The darling of Good Times reflects on the show's highs and lows
Bern Nadette Stanis said it loud: She’s Black and most definitely proud. The second Thelma Evans graced the small screen with her perfectly sculpted afro puffs and funky 70s fashions as the only daughter of the Good Times family, the former dancer and Brooklyn, NY native was cemented an icon and sexy symbol. As part of an ensemble cast of the most revolutionary television shows that brought the Black ghetto to America’s front steps, Stanis’s on-screen persona remains relevant as a new generation of viewers tune in to watch reruns on TV Land every night. The wife and mother of two shares her lessons on love in her book, Situations 101: Relationships, The Good, The Bad…and The Ugly, and transports us back to the future to relive her legacy.
Forever the favorite sister of Black America, Stanis (but her fans still call her Thelma) shares the dramatic tale of her audition where she first met her TV brother J.J. (Jimmie Walker), the trauma she felt when on-screen dad James Evans (John Amos) died and how she she recovered from an emotionally damaging relationship to find love again.
Essence.com: Congrats on all the success with your juicy relationship book Situations 101: Relationships, The Good, The Bad…and The Ugly first released in 2006. What inspired you to write about love?
Bern Nadette Stanis: After traveling across the country and realizing people are going through the same things, plus having two daughters [Dior, 25 and Brittany, 13] made me want to write about relationships. It's hard in relationships now. I bring out a lot of different points that are going on in love that maybe people don't take time to address. I drew from some of my own experiences.
Essence.com: Has anything unexpected come out of the book?
B.S.: I thought when writing this book, it would lean towards the women, but men love this book just as much because it's like eavesdropping on someone's conversation and they don't know it. I’m still writing and looking forward to my next book which may be more on relationships or more personal on my experiences and the show.
Essence.com: We love you as an author, but you'll always be known as our beloved Thelma from Good Times. It's refreshing that you don't try to distance yourself from the role.
B.S.: I go right with it. People literally feel as if I'm their big or little sister or the girl next door and [to them] I'm Thelma. And when I say it's Bern Nadette, they know my name and give me my respect for all of a few seconds and then it's right back to Thelma.
Essence.com: Do you remember starting out on Good Times?
B.S.: Yes, it feels like yesterday. I remember every little thing about that era in my life. It was my very first audition and role. I went to the audition and met [Good Times producer Norman Lear] and Jimmy Walker [my on-screen brother James 'JJ' Evans, Jr.] and from then on, he just liked us. I didn't know you were suppose to just read the script and I started improvising by talking to Jimmy like he was my big brother. We carried on and Norman just loved it.
Essence.com: Afterwards were you able to bring a lot of yourself to the character?
B.S.: Well, they didn't know how to develop Thelma at first so they used to just have me in the bathroom all the time. For six months I would come and say, "Hi Mom. Hi Dad." and then go to the bathroom. So one day I said to Esther Rolle [my on-screen mother Florida Evans], whom I was very close to and called "Mom," and said, "I would like more to say. I feel like I can act and they're only giving me these one or two lines." She said, "You are a pretty good actress, you could do more. Let me handle it." That Friday we went to rehearsal and of course I had one or two lines and then I'm in the bathroom. At the end of the whole reading she asked them, "Is my daughter retarded?" And I'm like, Please say no (laughs). So they looked at her and told her no. Then she said, "Well you gave my sons JJ and Michael pages and pages of dialogue, but for my daughter you don't give my daughter anything. I would like her to have something to say." After that, Thelma was on the run. I thank Esther for that.
Essence.com: Thelma was so fashion forward. Some of the clothing she rocked many would wear today. Were you involved in styling?
B.S.: I'm going to put this out there too. I was a dancer before I joined the show, so I would wear leotards over tights and so everything was fitted. When I got back on the set, they had me in these big pants and jeans. I couldn't stand it. They were big and ugly and I was like, We have to make this work. Ya'll want me to wear jeans and I want to wear tights. I couldn't even focus on my lines because I was so self-conscious about those baggy clothes. So I asked the stylist to take all the pockets out the jeans because I wanted it to lay smooth on my hips and tailor the legs all the way down to the knees, so they would fit like a glove. That's how Thelma got those clothes and how those tight jeans came about.
