In the summer of 1976, television super-producer Bud Yorkin—the man behind All in the Family and Sanford and Son—premiered his newest series, What’s Happening!! Geared toward the teen market, the series followed a trio of best friends: aspiring writer Roger (Raj), class clown Rerun, and painfully shy Dwayne, plus Raj’s wise-beyond-her-years little sister Dee. As they navigated school-age life in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, the problems they faced—girls, bullies, and homework—were issues familiar to any teen. But we enlisted the help of What’s Happening!! star Ernest Thomas (who played Roger) to share 31 things you might not know about the classic sitcom.
1. THE SHOW IS LOOSELY BASED ON THE 1975 FEATURE FILM COOLEY HIGH.
At least that was the original premise. And while Cooley High and What’s Happening!! do share some themes (namely: grades and girls), the film’s darker elements of drugs and crimes didn’t translate to a prime-time sitcom. So Cooley High morphed into What’s Happening!!
2. A COOLEY HIGH PILOT DOES EXIST.
But the only similarity between it and What’s Happening!! is Ernest Thomas. “I was the only one left from the original pilot,” says Thomas. “It definitely had more of a serious tone, and that’s when they decided to do it differently.” A few members of Cooley High's original cast reprised their roles in the pilot, including Garrett Morris and Maurice Marshall.
3. COOLEY HIGH WRITER ERIC MONTE WASN’T HAPPY WITH THE CREDIT HE RECEIVED.
Eric Monte—who IMDb credits as a writer on the entire What’s Happening!! series—sued ABC, CBS, Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin, and others for using his ideas for Good Times, The Jeffersons, and What's Happening!! without being properly credited. Though the numbers vary on the amount of the lawsuit (some put it at $300 million), Monte told the Los Angeles Times that he only ever received $1 million and some residuals.
4. THOMAS LEARNED ABOUT THE SERIES ON THE SET OF THE JEFFERSONS.
It was Mary White—the agent of Isabel Sanford, who played Louise Jefferson—who encouraged Thomas to audition. “My first sitcom was The Jeffersons and she was loving what I was doing as a guest star. She came over and told me, ‘There’s a new pilot called Cooley High and I think you’d be perfect for it.’ I had an agent already, so I thanked her and told her I’d tell my agent. When I did, he got all upset, asking ‘Who in the hell is she to tell you about this show?’” But he landed an audition.
5. THOMAS WAS UP AGAINST 200 ACTORS FOR THE PART.
“They were looking at I would say at least 200 people,” Thomas recalls of the audition process, which lasted several weeks. “I auditioned for the role of ‘Preach’ Jackson in Cooley High, which became Roger Thomas in What’s Happening!!” The days dragged on as Thomas awaited the final verdict. “Those sleepless nights were not cutting it at all," he says with a laugh. “I was so frustrated. It was like: Make a choice. I won’t be mad if it’s not me, because at least then I know!”
6. RERUN WAS WRITTEN AS A SKINNY WHITE KID.
Columbia Pictures Television via Sitcoms Online
In the original script, the character that became "Rerun" was written as a skinny white kid. When Fred Berry was informed of this after showing up for the audition, he insisted to the producers that, “I am a white skinny guy!” They liked Berry so much that the role was rewritten accordingly and his character given the name Freddie Stubbs.
7. “MAMA” MABEL KING HAD BEEN A BIG DEAL ON BROADWAY.
A year before taking on the role of Mabel “Mama” Thomas, actress Mabel King had played the Wicked Witch of the West in the Broadway production of The Wiz, which earned her a Drama Desk Award nomination. Though Thomas had never met the actress before she was cast as his mother, he was familiar with her work. Very familiar. “I went to see her on Broadway in The Wiz about 15 times,” says Thomas. “I loved that musical. Who knew that she’d end up playing my mother? I was in awe!”
8. THE SHOW WAS AN IMMEDIATE HIT.
It was the first African-American teen sitcom to break into the Nielsen Top 30, which the show accomplished in the series’ first season in 1976.
9. THE CAST BONDED IMMEDIATELY.
“It was literally heaven to me,” Thomas says of the chemistry that immediately formed between the cast. “There are people you meet and you feel like you’ve met them before, or have known them all of your life. That’s how I was with the entire cast. It was one of those Twilight moments; as soon as we touched hands, as soon as we saw each other, as soon as you entered the room, you just knew. Which is an experience I’ve just never had with an entire cast.”
10. HAYWOOD NELSON WAS THE ONLY ACTOR OF ACTUAL HIGH SCHOOL AGE.
Columbia Pictures Television via Sitcoms Online
Though the characters of Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne were all high school students, Haywood Nelson—who played Dwayne—was the only actual teenager of the trio. He was 16 when the show premiered, while Thomas was 26 and Berry was 25.
