Do you remember the 1970s sitcom What’s Happening!!? It was one of the best shows of the 70s and one that many fans, young and old, still love to watch today. It was based on the film Cooley High written by Eric Monte. The show was produced by the famous Bernie Orenstien, Bud Yorkin and Saul Turteltaub.
But what made the show a huge hit were the incredibly talented cast members. The What’s Happening!! Cast consisted of a group of seasoned actors, newcomers, a dancer, and a stand-up comic who all came together to create some of American TV’s most memorable characters.
Sadly, many of them have since passed away. However, the surviving cast members are still working hard in show business and in their other ventures.
Let’s learn the tragic details about the What’s Happening!! Cast and their lives…
Mabel Elizabeth Washington was born in Charleston, South Carolina on Christmas Day 1932. She grew up in Harlem, New York and eventually became a gospel and nightclub singer.
Spending much of her early career as a singer before transitioning to acting when she was in her mid-thirties. She married Melvin King and became known as Mabel King – which became her professional name even after she divorced Melvin in 1989. With Melvin King, she had 1 son named Larry.
Mabel King began her acting career in theatre. She appeared in Porgy and Bess as Maria – which was her debut role. She later played Ernestina in the Broadway production of Hello Dolly!
In 1972, she appeared in the musical Don’t Play Us Cheap. The same year she appeared in the film version. Both the stage musical and film were written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles who had helped launch the careers of talented black entertainers through his films.
The 70s was the decade when more films and TV shows about black Americans were being created and Mabel King was at the right place at the right time. She appeared in the films Ganja and Hess in 1973 and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings in 1976.
But she got her big break when she was cast as Mabel “Mama” Thomas in What’s Happening!! She played the stern but loving mother of the two main characters, Raj and Dee. The character remains her best-known role.
However, Mabel King’s career certainly didn’t slow down after What’s Happening!! In fact, she later appeared less on the show as she had a few disagreements with the direction of the show.
She had guest appearances on popular TV shows such as Barney Miller and The Jeffersons. She also starred in hit films such as The Wiz, The Jerk, Wiseguy, Scrooged, and Dead Men Don’t Die – which was her final film role.
Sadly, Mabel King left us way too soon. She was diabetic and faced many health problems in her 60s. She eventually became wheelchair bound and even had both her legs and one of her arms amputated. Tragedy struck when her only son, Larry, died in 1996 at the age of 42.
Mabel King passed away on November 9, 1999 at the age of 66.
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Fred Berry played Frederick “Rerun” Stubbs on What’s Happening!! The character is easily one of the most recognized sitcom characters in American television history.
He grew up in an inner-city housing estate in St. Louis, Missouri. He had a knack for dancing which he developed during his youth. Dreaming of becoming a professional dancer and also was eager to become an actor.
In the 1970s, he joined the dance troupe The Lockers. With The Lockers, he performed on Saturday Night Live and Soul Train. But he became a huge star when he was cast as Rerun on What’s Happening!!
The show gave Fred a platform to show off his comic talents. There were also several episodes where he got to show off his dancing skills. His beret, suspenders, and high-waisted trousers became part of Reruns uniform. Even after the show ended, Fred Berry was often seen dressed up in this outfit.
After the show ended, he appeared in the short-lived sequel. He also had a few roles in films such as Vice Squad and Big Money Hustlas. His character was much-loved by hip hop stars and by newer generations of black American entertainers. He made guest appearances on shows such as Scrubs and In Living Color. He also appeared as Rerun in Snoop Dogg’s short film Murder Was the Case.
Also, he appeared as himself in the 2003 film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star and the 2007 film In the Land of Merry Misfits. He also appeared in one episode of the hit 90s sitcom Martin. In fact, Martin Lawrence acted in one episode of What’s Happening!! early on in his career and spoke fondly about his fellow cast members.
Fred Berry became extremely successful through Rerun. Unfortunately, he struggled to handle the temptations of fame and wealth. He struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for much of his life. Luckily, he managed to kick this habit toward the end of his life. He continued to appear in public as Rerun and gave interviews discussing his character and the show. He also traveled to South Africa with a dance troupe to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid battle.
Sadly, his health problems sadly never left him. Fred Berry died in 2003 at the age of 52 while he was recovering from a stroke.
Shirley Hemphill began her entertainment career as a stand-up comedian. She performed at the famous Comedy Store in Los Angeles at night while working at a hairdresser during the day. She became friends with Jenny Jones who was also a stand-up in those days. Decades later, Shirley Hemphill would reunite with many of her What’s Happening!! Cast members on The Jenny Jones Show!
Shirley made a few TV appearances in the 1970s in shows including Good Times and The Richard Pryor Special. When she received the role of waitress Shirley Wilson on What’s Happening!! and became a star! She loved the role and often spoke fondly of her experiences working on the show.