Essence.com: Wow! You definitely worked it out. So did you create skinny jeans?
B.S.: Yeah, but nobody understood what I was doing. It just came to me.
Essence.com: You definitely were a trendsetter. Now tell us, what was the reaction on the set when you guys found out that your on-screen father, James Evans, Sr. (John Amos) would die on the show?
B.S.: I was so young. I just knew that maybe John was getting tired of the show. One day, we went to rehearsal and went to read the script. We didn't see John and no one said anything. As we were reading, it said James died. I think Esther knew, but I did not know. That thing hit me like a ton of bricks. It was the real deal when you saw me up there crying and carrying on.
Essence.com: That definitely sounds intense. Were there any times when Thelma made decisions or dated a guy that you might've not liked for it to go in that direction?
B.S.: I had input when it came to dating because I was a virgin until I married and I wanted Thelma to be that type of a person too. So when the "Larry" character, a mechanic, came about I thought he would've been good for Thelma. But the outcome would have been another generation of just average living and struggling, so we wanted to take it up a notch. Then they showed me with the African guy and I'm like, "I'm not going to Africa to live with a bunch of wives. American girls just don't do that, especially from the projects." (laughs)
Essence.com: So how was it transforming from little sister to sex-symbol as the show progressed?
B.S.: I didn't expect any of that. It's very interesting because people tell me, "You were the first African-American brown-skinned girl with an Afro. You were a Black girl." I always say God makes everybody just the way they are supposed to be. If I had been light with straight hair, then I wouldn't have been Thelma.
Essence.com: And even after the show you and the cast have stayed in touch and even worked together. When was the last time you caught up with Janet Jackson?
B.S.: She called me and we talked when Esther passed. I am very close to her mom and family. My family always goes over to the Jacksons for the holidays. I love Jimmy. We have a wonderful kinship and I'll always be his little sister (laughs). When I gave him my book he looked at the title and made that long face he makes and said, "No, not you Bern!" I said, "Jimmy, I didn't do all of that. That's the stuff I write about." He said, "Ohhhh!" (laughs).
Essence.com: You've gone on to work on other shows such as The Love Boat, The Cosby Show and The Wayans Bros. Is there anyone you would like to work with in the future?
B.S.: I would like to work with Denzel Washington one day. A story like where two people grow up together and go separate ways. Then life and circumstances bring us back to the place we started from and we fall in love. Wouldn't that be nice?
Essence.com: Yeah, that would be nice. On your site fans can request a phone call from you. How does that work?
B.S.: Oh yeah! You have to tell them to come and call me. It's been really fascinating. One day I came up with the idea. When I did my book tour fans loved and missed me. I thought, Never again will that happen. I love them as much as they love me so thelmaofgoodtimes.com was born. Years ago, my mom used to write Lena Horne and Lena wrote back and sent a picture. She told me how it made her feel and I want my fans to feel the same. In fact, I got an e-mail from China a few days ago and she said, "Could you send me two pictures and a few stamps from America?" (laughs) I bought the cutest little stamps and I'm going to mail them.
Essence.com: (Laughs) You're spoiling them! So how do you spoil yourself? B.S.: Spoiling myself is taking time out to go some place that's beautiful and where no one can bother me for a while so I can write. But I mostly spoil other people and I used to spoil my men. I learned some things from that to be stronger and appreciated. But it never stopped me from spoiling my kids, mom and my friends.
Essence.com: What were some of those experiences that helped you learn?
B.S.: Well my first marriage was an interesting marriage because I was a virgin. I was a young woman and didn't understand how it really worked. Unfortunately, after four years of courting, I married a man who wasn't very kind in words. He was harsh to me, but there's a side to me that's very strong. That experience got me so interested in relationships. In my mind, he had the best of everything. I thought, Doesn't every man want a virgin? But it didn't turn out that way. With the next situation, I was a little more cautious and was definitely sure that the man that I married was not going to be mean, and I did that with my second marriage.
Essence.com: You definitely have picked up lessons you have learned along the way. What is your life goal?
B.S.: I'd like to impart hopefulness and a new way of looking at relationships to make it work. The man-woman relationship is very important to me because I'm the type of individual who believes the men and women should work to be together.
Catch up with Bern Nadette and order a phone call at www.myspace.com/thelmaofgoodtimes.