'Good Times' actress Ja'Net DuBois dies
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'Good Times' actress Ja'Net DuBois dies
DuBois’ character, Willona, was the single upstairs neighbor of Florida Evans (played by Esther Rolle), the matriarch of the show’s family.

by Sandra E. Garcia

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Ja’Net DuBois, the actress who played the sassy Willona Woods in the 1970s TV show “Good Times” and sang the theme song to “The Jeffersons,” died Monday at her home in Glendale, California.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter Kesha Gupta-Fields.

DuBois’ family said she was 74, although public records indicate she may have been older.

“Good Times” was one of the first sitcoms with a predominantly black cast and was noteworthy for featuring a two-parent home. DuBois’ character, Willona, was the single upstairs neighbor of Florida Evans (played by Esther Rolle), the matriarch of the show’s family.

Willona was stylish and outspoken, but she also had a big heart. She did not hesitate to take in Penny, an abused child played by a young Janet Jackson.

While she was taping “Good Times,” DuBois told Norman Lear, an executive producer and one of the show’s creators, that she wanted to branch out. Lear suggested she work on the theme song to another of his shows, “The Jeffersons,” a spinoff of his biggest hit, “All in the Family,” Gupta-Fields said. (“Good Times” was a spinoff of “Maude,” itself also a spinoff of “All in the Family.”)

After speaking to her mother about her own family’s aspirations to move up in life, she wrote “Movin’ On Up.”

“She wrote that song as a promise to her mother, that when she obtained a certain level of stardom, that her dream was to essentially have her mom live in a deluxe apartment,” Gupta-Fields said. “That was written and sung as a gift to her mother, Lilian DuBois.”

DuBois felt that she had lived the song herself, she told Jet magazine in 1992. “I moved my whole family,” she said.

“I bought her a house, bought her a mink coat,” DuBois said of her mother. “I did everything, retired her. I did everything I ever promised her.”

“Movin’ On Up” became widely known as a jubilant, aspirational theme song for black Americans.

“It provided a lot of black people with an anthem,” Gupta-Fields said. “For them it provided a lot of encouragement.”

On Tuesday, Lear, in a tweet, called “Movin’ On Up” the “song of her passing.”

“Ja’Net DuBois was all light,” he wrote.

Jeanette DuBois was born in Philadelphia and was raised by her mother. The family did not have much, Gupta-Fields said, but they had a home and food to eat.

“That was just the state of the world for African American families,” she said.

When DuBois was older, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, and pursued a Broadway acting career.

She was in “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Golden Boy” and other Broadway shows. In the 1960s, after spending time running a youth acting workshop in Amityville, New York, she moved to Los Angeles.

Earlier this month, DuBois spent a “joyous, wonderful family time” with some of the cast of “Good Times,” Gupta-Fields said.

“She remembered her time on the show very fondly,” she said.

After “Good Times,” DuBois had roles in several movies, including “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” and on many sitcoms in the 1990s. She won two Emmys for her voice-over work as Mrs. Avery, a combative resident of a housing project, on “The PJ’s,” the animated series created by Eddie Murphy and Larry Wilmore.

Two months ago, DuBois appeared on “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” a special on which actors re-created episodes of “Good Times” and “All in the Family.” She spoke with Jimmy Kimmel, who produced and hosted the show with Lear, about how happy he was that Lear had seen her in a film and said, “I want you for a TV role.”

“She gave him a lot of respect for putting her in a position to birth Willona,” Gupta-Fields said.

Off camera, DuBois raised a family and worked to break stereotypes in Hollywood.

In addition to her daughter Kesha Gupta-Fields, she is survived by a son, Provat Gupta; another daughter, Rani Gupta; and a sister, Lilian DuBois.

In 1992, DuBois founded the Pan African Film and Arts Festival with actors Danny Glover and Ayuko Babu, showcasing works by people of African descent. This year’s festival runs until Sunday.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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