11. RERUN AUDITIONED TO BE A PART OF HIS OWN DANCE GROUP.
In “My Three Tons,” the fourth episode of the show’s first season, Rerun auditions to be a part of the dance group The Rockets. The Rockets were played by real-life dance group The Lockers, of which Fred Berry was a founding member.
12. RAJ LED ERNEST THOMAS TO ROOTS.
The popularity of What’s Happening!! helped to raise Thomas’ acting profile, leading to a role—Kailubu—being written for him in the 1977 miniseries Roots.
13. NOT ALL OF THE ACTORS WERE THRILLED WITH THE SERIES’ DIRECTION.
Mabel King, in particular, believed that the show’s popularity offered the perfect opportunity to set some strong examples of black television characters. She didn’t like that she was a single mother working as a maid, and contended that the lack of strong family models on black sitcoms was “one of the biggest tragedies on television.” As such, King departed the show after just one season. “People have to do what they have to do at the moment,” says Thomas of King’s unfortunate early departure. Similar sentiments led to the eventual absence of parental characters on other African-American sitcoms, notably Good Times.
14. FRED BERRY WAS QUICKLY LABELED THE SHOW’S TROUBLEMAKER.
After What’s Happening!! became an unexpected hit, Fred Berry felt it was time to renegotiate his salary. “He could be trouble,” director Alan Rafkin said in his book, Cue the Bunny on the Rainbow, though he admitted that Berry also “received many of the show's big laughs.” But Berry’s widow, Essie, says that the actor was only interested in what was fair. “When he went back and asked for more money, they told him he could not be who is he is,” she told The Signal in 2006. “It would be hard to walk around knowing that you created a character and someone just took it away from you… When they paid him $5000 per episode, they paid a Caucasian man $8000 per episode.”
15. HAYWOOD NELSON IS THE ONLY ACTOR TO APPEAR IN EVERY EPISODE OF WHAT'S HAPPENING!!
Though Thomas admits that “Fred was very devilish” on the set, Berry convinced Thomas to join him in a walkout in order to negotiate higher salaries. This left Nelson to shoulder the second season’s sixth episode—“If I’m Elected”—all by his lonesome.
16. DANIELLE SPENCER WAS INVOLVED IN A SERIOUS CAR ACCIDENT DURING SEASON TWO.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Shortly after production began on season two, Danielle Spencer—who played Roger's younger sister Dee Thomas—was seriously injured in an automobile mishap, which took the life of her stepfather. “In 1977, I was in a car accident, which led to spinal problems,” she told Jet Magazine earlier this year. “Ten years ago, I had surgery on my upper back that resulted in my being paralyzed from the waist down. After many years of rehabilitation at several places, I am still left with neurological damage to my spinal cord.” In order to accommodate the actress on the set, she was allowed to remain seated during many of her scenes in order to avoid any physical exertion. Her hair was also styled in such a way to cover up visible damage that had been done to her forehead in the crash.
17. THE SERIES’ CANCELLATION WAS THE RESULT OF YET ANOTHER DEMAND FOR MORE MONEY.
“After I had left the show," Alan Rafkin noted in his book, "there was a big contract dispute and I was told that Fred was the instigator behind the trouble that followed. He convinced Ernest and Haywood to join him in a strike for more money. Eventually, the producers simply had enough of the boys’ antics and they closed the series down.” But Thomas notes that, “There’s a mystery over that… I remember distinctly that they had a meeting and wanted the entire cast to meet with all of the producers. And they said, ‘Fred Berry tells us that you think we’re racist. So we don’t want you working for racists and we’re going to cancel the show.’ That’s what I remember… Fred was very happy, even at that meeting. He didn’t take it back and say, ‘No, they really didn’t say it, I was the one who said it.’ He said, ‘No, you know you all said it!’ So they thought he really was telling the truth.” The show’s final episode (in its original form) ran on April 28, 1979.
18. FRED BERRY EVENTUALLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS ANTICS.
“Fred did apologize for all of that stuff toward the end of his life,” says Thomas. “Even when he passed away, people didn’t want me to go to the funeral. There are people who are still upset with me for going to his funeral. But to me, there’s a thing called forgiveness. When someone asks you for forgiveness, there’s no reason to keep something going. I went to the funeral because he expressed that he was sorry.”
19. RE-RUNS (NO PUN INTENDED) PROVED PROFITABLE.
Though What’s Happening!! had been a success during its network run, it proved just as popular in syndicated re-runs. In some markets, its ratings were even better the second time around.
20. FRED BERRY ACTUALLY CHANGED HIS NAME TO “RERUN.”
Yes, legally. Hey, it was the ’80s.
