gave him a guest spot on the legendary variety show. Walker followed with a second spot on Paar's show; from that, earning a contract with CBS as a warm-up comic for the short-lived sitcom, "Carlucci's Department" (1973). After several years of struggle, Walker's career was finally moving forward.
Walker mustered the courage to quit his day job and concentrated on performing stand-up full-time. During one performance, he captured the attention of Norman Lear's casting director, who was casting for the producer's latest sitcom, "Good Times" - a spin-off of another popular sitcom, "Maude" (CBS, 1972-1978). Centering on Maude's former maid, Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), the ironically-titled series focused on a poor black family struggling to make ends meet in the projects of south side Chicago. Though Walker was originally cast in a supporting role, producers quickly realized that audiences liked the charismatic - though often buffoonish - J.J., a budding comic book artist prone to chasing girls and coming up with get-rich-quick schemes that always set the family back further. As the writers focused more attention on Walker, particularly his stereotypical characterization of blacks, co-stars Rolle and John Amos began voicing their displeasure over how they were being portrayed. Amos was upset enough to leave the show after the third season, followed not long after by Rolle after season four (she did return for the sixth and final go-round).
While "Good Times" maintained its popularity - it was a top ten show during the 1974-75 season - Walker capitalized on his newfound success. He had his feature debut in "Let's Do It Again" (1975), a rather insipid and uninspired comedy about two con artists (Sydney Poitier and Bill Cosby) trying to turn a skinny wimp (Walker) into a feared pugilist. Also in 1975, Walker released his first live comedy album, Dy-No-Mite, an amusing set recorded at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. that highlighted his strength as a commentator on race and other social issues. Walker appeared in several guest spots on popular shows from the time, including "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) - on which he appeared a whopping seven times - "White Shadow," (CBS, 1978-1981) and "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1978-1984). He was also a regular participant on ABC's goofy celebrity competition, "Battle of the Network Stars," as well as on the classic celebrity game show, "The Match Game" (CBS, 1973-79).
After "Good Times" went off the air in 1979, Walker continued making guest spots on popular shows of the day - including "Cagney & Lacey" (CBS, 1982-88) and "The Fall Guy" (ABC, 1981-86) - though his popularity began to wane throughout the 1980s. He tried his hand at feature films, but he was mainly relegated to bit parts, showing up briefly in "The Concord: Airport '79" (1979) and playing a window washer in "Airplane!" (1980). But it quickly became apparent that his bread-and-butter was stand-up, which he did as much as he could, becoming a regular performer in Las Vegas and other venues across the country.
As Walker honed his comedy act, roles in film and on television became more scarce, particularly regular series roles. He appeared in short-lived drama "B.A.D. Cats" (ABC, 1980), then returned to the sitcom world with the equally short-lived "At Ease" (ABC, 1983), which starred Walker as a platoon sergeant who keeps his company in hot water because of his get-rich-quick schemes with the Army's property. After a bit part as a porn shop clerk in the action-thriller "Kidnapped" (1987), Walker was given what could have been his final shot at starring in his own show, playing the Richard Pryor character in the small screen adaptation of "Bustin' Loose" (Syndicated, 1987-88). The syndicated series lasted 26 episodes before being cancelled.
As time marched on, memories of Walker faded along with his career. He continued to make sporadic guest spots on television, including "The Larry Sanders Show" (HBO, 1992-98) and "The Chris Rock Show" (HBO, 1997-2000), and took more bit parts in feature films, including "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" (1992) and "Monster Mash: The Movie" (1995). Then in the late-1990s, nostalgia for '70s and '80s pop culture began to grow, and Walker found himself in the limelight again - albeit briefly - appearing as himself on "The Weakest Link: Classic Television," (NBC, 2001-03), "Beat the Geeks," (Fox, 2001-02) "Star Dates" (E!, 2002) "The 70's House" (MTV, 2005) and "Elimidate," (syndicated, 2001-06). He also played himself in two first-season episodes of "Scrubs" (NBC, 2001-08; ABC, 2009-10), as well as landed guest spots on "The Drew Carey Show" (ABC, 1995-2004), "George Lopez" (ABC, 2002-06) and "Everybody Hates Chris" (UPN, 2005-09), playing Chris' beloved grandfather who has a sudden coronary in the middle of a knock-knock joke and biting a pork chop. Meanwhile, Walker continued touring the country, performing his stand-up routine in clubs and small venues.