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"It's one of the greatest TV shows of the 70's and the most forgotten. None of the actors could get any work after the show. We never heard anything about them, can you do an update or something? I know 2 cast members died with a month apart. I would love to see WH repeats back on TV. It's so classic!"
Shirley Hemphill was a determined young lady with a sharp sense of humor and a dream as big as she was. An impossible dream, really, for a poor day laborer living in small-town Asheville, North Carolina in 1972. Shirley Hemphill wanted to become a comedy star.
In a ploy that rarely worked then and almost certainly wouldn't be successful today, the class clown of Hill Street High recorded her best bits on a borrowed cassette recorder and sent the tape to Flip Wilson. Wilson was one of TV's biggest superstars, his variety show was in its third year on NBC.
Flip (known for being a nice but eccentric personality) responded with an invitation for Shirley to visit a taping of his show in LA. He also sent her a dozen roses for luck - and her own cassette recorder.
She made the trip to see Flip. Returning to Asheville with stars in her eyes, Shirley toiled at menial jobs, saving her meager salary for bus fare back to Los Angeles in 1973.
Serving fast food by day and working the comedy clubs at night, she landed a few small TV roles but the going was tough. Plucky Shirley was ready to give up when she landed the role of sassy waitress Shirley Wilson in What's Happening!!, a four-episode 1976 summer sitcom on ABC.
After years of working different waitressing jobs, it was a role she would play with relish.
THE FIRST EPISODE:
Eric Monte grew up far from the bucolic splendor of Asheville, in Chicago's Cabrini Green Projects, perhaps the most notorious housing project in the nation. By 1971, Monte was driving a cab in LA and pursuing his life's ambition - to produce movies and television shows with African-American characters he could identify with.
He hooked up with Mike Evans who was playing Lionel Jefferson on the CBS smash hit All In The Family. With Evan's encouragement, Eric Monte wrote the hilarious 1974 All In The Family episode that introduced George and Louise Jefferson. This led to a spinoff (The Jeffersons) and to co-creating (with Mike Evans) the hit show Good Times for AITF producer Norman Lear.
On a roll by 1975, Monte wrote the critically acclaimed movie Cooley High starring Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. Cooley High, the story of two inner-city teenagers coming of age, did very well at the box office and is considered a bonafide cinema classic.
Sitcoms with black casts were hot in 1975, so Bud Yorkin and ABC came to Eric Monte to adapt 'Cooley High' for television. 'What's Happening!!' was the result.
'What's Happening!!' starred 5 foot five, 275 pound Mabel King as the hard working matriarch of the Thomas family - Roger (Raj), a bookish teenager and sassy, know-it-all, baby sister Dee.
Neighborhood kids Rerun (Fred Berry) and Dwayne "Hey, Hey, Hey" Clemmons (Haywood Nelson) were joined by Shirley (Shirley Hemphill), the waitress at the kid's favorite diner / hangout.
Mabel King was meant to be the lynch pin of this series. A former gospel and nightclub singer from Charleston, South Carolina, her Broadway credits included Porgy and Bess. New to television, she left a triumphant run and the role of a lifetime (as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Broadway hit musical The Wiz) to take the role of Mama Thomas on What's Happening!!. It was a move she later regretted.
Ernest Thomas was originally from Gary Indiana. He moved to New York and secured a role in Hal Prince's drama A Member of the Wedding. A subsequent move to LA got him a small role on The Jeffersons - it was on the set of that show that he heard about the Cooley High TV auditions. He went and won the role of Roger 'Raj' Thomas.
Danielle Spencer ("Ooooh, I'm gonna tell mama!") was 9 years old when production began on What's Happening!!. Her inexperience showed on screen, but the youngster had a certain charm that made the stilted delivery of her caustic comments sizzle.
240-pound Fred Berry was an accomplished disco dancer that first turned up on Soul Train and in LA nightclubs with a group of dancers known as 'The Lockers.' He scored the part of Freddie 'Rerun' Stubbs, the show's loveable buffoon, despite the fact that producers Bernie Orenstein, Saul Turtletaub and Bud Yorkin were looking to cast a skinny, white guy as Rerun. This was Berry's first acting job.
Haywood Nelson was a Garden City, NY resident who began commuting to LA when he was cast as the nephew in a 1975 spinoff of Sanford and Son called Grady, also produced by Bud Yorkin Productions. That series only lasted three months but producers were impressed with how good he was and offered him the role of shy Dwayne.
Initially a limited run series, What's Happening!! caught on with viewers and was rushed back into production to replace Mr. T and Tina, a show that, surprisingly, didn't star Mr. T.
What's Happening!! Cast:
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The Lockers with Fred 'Rerun' Berry appeared on The Wide World Special broadcast November 28, 1975 when Hugh Hefner crowned the '75 Bunny of the Year.
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