Craving a return of good times Bad times have befallen Eric Monte, writer of "Cooley High" and cocreator of '70s TV hits. But he has more stories to tell.

Posted: May 30, 2006

For generations of African Americans, Cooley High, the 1975 coming-of-age drama about high school friends living in impoverished Chicago in the '60s, was one of the few films that reflected their realities. With streetwise dialogue and a Motown soundtrack, Cooley High was their American Graffiti, their Breakfast Club.

So it was particularly unsettling to read that Eric Monte, who wrote Cooley High and cocreated the '70s sitcom Good Times, was living in a homeless shelter near East L.A., recovering from a series of strokes and crack addiction.

Unlike George Jefferson, the big-pimpin' dry-cleaning mogul he created for The Jeffersons, Monte hadn't moved on up. The 62-year-old screenwriter and author spent much of the last five years on the street, and sleeping in a shelter. But he's clean now, he says, and concentrating on selling the hundreds of stories he has told to his omnipresent laptop.

"I've never been one to obey the rules unless they made sense to me," Monte says, in Philadelphia this month for a black film and media conference. "If I had it to do over again, I'd do less arguing and more negotiating.

"I'm just happy to be alive."

His is a story that no producer could resist green-lighting. Talk about a story arc.

Thirty-five years ago, Monte was one of the hottest young writers in Hollywood. He was a driving force behind the socially conscious sitcoms produced by Norman Lear, which included All in the Family and Maude.

At his height, Monte drove a Mercedes and owned a home in Tarzana, where celebrities including Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, The Love Boat's Ted Lange, and Soul Train's Don Cornelius came to socialize.

Monte sued Lear, along with CBS and ABC, in 1977 for stealing his ideas for Good Times, The Jeffersons and What's Happening!! When Monte speaks about Lear, he does so defiantly but without bitterness or shame - which comes with hitting rock bottom and having nothing more to lose.

Monte's shows were hits, and the young writer was determined to keep them relevant without stereotyping.

But he says Lear and other writers forced their preconceived ideas upon Good Times, which enjoyed a five-year run (1974-79) and featured John Amos and Esther Rolle as James and Florida Evans, trying to make a way with their three children in the Chicago projects.

In Philadelphia, Monte talks about his life matter-of-factly, yet embellished with a writer's fine eye for detail. He is wiry, with a short, white Afro that is a vibrant contrast to his rainbow-colored sweater, Bill Cosby circa 1984, whose show he wrote for.

"Norman kept telling me we had to get rid of the father [Amos]," says Monte, who based the character on his stepfather, a man whose common sense eclipsed his limited book smarts. "He wanted all that stereotypical stuff written. . . . After the first season, even after I did 80 percent of the rewrites, I was demoted and the other writers were promoted because I sided with the cast."

Lear, 83, declined an interview for this article, but told the Los Angeles Times last month: "It pains me deeply to hear that he's homeless. . . . Eric is a lovable, knowledgeable, sweet human being who just had no control of himself. He got in his own way emotionally. He was a dear lost soul. It wasn't a pleasant time dealing with Eric."

Todd Boyd, a professor of cinema and television at the University of Southern California, says Good Times changed radically after the first season. Amos left because of creative differences. And Jimmie Walker, who played J.J., the string-bean, bug-eyed oldest son whose phrase "Dy-no-mite!" ignited the show's laugh track every week, became the star.

"J.J. was such a stereotypical character," Boyd said. "The show attempted to transcend him but it couldn't get beyond the ubiquity of him."

In the meantime, Monte got some bites for his Cooley High script. Once the film got the go-ahead, he quit Good Times and hightailed it to Chicago with the Cooley High cast.

Cooley High was based on Monte's life in Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green projects. "I was Preach," the aspiring writer played by Glynn Turman, Monte says, "and my best friend Apache was Cochise," the college-bound jock played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs.

The movie captured the essence of poor, black urban youth "in a way that no film has ever done," says Boyd, who drew inspiration from Cooley High to write 1999's The Wood.

"When people say Cooley High is their favorite movie, it really is their favorite movie," says Philly filmmaker Rel Dowdell (Train Ride), who brought Monte here for the National Black Film and Media Conference. "It's important for young black filmmakers to give people like Eric respect and acknowledge his influence."

So many elements of black culture took their cue from Cooley High. The film begat John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood. Its ending song, "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," was adopted as a graduation theme in urban high schools. The rap video ritual of splashing liquor on the graves of the "brothas who didn't make it" comes from Cooley High.

Like Preach, Monte's life has been a constant negotiation between right and wrong, sophistication or street. He dropped out of high school and hitchhiked to L.A. in the mid-'60s, where he "hoboed" and hung with hippies. Eventually, he signed up for a playwriting class at Los Angeles City College. While producing his first play, If They Come Back, about a group of young leaders after the civil rights movement, he met Mike Evans, who played black neighbor Lionel Jefferson in a new series called All in the Family.

Evans asked Monte to write an episode to develop his character. Monte wrote in the character of Lionel's father, the bombastic George.

"They told me they'll never put a black man on TV who calls a white man a honky," Monte says of George, whom Sherman Hemsley played with aplomb.

By 1981, Monte says, he had been all but blackballed by Hollywood. His suit against Lear yielded him a $1 million settlement, but no producer would buy his scripts, he says.

In 1988, with money running out, Monte put up his last $700,000 to finance a revival of If They Come Back. It flopped.

Living off residual checks and the occasional writing job, Monte eventually was evicted from his apartment. He slept in the park, and socialized once more with street people, who he says turned him on to crack cocaine.

"The first time I hit that crack pipe it gave me a tremendous desire for more," he said.

"I knew something was wrong with my dad," says his daughter, Deborah Williams, 41, who, upon discovering Monte's condition in 2005, moved him to her place in Beaverton, Ore. "I thought he was going to be one of the old people on the street. . . . He dried out when he was with me."

After nine months with Williams, Monte moved back to the L.A. shelter. He says he's been clean for more than a year now. The shelter subjects him to Breathalyzer tests and searches, procedures he brushes off as "minor inconveniences." But mostly, it allows the self-described loner the peace and protection to create and tweak the hundred projects stored in his laptop, projects he intends to sell someday.

One of them is a book about Nat Turner, the 19th-century slave and freedom fighter who led a bloody insurrection against his masters.

"I'm writing it as a love story," Monte explains.

He laughs wryly. "I pitched it to my publisher," he says. "He told me I'd never get a story made about a black guy who kills white people."

Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/annette.

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