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BILL VAUGHAN’S TASTY CLIPS: Legendary Johnny Brown looks back at storied career

Any given day, around the world, one can turn a television on and likely be entertained by Johnny Brown.

From his guest appearances on just about every classic comedy and variety series including “The Flip Wilson Show,” “The Jeffersons,” “Family Matters,” “Sister, Sister,” “The Parkers,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Martin” to feature films “The Wiz,” “Body and Soul” and “Life.”

Then there was his landmark casting as a regular on “Laugh-In,” and as building superintendent Nathan Bookman on the 1970s sitcom “Good Times.”

The 82-year-old New York native actually cut his show biz teeth as a singer who studied classical voice starting with The Harptones before eventually winning The Apollo Amateur Hour on his own.

He moved on to nightclubs with The Four Gents and June (who would become his wife) and then later with drummer Maurice Hines Sr.’s group with son Gregory Hines called Hines, Hines and Brown.

It was after tearing up the stage in The Catskills in 1961, that the performer would meet a “gassed” Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the man he calls the biggest thing in his life — Sammy Davis Jr. 

“He was my mentor, my surrogate and my friend,” said Brown to Tasty Clips in an exclusive. “Any success I had in the business was because of him.”

A couple of years later, Davis would give the decree to hire him as an understudy for Godfrey Cambridge and little character parts in the headed to Broadway musical “Golden Boy.”

“Being my first Broadway show, I wasn’t offended by that,” Brown admitted. “Being the understudy, I never thought I’d go on, but I learned the part backwards. That’s the type of performer I am.”

“As God would have it, Godfrey had started to fighting with his director. I mean they almost went to blows.  Nobody knew why until we found out. In those days, a big thing for a comedian was an album. Like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor and those guys, if an album sold, they could make big concert money. He can’t get out of a contract, so he started arguing every day until two days before opening for previews.”

Cambridge was fired and the rest was history as Brown took over the part of Ronnie and was featured as the lead voice on the show -stopping rouser, “Don’t Forget 127th Street.”

“I kicked butt so good that I thought they were going to fire me after I heard the reviews,” he recalled. “The people in the show said on any other Broadway show with Mary Martin or somebody like that you would’ve been fired.”

He would go on to do only one other show on “The Great White Way,” the ill-fated “Welcome To Morningside Heights,” which closed in one week.

As Brown reminisced: “Sidney Poitier called and wanted me for this part with Lou Gossett, Cicely Tyson, Diane Ladd and David Steinberg. Opening night, you know like people usually come back and go blah, blah, blah.  Nobody came back. We saw Ossie Davis going across the street. We said, ‘Hey Ossie!’ He said, ‘Hey, how you doing’ and kept walking. We went, ‘Uh Oh.’ It was about Lou meeting this white guy and making him a slave.  They tried to do a reverse. It would’ve done great Off-Broadway, but Broadway wasn’t ready for that.”

He got on “Laugh-In,” from Davis’ recommendation to Rowan & Martin.

“When I came on, no one was really friendly,” Brown said. “There were times when I was hardly in the script. I resented it, but what could I do? I never said anything and just went along with it. Then I found out later that there was inside fighting with the producers.

“It was like a war. Since I came in on Rowan & Martin’s team, the others didn’t care about Johnny Brown.”

“It was the same thing with ‘Good Times,’” he revealed. “I came in because one of the producers, Alan Manning, was a head writer on ‘Laugh-In.’ We kept in touch and one day he said, ‘Hey we’d like to have you guest on the show.’ I said OK and after that I did a couple of shows and then they signed me up to do it — but I don’t know if Norman Lear really wanted me [though he did consider Brown to play the role of Lamont on ‘Sanford & Son’].”

His favorite episodes are the one that introduced Janet Jackson where he had to pose as the husband of Ja’net DuBois’ Willona character; the one where Esther Rolle’s now widowed Florida is out and catches him in a bar; and the ones where they did the impressions and shows.

As for the constant barbs at Bookman’s expense, it did get bothersome to the actor at some point.

“Sometimes you can do too much of a thing and it doesn’t come natural,” Brown said. “With everybody saying buffalo butt in a scene, it loses something. You have to do it with the sensational thing and you’re going to get a laugh on it, but not in every scene by all five or six actors.

“They even had Janet, who had just come on the show, answering like Mr. Buffalo Butt. Anything like that loses something when you use it too much, because now it’s not effective.