21. THE COSBY SHOW IS TO THANK FOR A WHAT’S HAPPENING!! REDUX.
Ernest Thomas had long believed that What’s Happening!! was ripe for revisiting. “I put together a proposal for the show, a treatment I wrote, and they said there was no audience for another What’s Happening!! So I kept trying to get signatures at that time, but everyone thought I had lost my mind,” Thomas recalls. But with the success of The Cosby Show, which premiered in 1984, producers were on the lookout for more sitcoms focused on African-American families, and the familiarity of What’s Happening!! seemed like a safe bet. So What’s Happening Now!! was born in 1985.
22. THE SHOW’S REVIVAL LEFT ERNEST THOMAS SPEECHLESS. LITERALLY.
“I got a call from my agent, and he asked me, ‘Ernie, are you sitting down? They changed their minds. They’re going to [bring back] What’s Happening and they’re going to do two seasons,” Thomas recalls of learning the news that the show was being revived. “It felt great. It was really emotional, in a good way. But I was so overwhelmed that I lost my voice. They sent me to the doctor who said, ‘There’s nothing wrong. It’s all psychological.’”
23. MUHAMMAD ALI SAVED THE DAY.
Still voiceless as the cast and crew readied to shoot the pilot for What’s Happening Now!!, Thomas got a much-needed boost from Muhammad Ali. “My friend called Muhammad Ali, who had been traveling, and he came for the pilot. Him being there brought my voice back. That’s the truth. Of course, he just upstaged everyone. The producers and the audience were just blown away. There’s Muhammad Ali! Who cares about What’s Happening!!? That was an awesome day.”
24. MUHAMMAD ALI ISN’T THE SHOW’S ONLY FAMOUS FAN.
Thomas is still amazed by the number of famous people who have expressed being fans of the series. “Muhammad Ali totally threw me,” he says. “And Sidney Poitier. I did a film with him, Bill Cosby, and James Earl Jones called A Piece of the Action. I was on vacation from What’s Happening and just went to the audition with a friend. Sidney Poitier saw me and asked, ‘You don’t want to be in my film? Cause I know you. I watch your show.’ I was like, ‘Please—give me a break.’ And he did a scene from the show—he did my exact lines. Smokey Robinson, Dr. Maya Angelou, and President Jimmy Carter were also fans. And Tori Spelling. All the shows her father did, and she loves What’s Happening!!”
25. WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW!! STARTED A TELEVISION TREND.
Recent television series revivals like Arrested Development and 24 owe a debt to What’s Happening!! It’s the first time a primetime series was revived with the original cast after cancellation. Its success led other producers to attempt this with shows like The New Leave It To Beaver and Mama’s Family.
26. FRED BERRY’S OLD HABITS WERE REVIVED WITH THE SERIES.
Shortly after What’s Happening Now!! debuted, Berry once again began demanding more money. He was subsequently fired before the end of the first season. The series itself—which saw Raj married—lasted just three seasons.
27. DANIELLE SPENCER IS NOW A VETERINARIAN IN VIRGINIA.
And she’s no stranger to television. “She works as a veterinarian consultant for one of the local television stations there,” says Thomas. “She also has her own clothing line, The Dani Collection.”
28. HAYWOOD NELSON IS STILL WORKING IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY.
“Haywood is back and forth between New York and Los Angeles,” says Thomas. “He was working behind the scenes on Dr. Oz at one point. Now he’s with Jimmy Fallon, I believe. He’s a genius at computers.”
29. PEOPLE HAVEN'T FORGOTTEN RAJ.
Thomas has continued to work steadily since the end of What’s Happening Now!! in 1988. In addition to playing Mr. Omar on Everybody Hates Chris, Thomas’ film career has included roles in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Judd Apatow’s Funny People, and Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem. Yet he’s still regularly recognized as Roger. “I could let my beard grow and have a hat on, and I’ll still get recognized,” says Thomas. “I don’t know if it’s something about my walk or what. I was walking down the street one day in shirt with a hood and a girl behind me asked ‘Raj?’ I turned around and asked, ‘How did you know?’ And she said, ‘Your butt.’ Apparently, I have a distinctive butt!”
30. YES, THE CAST STILL KEEPS IN TOUCH.
Though Mabel King, Shirley Hemphill, and Fred Berry have passed away, Thomas still keeps in touch with Spencer and Nelson. “Those two, they loved me from day one—he was 15 and she was nine and they just would not let go,” laughs Thomas. "And they are really two of my best friends."
31. IF WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!! WERE PROPOSED TODAY, RAJ WOULD BE THERE.
But Thomas has been in the entertainment industry long enough to know that producers would want to skew younger. “I’d probably have some kid, Raj Jr.,” says Thomas, imagining what a modern-day revamp might look like. “I’m sure if they did it today, they’d be thinking, ‘Okay, we’re going to need a younger demographic! So basically we need someone who looks like you, only 19 years old—no offense. And you’re going to have a recurring role. You’re going to be like the Mabel King. But don’t make any waves, baby!’”