At an L.A. gathering of acting colleagues Nov. 12, PEOPLE asked Esther Rolle about Good Times, the successful '70s sitcom that made her famous. The feisty actress recalled how she had rejected the producers' original idea that her character, the acerbic maid Florida Evans, be a single mother. "I had a wonderful father, and I couldn't bear that television virtually ignored black fathers," said Rolle, whose request for a TV husband was promptly granted. "I knew if I got what I wanted, the black world would be ecstatic."
Just five days after that interview—and nine days after her 78th birthday—Rolle passed away. The Emmy Award-winning actress had been battling diabetes for six months and had been on dialysis. Friend and publicist Larry Calhoun was with her at her L.A. home until a few hours before her death. "She was still reading scripts up until she died," he says. "I feel like I lost my mom."
Rolle's passing was felt just as keenly by a host of others, including Good Times executive producer Norman Lear. "I think through all the years of television this was the black matriarch," he says. Adrienne Barbeau, Rolle's costar in Maude (the Lear series that introduced Florida in 1972), says, "Esther had a really wonderful, true spirit. She really fought for what she believed."
Such pluck came from growing up the 10th of Jonathan and Elizabeth Rolle's 18 children on a 10-acre farm in Pompano Beach, Fla. Rolle and her sisters Rosanna Carter (the judge in 1989's She-Devil) and Estelle Evans (To Kill a Mockingbird) caught the acting bug after Estelle returned from college and "started teaching us," recalls Carter, now 80. A group of them would perform for the family and eventually formed an acting troupe. "Whenever Esther did a play, one of our aunts would be a model for the character," says Carter, one of only three surviving siblings. "Florida was one of the aunts we knew very well."
At 18, Rolle followed her two sisters to New York City to become a writer but ended up on the stage, first as a dancer, then an actor. In 1955 she married a pants presser who worked in a dry cleaning store and for the next five years played housewife and continued acting. After the marriage ended in 1960, she found success on Broadway.
Mainly a stage actress throughout the '60s—and an original member of the Negro Ensemble Company—Rolle broke into television in 1971 with a regular role on ABC's One Life to Live. But she was destined to be best remembered as the acid-tongued Florida, the strong-willed wife of husband James (John Amos) and mother to their three children. "Dyn-O-Mite," the catch cry of J.J., the teenage son played by Jimmie Walker, endeared him to audiences but led Rolle to quit the series in 1977, only to return the following season. "I did not agree to do a clown show for you to degrade young black men," she told the show's producers.
The series was canceled in 1979, but Rolle rarely lacked work. Her last film, Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard, is scheduled for release on Christmas Day. Woodard recalls watching it with Rolle at a preview. "She was quietly beaming," Woodard recalls, "[because] she nailed it." Lear, for one, is not surprised. "That great voice and presence and authority. She was a wonderful actress."
Irene Zutell and Amy Brooks in Los Angeles
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