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Celebrating Eric Monte: The Gifted Mind Behind Beloved Black TV Shows

This Christmas is very special, as the Exclusive Press wants to give American screenwriter Eric Monte a special shoutout. This day is also noteworthy for Monte, as he celebrates his 80th birthday.

A few weeks ago, the news spread of Norman Lear’s passing at 101. He was Hollywood’s publicized face in creating 1970s television shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons that graced family televisions globally. Lear made appearances during NBC’s recreation of shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and All in the Family, sharing his experience working on the sets of the shows. Although he was at the forefront of those popular shows in Hollywood, the driving force behind their success was American screenwriter Eric Monte (born Kenneth Williams).

The Chicago native, the creative brain behind these African American popular shows, doesn’t get much deserving credit, especially in Hollywood. Through the shows, he portrayed African American families positively, showing a world outside of the stereotype among African Americans.

Monte also wrote and created the television sitcom What’s Happening (1976–1979) and its spin-off, What’s Happening Now (1985–1988), based on the 1975 movie he wrote, Cooley High. The coming-of-age film, starring Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Glynn Turman, was based on his experiences at Cooley Vocational High School.

Left Image (L-R: Corin Rogers, Joseph Carter Wilson, Glynn Turman, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs in Cooley High), Olive Films. Right Image (L-R: Robert Townsend, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Eric Monte, and Glynn Turman celebrating the 40th anniversary of Cooley High in 2015), Twitter/Eric_Monte2001

He settled in Hollywood after his Army stint and befriended actor Mike Evans. Evans had minor appearances on All in the Family, playing Lionel Jefferson. Evans, impressed by his work, was looking to expand his role. Monte was responsible for creating the characters George and Louis Jefferson. After pitching the idea to Lear, the sitcom The Jefferson was created and broadcast on CBS in 1975. The spin-off show for All in the Family is based on Lionel’s parents, who moved into a posh neighborhood in Manhattan after George Jefferson became successful with his dry-cleaning business.

The Cast of the Jefferson; Courtesy of the Movie DB

Evans and Monte also collaborated to create Good Times in 1974. Good Times, a spin-off of Maude, is a sitcom about a low-income African American family based in Evans’ old neighborhood of the Cabrini-Green housing project. He based the character, James Evans, on his stepfather, Bill Haynes. Like James Evans’ role, Haynes was a factor worker from Mississippi. The character’s last name, Evans, is named after co-creator and North Carolina native Mike Evans.

Despite the show’s success and accolades, Monte had negative ordeals with Lear and didn’t get the fully deserved credit. In a 2006 interview with Annette John-Hall from the Philadelphia Inquirer at the Black Film and Media Conference, he shared that Hollywood executives and producers had stolen ideas from him.

Monte told John-Hall that Mike Eisner, then Senior Vice President of ABC, wanted him to do a show based on the film he wrote, Cooley High.

TV Sitcom, Good Times; Photo Credit: CBS Photo Archive

Monte created his own production company and pitched the show What’s Happening to ABC. Because he lacked experience producing television and films, Monte was advised that he needed line producers. Monte’s agent, Bernie Weintraub, also represented producers Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein (producers of Sanford and Son), and ABC wanted to use Turteltaub and Orenstein to produce the show. He agreed to work with the two producers and wrote a pilot script, which ABC later accepted.

Shady practices were done without Monte’s knowledge, as Monte shared that his production company wasn’t listed for the show he created, What’s Happening.

“When they set up the offices, it said Toy Production. And I was like, Who the hell is Toy Production?” Monte stated this in the interview.

“Turteltaub and Orenstein had gone out and formed the company with Bud Yorkin (TV producer and co-owner of Tandem Productions) and Norman Lear’s partner. ABC has signed to do the show with that company, and my agent, Bernie Weintraub, had negotiated the deal all behind my back,” he continued.

The Writers Guild also offered Monte the minimum for What’s Happening, although he had the credentials to back up his experience. Monte is also the mastermind, suggesting Lear hire comedian Redd Foxx for the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son. He eventually sued Lear, Orenstein, Turteltaub, Tandem Productions, ABC, CBS, Toy Production Company, and others in 1977 for stealing his ideas.

Monte’s legal team advised him to accept Lear’s $1 million settlement offer and a small percentage of the Good Times residuals, or they would withdraw from the case. Monte reluctantly accepted the offer. Despite having proof to back up his case, he tried to get better legalization to go against Lear and CBS, but no one took the case.

Click on the video below to watch the entire interview that Reelblack Two has posted.
Eric Monte shares the truth behind Good Times, Cooley High, What’s Happening, 2006; ReelBlack Two

In the aftermath, Monte’s writing jobs stopped coming in. He believes that Hollywood blacklisted him, stating that no one in the industry would speak to him. He took a big chunk of his money to finance the production of a play titled If They Come Back, but it didn’t achieve as much success as he hoped, contributing to his financial ruin.

Monte wrote one episode for television shows like Benson, The Wayans Bros., and Moesha. He felt hard times as he filed for bankruptcy, abused alcohol and substances, and became homeless at one point. After maintaining his sobriety, he pursued attempts to sell television and film scripts and a self-published book called Blueprint for Peace, according to News Blaze.

Cast of TV Sitcom, What’s Happening; Photo Credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Monte was last known to live in Portland, Oregon. Dara Starr Tucker (singer, songwriter, social commentator, and satirist) posted videos dated as of this year on her TikTok and Instagram pages to update fans on Monte, including raising funds to support Monte’s daily living.

This story is about giving Monte the flowers he well deserved, as the columnist wants to shine the light as brightly as the Christmas stars on Monte’s contributions to these powerhouse shows that made their mark on television history to this day.

Happy birthday and Merry Christmas, Eric Monte! You are talented and recognized by your fans for your hard-earned work and creative mind, which helped change the face of television for African Americans on a national platform. The Exclusive Press appreciates you!

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