She reprised the role in the sequel What’s Happening Now!! In the 80s and the 90s, she had a few guest appearances on popular TV shows such as The Love Boat, Trapper John MD, Pryor’s Place, The Sinbad Show, Martin, and The Wayans Brothers. She also had a small role in Chris Rock’s 1993 comedy film CB4.
Also, she continued to perform stand-up comedy throughout her career. She also traveled to perform for American soldiers stationed overseas. Sadly, Shirley Hemphill passed away in 1999 at the age of 52 due to kidney failure.
Thalmus Rasulala was born as Jack Crowder in Miami, Florida on November 15, 1939. He began his acting career in 1960 – appearing in an episode of the popular TV series Adventures in Paradise.
He spent much of his early career with bit parts on TV shows such as Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, and One Life to Live. His film debut was a small role in the 1970 film The Out of Towners.
But his big break came in the 1972 blaxploitation film Cool Breeze – based on the popular novel The Asphalt Jungle. He played Sidney Lord Jones who was the leader of a gang of bank robbers. By now, Jack Crowder was known by his unforgettable stage name – Thalmus Rasulala!
He spent much of the 70s acting in some of the best Blaxploitation films including Blacula, Willie Dynamite, Cornbread Earl and Me, Bucktown, and Friday Foster.
On What’s Happening!! he played Bill Thomas – Raj and Dee’s father who was separated from their mother. He appeared occasionally on the show but remains one of its most memorable characters.
Following his work on What’s Happening!! Thalmus Rasulala focused mainly on films. He had supporting roles in films such as Born American, Bulletproof, Above The Law, Lambada, New Jack City, and Mom and Dad Save the World. His final role was in the 1992 film Hitz.
He sadly died at the young age of 51 due to a heart attack.
Let’s look at some of the surviving cast members of What’s Happening!! First, a mention should be made for Eric Monte who inspired the show.
Eric Monte was a screenwriter and television writer. He wrote the screenplay for the popular film Cooley High which depicted the lives of black American teenagers as they were ready to graduate high school. The film and its characters inspired the stories that made up What’s Happening!!
Eric Monte was also responsible for creating Good Times as well as creating some of TV’s most memorable characters, such as George and Louise Jefferson. Sadly, he often didn’t receive credit for his work and often had arguments with the creators of his shows. He was at odds with Norman Lear who created Good Times. He also had issues with Bernie Orenstein, Bud Yorkin, and Saul Turteltaub who produced What’s Happening!!
Struggling with drugs and homelessness and hasn’t written for film or TV since 2001. However, he’s now an accomplished author and there’s now a rekindled interest in his career!
Ernest Thomas played Roger “Raj” Thomas on the show. He began his career as a theatre actor, but he became a household name through What’s Happening!! Also, he appeared in the sequel show. He had a small role in the TV series Roots. He also had a role in the hit comedy film A Piece of the Action alongside Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, and James Earl Jones.
Since moving on from Raj, Ernest Thomas has worked mostly playing bit parts and making cameo appearances on TV shows. He’s also had a few notable film roles in films such as Malcolm X and The Lords of Salem. He also found a new generation of fans when he played Mr. Omar in Everybody Hates Chris.
His life wasn’t the easiest as his brother passed away from AIDS. His brother had come out as gay and later as transgender and struggled to find acceptance from his family. Despite his struggles, Ernest’s faith has kept him going strong. He’s got a few upcoming films in production, so we’ll still see more of his work!
Haywood Nelson played Dwayne Nelson on What’s Happening!! and What’s Happening Now!! He had a few bit parts on shows such as Sanford and Son and As the World Turns. He also had a recurring role on the short-lived sitcom Grady.
After finishing his work as Dwayne, he played a few bit parts on popular TV shows such as Kojak. He appeared as Dwayne in an episode of The Brady Bunch Hour and had a cameo appearance as himself in an episode of The Parkers and in the film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. He also had a supporting role in the 1981 horror film Evilspeak.
Today, he’s a businessman outside of the entertainment industry and only makes occasional public appearances.
Finally, Danielle Spencer played the sharp-tongued Dee Thomas on What’s Happening!! and What’s Happening Now!! Apart from these shows, she only had a few bit parts on other popular TV shows. In 1997, she had a cameo appearance as a veterinarian in the film As Good as It Gets – starring Jack Nicholson. What makes this interesting, is that Danielle Spencer went on to become a veterinarian and has been practicing for over 20 years.
She released a book about her life as a child star called Through the Fire: Journal of a Child Star . She also occasionally speaks as a motivational speaker encouraging others to look after their health – having survived spinal injuries and breast cancer herself. Also, she gives interviews where she discusses Dee and her fond memories of What’s Happening!!
Are you a fan of What’s Happening!!?
Do you think that the cast members and Eric Monte got their due? Or do you think that we need to promote their legacies and their incredible work to newer generations?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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