What’s Happening was a ground-breaking sitcom that followed the lives of three working-class African-American teens from South Los Angeles. The show ran for three seasons on ABC and remained a regular weekly show until 1979. It was so popular that it spawned a spin-off many years after the show stopped airing new episodes and was the first African-American teen sitcom to break into the Nielsen Top 30. Despite the show’s massive success, there were dark moments lurking behind the scenes. The cast saw everything from protests and lawsuits to car accidents. Here’s the story of what really happened behind the scenes.
Rerun’s Character Was Originally White
In the very first draft of the series, the character of Rerun was originally going to be a skinny white kid. Instead, they cast Fred Berry, a member of Los Angeles-based dance troupe The Lockers. His success on the show made him a millionaire by the time he turned 29 in 1980.
Haywood Nelson Was the Only High School Aged Actor
It’s not uncommon for actors in their 20s and 30s to play high school students on TV (as weird as it may come across), but Haywood Nelson was the real deal. Nelson, who played Dwayne, was the only actual teenager on set.
He was 16 at the time of the show’s premiere. Ernest Thomas, who played Raj, was 26 years old, and Fred Berry, who played Rerun was 25. Nelson is also the only character to appear in every single episode of What’s Happening!! but the achievement is a whole lot sweeter than the actual reason of why.
What’s Happening Is Loosely Based on the 1975 Feature Film Cooley High
The original premise of What’s Happening!! was based on a 1975 feature film called Cooley High. The two works share similar upbeat themes, like grades and girls, but Cooley High’s darker themes, like drugs and crime, never ended up in the prime-time sitcom. This didn’t stop a Cooley High pilot from being made.
Garrett Morris and Maurice Marshall from the Cooley High feature film reprised their roles in the Cooley High sitcom pilot; however, Ernest Thomas was the only actor who remained in the series after they decided to take a more lighthearted direction.
Fred Berry and Earnest Thomas Walked off Set in the Second Season
What’s Happening!! was extremely successful, and where there’s success, there’s money. Fred Berry and Earnest Thomas ended up walking off the show during the second season in protest. Berry was the ringleader of the walkout and convinced Thomas to join him.
The pair demanded higher salaries and better dressing rooms. They were unable to convince Haywood Nelson to join them, and this caused Nelson to shoulder much of the show’s responsibility in the second season. Nelson was solely responsible for season two, episode six, “If I’m Elected” which he performed alone.
Eric Monte Sued the Producers over His Credit
Eric Monte may be credited on IMDB as a writer now, but he was not at all happy with the credit he initially received for What’s Happening!! The very end of the credits read “Suggested by the American International picture Cooley High written by Eric Monte.” He claimed he was promised a credit as a producer and never received the proper credit as a creator.
He ended up suing ABC, CBS, Norman Lear, and Bud Yorkin among others for using his ideas to make Good Times, The Jeffersons, and What’s Happening without giving him any credit. Monte claimed to have received only $1 million and residuals from the suits, though others place the numbers at $300 million.
The Series Was Cancelled Because of More Money Demands
Fred Berry was always the instigator when it came to money negotiations. During the third season, he convinced both Thomas and Nelson to go on strike for more money. It worked the first time, so it had to work again, right? Wrong. Producers were totally over the boys’ antics and decided to cancel the series instead of give them a raise.
The constant contract disputes weren’t the only reason the network was totally fed up. Fred Berry was just too much for them to handle, and he was constantly drumming up trouble.
But Not Before Fred Berry Accused Producers of Being Racist
Fred Berry definitely had issues over his contract, but ended up sort of throwing the other boys under the bus when it came to negotiating. He just couldn’t keep his mouth shut. This ultimately led to the cancellation of the show.
Thomas admitted in an interview that Berry told producers Thomas and Nelson thought they were racist. “There’s a mystery over that,” he said. “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.'” Apparently, this wasn’t the truth and only Berry said the producers were racist.
Berry Became Addicted to Drugs and Alcohol and Tried to Commit Suicide Three Times
When What’s Happening ended in 1979, Berry weighed over 300 lbs. He had trouble finding work because his weight led him to be typecast. Berry started dabbling in drugs and alcohol when he was a teenager, but when he could no longer face his waning celebrity and the litany of fat jokes that surrounded his career, he turned to those vices for comfort.
Things began to spiral out of control. Berry told the Cincinnati Call and Post that he was addicted to drugs and alcohol for 10 years and probably spent a million dollar partying. He tried to commit suicide three separate times, but failed.
Berry Became a Minister, and It Saved His Life
Berry admitted that dedicating his life to God saved him, and he became an ordained minister later in life. “I just got tired of being tired and decided to rededicate my life to the Lord in 1984. That’s when I also got delivered from the drugs and alcohol,” he told the Cincinnati Call and Post.
Berry started as an unpaid associate minister and evangelist at the Little Shiloh Church in Huntsville, Alabama. He had moved there from Los Angeles around the year 2000 and fell in love with the parish.
Mabel King Was a Major Broadway Star
Before Mabel King took the role of Mabel “Mama” Thomas, the actress saw major Broadway success. She had played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wiz, and scored a Drama Desk Award nomination. Thomas was already a major fan of King before she was cast as his TV mom and the pair even met.
“I went to see her on Broadway in The Wiz about 15 times,” he said. “I loved that musical. Who knew that she’d end up playing my mother? I was in awe!” Unfortunately, Mabel’s success caused her to be a bit too big for her britches.
