It's hard not to perk up every time "Good Times" superstar Ja'Net Dubois enters the scene, whether as Willona saying "Hey Flo!" or in one of her countless other roles. Dubois is a pop culture vortex, having played Janet Jackson's mom on the show (now on TVLand and on DVD), appearing in "Roots: the Next Generations," "Love of Life," as Tootie's Grandma in "The Facts of Life," "Kojak," "I'm Gonna Get You, Sucka," and in "Charlie's Angel's Full Throttle." The list of her credits is endless and fun to read, and I was thrilled to give her a call in the 818 to talk about wassup with Willona!
HELLO JA'NET. I WAS SO PSYCHED TO SEE YOU ON THE TV LAND AWARDS!
That was a fabulous night! I hadn't seen Sid Caesar and so many of my old friends who taught me long ago that comedy is the way to get over handicaps. They are in my heart. Seeing John Amos and Ber'Nadette and Ralph and Norman Lear under one roof was wonderful. Revisiting your past on TV every night is wonderful. I appreciate the time and I appreciate Willona and to get the award after that time is amazing. I was excited
FOR A POOR GHETTO LADY, WILLONA'S CLOTHES WERE REALLY FLY!
Rita Ridge was our designer -- and let me tell you that I had a lot of style in the 70s and I did an arrangement on the outfits she made me. I set the stage for a sharp black woman to walk through the door with style, class, humor and looks. And I did it. I think I was a help to Rita. I could be creative and expressive and bring ME to the clothes, and Norman let me be impromptu and bring me to Willona. My job as Willona was to make it right, fast and funny. It was a wonderful thing that happened. It changed the scene for the type of black woman being shown. The wigs, the hats, my everything was a dream come true. I used to teach acting in NYC and I taught the kids how to present themselves, show them the best. Every dream I had came to fruition through "Good Times," so those kids could watch me on TV and see me applying all I taught them.
YOU ACTUALLY SANG THE THEME TO "THE JEFFERSONS"!
Hey I sang and WROTE "The Jeffersons" theme! That was not a dream it was a promise. I promised my Mom I'd move out of Brooklyn to the East Side of Manhattan and that is that song.
WAS THERE EVER A MOMENT WHEN IT WAS UNDER CONSIDERATION FOR RELEASE AS A SINGLE?
Well I have never released it as a single and no one can cover that song. It comes from the heart so much. I am going to release an album and I will redo that song for the single. My grandkids can go to the TV Museum and push a button and hear me sing. Isn't that great! Wow!"
YOU PLAYED JANET JACKSON'S MOM. THAT EPISODE WHERE YOU FIND OUT SHE'S BEING ABUSED STILL RESONATES TODAY.
That two-parter was written by the first black female writer we had. I had been asking for a black woman writer who would know what to do with Willona. Someone who would give her some dimension. That was revolutionary for the world to see something so bold but it also gave Willona the role of a loving parent and totally developed. Everyone loved those two shows.
WAS IT APPARENT TO YOU AT THE TIME THAT GREAT THINGS WERE AHEAD OF JANET JACKSON?
Well yes, because of her simplicity. Like me, she was a clown imitating sisters and brothers. She did a show with me and Esther (Rolle) where she impersonated Mae West and I knew watching that that she had that thing. I got to help her learn to cry and work on her abilities. Years later, I was living in Atlanta teaching and she flew me out to LA to be in a video playing her mom in one of the videos for "Control."
ARE YOU AT ALL IN TOUCH WITH HER TODAY?
We will always be in touch. We hug and kiss when we see each other. I am old enough to be her mom so we don't hang out or go out or anything. When we see each other there are hugs and there will always be love in our hearts for each other. Our mamas were both Jehovah's Witnesses and were good friends.
DO PEOPLE COME UP TO YOU ON THE STREET AND CALL YOU WILLONA?
Oh, do you know that many days I get up and have the blues like every woman in this business who faces rejection and is trying to make it all work right. No matter where my head is at or where I go, someone will say "Willona, can I get a hug?" I went to Sizzlers restaurant last week and the manager told me I had inspired him and taught him. I am not often lonely, but when I do feel lonely I can go to a crowded place and get some love and wow is that worth it.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE POST-"GOOD TIMES" ROLE?
Can I give you two? "Other Women's Children" for Lifetime -- I won the Ace Award for that drama. (I have several Emmys too for the "PJ's" and others.) When I got the role to play the grandmother of a dying grandchild, I had recently buried my 30-year-old and was not done with the pain. I felt reborn after playing that role. And then last month I did "Crossing Jordan" -- that was another deep thing. I hadn't done drama in a while. It was dramatic, dark and heavy. I can look back and say, "You did the humor, singing and drama and you are now complete."
DREW BARRYMORE CAST YOU IN "CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE" A FEW YEARS AGO, HUH?
That was fun. Working with those three fab ladies. I said, "Lord, have mercy!" It was cute and fun and they gave me hugs. I like Bernie Mac too and he's wonderful, when you work with great people it's easy. Barrymore is one I loved for a while and it made me feel great working with her. To be an example for people is great and she's an example for many. This was cool.
I WAS READING YOUR BIO AND SAW YOU WERE ON "LOVE OF LIFE" -- YOU MUST HAVE BEEN ONE OF THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN ON DAYTIME...
I was the first black woman on daytime! And Irene Cara played my daughter.
Oh yes! I go back a little bit but I won't go further back. 'Cuz you are getting ready to get into my book, which I am writing as I speak. Please let me save something for the book!
I WILL! I CAN'T WAIT TO READ IT! THANKS FOR TAKING TIME FOR ME...