“And they used it in every show. They used it when I walked in the show, all through the scene. When I left the scene, they used it. I couldn’t say anything because I have a wife and two kids to support. Now at my age, I would have to say something.”

In this chapter of his life, Brown is taking “pencil to the paper” in writing a memoir, a series idea for himself and two screenplays he was inspired to write for Kevin Hart

Johnny Brown is also looking forward to meeting fans during The Hollywood Show, to be held June 28-29, at the Westin Los Angeles Airport. Additional guests scheduled to appear include: Angie Dickinson, Ola Ray, Rosie Grier, Bond Girl Trina Parks and Maurice Benard of “General Hospital,” along with cast reunions of “Happy Days,” “The Karate Kid,” “A Bronx Tale,” “The Waltons,” “Head of the Class,” “Lost in Space,” and more. Visit: www.hollywoodshow.com for details.

CLIPPETTES: Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals, Thundercat and Earl Sweatshirt are in concert at The Forum June 29. The evening also finds The B. Slade Experience at The Wallis, Sinbad at The Canyon – Agoura Hills, and Oleta Adams & David Benoit with the Asia America Youth Symphony in a benefit at Torrance’s El Camino College … 

The Annual Jazz at St. Andrews (Recreation Center) line-up on June 30 includes Lakeside with Mark Wood, Loose Ends with Jane Eugene, and Jazz in Pink with Gail Jhonson, Althea René, Maria Antoinette and Karen Briggs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Later, Wayne Brady performs at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill; Dwight Trible and Cosmic Vibrations Sextet play Santa Monica’s Moss Theater; and smooth jazz/gospel artist Jazmin Ghent hits Spaghettini in Seal Beach … 

The Hollywood Bowl hosts a July 4 Fireworks Spectacular with Nile Rodgers & CHIC for three nights July 2-4.  The hitmaker will team with the LA Phil who will play American favorites. Retro-soul singer Leon Bridges headlines at the venue on July 5.

TC ON TV: June 28 – “Motown Magic” (Netflix): The Smokey Robinson-produced animated series returns with shorts based on Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and The Commodores’ “Easy” among the hits.  “Real Time with Bill Maher” (HBO): Seth MacFarlane, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Max Brooks and MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid, who signs copies of her new book, “The Man Who Sold America” the following day, 4-6 p.m. at Ahrya Fine Arts by Laemmle.

June 29 – “The Bobby DeBarge Story” (TV1): Roshon Fegan (“Greenleaf”) stars as the troubled lead singer of the late 70’s R&B/Funk Band Switch with support from Tyra Ferrell (“Boyz InThe Hood”), singer Lloyd as group member Gregory Williams and Big Boi of Outkast fame as music mogul Berry Gordy. Directed by Russ Parr

June 30 – “Sunday Best” (BET): “The Auditions, Part 1” marks the return of the inspirational singing competition after four years with host Kirk Franklin and judge Erica Campbell intact with new panel additions Kelly Price and Jonathan McReynolds

July 2 – “Tales” (BET): The second season premieres with “Brothers,” serving as the launchpad for an unreleased Kanye West song exclusive to the show’s soundtrack featuring Charlie Wilson. “Songland” (NBC): Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc and “Hobbs & Shaw” director David Leitch come looking for a tune in time for the premiere on Aug. 7.   

July 4 – “Macy’s 4th of July Spectacular” (NBC): Ciara and Derek Hough co-host the evening that will feature performances by Khalid and more. “A Capitol Fourth” (PBS): Yolanda Adams, Vanessa Williams, Carole King, Patrick Lundy & The Minister of Music are some of the talent coming live from D.C.

TASTY QUIP: “It’s all about trying to help somebody cross. While everybody else is fighting for a seat at the table, talking about ‘#OscarsSoWhite, #OscarsSoWhite,’ I said, ‘Y’all go ahead and do that. While you’re fighting for a seat at the table, I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own.’ Because what I know for sure is that if I could just build this table, God will prepare it for me in the presence of my enemies.” – TYLER PERRY upon accepting BET’s Ultimate Icon Award.

As featured in the Los Angeles Wave and Independent, Tasty Clips is one of the leading entertainment columns in the nation, serving nearly one million weekly readers. To reach Bill Vaughan, send email to tastyclips@yahoo.com or via Twitter @tastyclips.