Mabel King Quit the Show over Creative Differences
Mabel King played the character of Mabel Thomas, Raj and Dee’s divorced mother. On the show, Raj and Dee’s dad disappeared after he remarried in 1977. King did not like this direction. She wanted Dee and Raj to grow up with a mother and a father, but producers refused to meet her request. If Dee and Raj had a dad, it would’ve changed the entire premise of the show.
Part of why it was relatable was because of Mabel’s status as a single, hard-working mom. That didn’t matter to King, who was so soured by the decision that she quit in 1978. She was also unhappy that her role was reduced in later seasons.
Danielle Spencer Was in a Terrible Car Accident That Put Her in a Coma
It wasn’t all contract disputes and strikes, some of the cast actually fought for their lives during production. Danielle Spencer, who played Roger’s younger sister Dee, was involved in a car accident while she was filming the series. She was in a coma for a few days, but went right back to work when she woke up.
She had to do her scenes sitting down to avoid physical exertion and was paralyzed from the waist down. Since Spencer came back so quickly, she still had visible injuries on her forehead. Producers changed her hairstyle and gave her bangs to cover up the cuts.
Haywood Nelson Was a Ladies’ Man (Especially When It Came to His On-Screen Sister)
Haywood Nelson may have been a teenager while he was on the show, but that didn’t stop him from being the ultimate ladies’ man. Throughout the series, he was in a relationship with Debbi Morgan, who played the recurring role of Diane. He admitted that he wasn’t mature enough to fully commit to their relationship at the time (he was much more interested in driving around in his Porsche and hanging out with his friends).
Nelson also had a total crush on his on-screen sister Danielle Spencer, and heavily flirted with Shirley Hemphill, who played Shirley Wilson in all 66 episodes of the show. Still, Morgan was the one who got away, and Nelson admitted “If I had my head on right, I would have married her.”
Haywood Nelson Commuted 3,000 Miles to Work
Most of us complain about having to commute just 45 minutes to get to work. Haywood Nelson had a commute most of us couldn’t even dream of (nor would we want to because it sounds like a nightmare). When the show started filming, Nelson lived in Garden City, New York. What’s Happening!! was filmed in Los Angeles, California.
Nelson commuted over 3,000 miles to shoot the series for the first two seasons. You’d think it’d probably be easier to just move, but Nelson was afraid that the show wouldn’t offer steady employment. After two years, he finally moved with his family to LA during the final season.
Fred Berry Made a Couple Bizarre Music Video Appearances After the Show Wrapped
Berry was undeniably the star of What’s Happening!! which is why he kept asking for more money. After the show ended, he fully embraced his character and even legally changed his name to Rerun. His celebrity allowed him to do a number of bizarre music-related cameos.
Berry briefly appeared in Insane Clown Posse’s film Big Money Hustlas as Bootleg Greg, a guy who counterfeited band merch. He also appeared in Less Than Jake’s video for “Dopeman” which never ended up airing on TV. In addition to credits with a rap-rock duo and ska band, Berry appeared in Snoop Dogg’s video for “It’s A Doggy Dogg World.”
Fred Berry Was Married Six Times
Most of us are lucky enough if we have one wedding. Fred Berry had six. He originally married his first wife Franchesska Berry in 1976. The pair had met on the set of Soul Train, where Berry was a dancer. They remained married for less than a year. After Fred was cast in What’s Happening!! the couple reunited and married again in 1978. Franchesska, who also had a show business background, would help her husband choreograph moves with dancers on the show.
Berry’s second wife was Carol Ann Ross, who he married and divorced twice between 1984 and 1991. In 1994 he married Darlene Bitten. The couple divorced by 1999, when he married Essie Berry that same year. The couple remained married until his death in 2003.
Ernest Thomas Beat out 200 Actors to Land the Role of Raj
Ernest Thomas learned about What’s Happening!! when he was on the set of The Jeffersons for his first sitcom role. Mary White, the agent of Isabel Sanford (Louise Jefferson) liked Thomas’ work and encouraged him to try out for a pilot called Cooley High.
Thomas ended up auditioning for the role of “Preach” Jackson. Producers were looking at over 200 candidates and the audition process lasted several weeks (which Thomas admitted cost him a lot of sleep due to his nerves). He ended up landing the role in Cooley High, which later became Roger Thomas in What’s Happening!!
Producers Allegedly Undercut the African-American Actors
Okay, maybe Fred Berry was actually right to ask for more money and storm off the show if what one of his wives said is actually true. According to Essie Berry, who married the actor in 1999, Fred basically created the character of Rerun (perhaps the reason he’s still so proud) but was payed dramatically less than his Caucasian counterparts.
Speaking of her husband’s contract demands in 2006, Essie said, “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.”
When the Show Was Revived, Ernest Thomas Was Literally Speechless
Earnest Thomas admitted that he was so excited when the series was revived that he was literally speechless. Seriously, he couldn’t actually say a word and ended up in the hospital because he still had no voice when he had to shoot the revival’s pilot.
“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 said. “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.’”
The Revival Had Just as Many Problems as the Series
What’s Happening Now!! was the first primetime series revived with its original cast. Though it paved the way for series revivals like Arrested Development and 24, that doesn’t mean it didn’t have its problems. If your cast has issues, it doesn’t just go away because you took a break.
When What’s Happening Now!! debuted, Berry, once again, started arguing about money. He was fired before the end of the first season and the show was forced to continue without him. What’s Happening Now!! ended up lasting three whole seasons like its predecessor.