Happy birthday, Ernest Lee Thomas (born 1949). I celebrate him today for being the star of a sitcom I loved when I was a kid, What’s Happening!! (1975-1979).
Culture matters. What’s Happening!! had its dumb elements (particularly its title. Shouldn’t that have that have been a question mark?) but it also had several positive ones. I’m thinking particularly of Thomas’s character, the serious, bespectacled Roger a.k.a Raj, who wanted to be a writer. This inspired me, no less than Richard Thomas’s John Boy on The Waltons. The idea that a writer was something you could be tugged at me greatly even as a tween, as I was when this show started. And if it had this kind of influence on me as a working class white kid, I have to assume it opened the eyes of African American kids, too. Furthermore, put that into the context of the show’s overall concept, which was to be cool and current in a manner that would appeal to kids. The show’s title makes that plain in a most unsubtle way. It was based (loosely) on the 1975 movie Cooley High, and in that one (though a period piece set in the 1950s) the kid wants to be a PLAYWRIGHT! What could be less cool to kids — theoretically — than being a playwright?! But then ya think, “No, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), August Wilson…you could sell that to the right kids.” Anyway, William Jackson Harper (Chidi on The Good Place) reminds me a good deal of Thomas as Raj, one of the reasons the show is so fresh in my head at the moment.
The other majorly positive character on What’s Happening!! was Raj’s wise, affectionate but firm mother, played by Broadway veteran Mabel King. The show is set in Watts, a neighborhood most famous for poverty, crime and riots but King’s character served to dispel preconceived ideas the audience may have been carrying around due to those media images. The show was produced by Bud Yorkin, who had also co-produced Sanford and Son which is set in the same neighborhood, a few years earlier.
When I was a kid I would have been hard pressed to name my favorite character on the show, they sort of all were. The most popular with the public was probably the plus-sized, beret-wearing Rerun, played by Fred Berry, a member of the L.A. street dance troupe The Lockers. Rerun would often stop the show cold to pop and lock, to great cackles of appreciation from the audience who were amused at the tubby guy’s moves. Not far behind was Haywood Nelson as Dwayne (pronounced “Du-wayne” by Rerun), who while funny, was dimpled and good-looking and popular with girls and had the most meaningless — but funnest to say — catchphrase in history: “Hey HEY Hey!” Then there were the two wisecracking, antagonistic characters, Raj’s little sister Dee (Danielle Spencer) and Shirley (Shirley Hemphill), the waitress at the local diner who trades barbs with Rerun. A good portion of each episode consisted of the kids just hanging out at the diner at the high school, in a manner not unlike the Bowery Boys or The Archies. Because that’s what kids do.
One of the most intriguing things about the show is that the names of the cast all share names with the characters, making the identification very strong, implying some level of reality, like when The Beatles play “themselves”, but not really, in Hard Day’s Night. To recap, it went like this: Roger Thomas (Ernest Lee Thomas), Mabel Thomas (Mabel King), Freddy “Rerun” Stubbs (Fred Berry), Dwayne Nelson (Haywood Nelson), and Shirley Wilson (Shirley Hemphill). The farthest afield was Dee Thomas (Danielle Spencer), but we can assume that they’re riffing on the initial of her first name there, a common practice.
From 1985 through 1988 most of the cast returned for a syndicated sequel to the series called What’s Happening Now!!
Mabel King and Shirley Hemphill both died in 1999. Fred Berry became a Baptist minister. A chronic diabetic, he died of a stroke in 2003. Danielle Spencer became a veterinarian. Nelson has retired from show business. And Ernest Thomas is still going strong as an actor. He was in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie Malcolm X, had a recurring role on Everybody Hates Chris and film and tv credits right up to the present day.