R.I.P. Johnny Brown, superintendent Nathan Bookman in Good Times
A regular on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Brown also worked with Sammy Davis Jr. on film and on Broadway.
Best remembered as building superintendent Nathan Bookman in Good Times, Johnny Brown was as versatile as he was funny. He could sing, dance, act, tell jokes and do spot-on impressions of Louis Armstrong and many others. His talents made him a perfect fit as a regular performer in three seasons of the wild sketch show Laugh-In.
Born on June 11, 1937, in St. Petersburg, Florida, but raised in Harlem, Brown first broke out in the nightclub scene in New York City. He won an amateur competition at the famed Apollo Theater and performed with father-son drummer and tap dancer duo Gregory Hines Sr. and Jr. Another performer in the group? Brown’s future wife, June Russell. They were married for over 60 years.
In addition to recording songs for Atlantic and Columbia Records, Brown toured the Catskills circuit where he met Sammy Davis Jr. The multitalented artist and Rat Pack member made quite an impression on Brown. “He did all the things I wanted to do,” Brown told Stanley Dyrector in 1996. “I wanted to be a well-rounded, complete entertainer; I didn’t just want to sing or tell a joke.”
Davis would prove instrumental in taking Brown’s career to the next level. Brown replaced actor Godfrey Cambridge in the 1964 Sammy Davis Jr. Broadway musical Golden Boy. It ran for more than 500 performances.
Two years later, Brown worked with Davis again, this time on the big screen. In A Man Called Adam, Brown played blind pianist, Les. The film also starred Louis Armstrong, Cicely Tyson, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Brown’s future Good Times costar Ja’net DuBois.
Before joining Laugh-In in 1970, Brown appeared on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, Della and The Leslie Uggams Show. He also guest starred in a 1969 episode of the groundbreaking Diahann Carroll sitcom Julia.
Brown later found out he owed his spot on Laugh-In to Sammy Davis Jr. as well. At a dinner with Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Davis suggested Brown as a new addition to the show. Brown did not let his famous pal down, performing in 52 episodes of the sketch series through 1972.
After appearing in shows like Night Gallery, Maude and The Rookies, Brown won the role he is best known for, Nathan Bookman in Good Times. He joined during the show’s second season to play the building superintendent, and the subject of constant teasing by the Evans family. Though he didn’t say anything at the time, the ribbing rubbed Brown the wrong way.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Brown said in 2019, “Sometimes you can do too much of a thing, and it doesn’t come natural. With everybody [calling Bookman] ‘buffalo butt’ in a scene, it loses something. … They even had Janet [Jackson], who had just come on the show, answering like Mr. Buffalo Butt.”
Brown even noted, “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.”
After Good Times, Brown guest starred in Archie Bunker’s Place, The Jeffersons and Fantasy Island. He later appeared in Nineties favorites like Martin, Family Matters, Sister, Sister, The Jamie Foxx Show, Touched by an Angel and Kenan & Kel.
Brown continued to work in movies and television well into his seventies. He passed away last week at the age of 84.