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'What's Happening!!' star discusses show's impact on race and his favorite episode

The sitcom, which turns 45 this year, had a short run, but star Ernest Thomas says its second life in reruns had quite an impact.
What's Happening!!
"What's Happening!!" stars Haywood Nelson, Shirley Hemphill, Ernest Thomas, Fred Berry, Mabel King and Danielle Spencer combined to make a show that has endured years after it was canceled.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

“Hey, hey, hey!” “No Roger, no Rerun, no rent!” “Which Doobie you be?”

Those are among the many memorable lines from “What’s Happening!!,” the 1970s sitcom about three Black teenagers in South Central Los Angeles lasting a mere 65 episodes over three seasons that, decades later, has maintained a level of popularity and influence that belies its tenure on the small screen.

The ABC show, which celebrates the 45th anniversary of its premiere this year, became a pioneer in the Black experience depicted on television.

Thomas, top right, said the show was innovative in depicting Black teens and that its portrayal of Black youths spoke to people of all races.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

“It was definitely a positive,” Ernest Thomas, who played lead character Roger Thomas, told TODAY. “I think a supernatural, positive effect because of the absence of Blacks on television. Even though ‘Good Times’ was out there and ‘Jeffersons’ and ‘Sanford and Son’ (were on), it wasn't the youth. ‘What’s Happening!!’ was these three teenagers, which I think had an impact on all cultures, so that everybody can identify with friends, teenage friends.”

The comedy had strong, memorable characters. In addition to Roger, there was his shy friend Dwayne (Haywood Nelson) and Rerun (Fred Berry), their dimwitted but lovable — and overweight — pal. Roger’s sister, Dee, played by Danielle Spencer, was a bratty kid who constantly extorted her brother for quarters, while their hardworking single mother (Mabel King) provided the moral center.

Soda shop waitress Shirley, center, offered food and advice — not to mention plenty of insults.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Roger and his buddies hung out at the soda shop, where wisecracking waitress Shirley (Shirley Hemphill) often exchanged barbs with her customers. The fat jokes flung hard and fast, and you have to wonder if they would make the cut today.

Inspired by the 1975 film “Cooley High,” “What’s Happening!!” has enjoyed a reach that transcends color. Thomas, who said people of all backgrounds have approached him over the years, thinks the sitcom did more than just provide laughs.

“It also helped with race relations,” he said. “I've talked to white folks over the years that hated Black folks. I mean, goodness, they hated them, and their folks were that way. But as a child, when the folks were gone, they'd be channel-surfing, right? And stumble over ‘What's Happening!!’ and find themselves staying there and, next thing you know, they’re laughing, but they go, ‘Wait a minute. I’m not supposed to laugh.’”

“It chipped away the racism,” he added.

“What’s Happening!!” was never a ratings juggernaut, even if the cast had chemistry right off the bat. Roger was known for his horrible dance moves, loud laugh and penchant for mumbling when he was in trouble. Rerun — and his omnipresent suspenders and beret — had killer dance moves, while Dwayne greeted friends with "Hey, hey, hey" and gasped "Nuh-uh!" when he disapproved of something. Thomas could sense they had something special the first day they worked together.

“I swear, man, it was like an out-of-body experience,” he said. “I don't know these people. But as soon as I walked in that room, man, it was a thing that I can't explain. They gave me chills. It's like we know each other already.”

The show morphed during its brief run. King left the series, and Roger and Rerun moved into their own apartment where new characters were introduced, including the white father-son combo of Big Earl and Little Earl, the younger of whom had a crush on Dee.

“I think they found it amusing,” Thomas said of the show's audience. “You know, you’re not thinking about it because it’s a little kid. As far as interracial relations, I think it really helped.”

Thomas also believes the series helped pave the way for other Black-centered comedies in the ‘80s, such as “The Cosby Show” and “227.”

“I swear, man, it was like an out-of-body experience. I don't know these people. But as soon as I walked in that room, man, it was a thing that I can't explain.”

“Oh, absolutely. Absolutely,” he said.

Thomas points to friction between Berry and the show’s producers for the series being canceled. He said the final straw was when Berry accused them of being racist, which led to the show getting the ax, even though Thomas believed it could’ve continued.

When asked about his favorite episode, Thomas didn't hesitate.

Few TV characters had as much sass and attitude as Dee, played by Danielle Spencer. There were "no kids like that," Thomas said.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

“The two-part Doobie Brothers. Hands down,” he said, referring to the two-part episode in which the band performs a concert at the friends’ high school (which the group had supposedly attended) and Rerun agrees to illegally record it in exchange for good tickets.

“It really set us apart from all the other shows,” Thomas said, while adding that the members of the band were “really good guys.”

In the episode, Roger tries to track down the band at their hotel by calling and asks, “Which Doobie you be?” when someone picks up. It’s a classic line.

The Doobie Brothers' appearance on the show "What's Happening!!" is one of the most memorable episodes of the comedy.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

“I hear it all the time,” Thomas said.

The show ended in 1979, but the mystique around it was only beginning, thanks to syndication, which began as early as 1980. The comedy had found a new audience.

“But then the show became more popular in reruns than on prime time,” Thomas said. “Who knew? Sixty-nine episodes (actually 65). The phenomenon of ‘What's Happening!!’ is, most of these shows like ‘Good Times’ and ‘All in the Family,’ they got 100, 200 shows. It was only 69 episodes that people ate like popcorn.”

This resurgence led to something that was virtually unheard of at the time: a reboot. Thomas recalled that after the show was canceled, he went to a few concerts and was besieged by fans. An idea was born.

Thomas said Black people have told him over the years that Roger was a role model for them.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

“And so I said, ‘Wow. I think we could do another ‘What's Happening!!’” he said.

No one — not his former co-stars, not writers, not his manager — had an interest in it, he said. Then, he found an ally in none other than Muhammad Ali, who Thomas said was a fan of the original series. He encouraged Thomas to press on.

“When I met Muhammad Ali, I was telling him about it and he says, ‘Look, instead of complaining, just go to them. Go to the studio and tell them,’” Thomas said, which prompted him to do just that.

Thomas was initially rejected, but executives discovered how popular the reruns were, which opened the door for “What’s Happening Now!!,” making it one of the first reboots in TV history. That show premiered in 1985 and ran for three seasons.

Roger, Rerun and Dwayne hung out at Rob's Place, the local soda shop.Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Thomas said in his original treatment for the reboot, Roger and Shirley were married, but that got nixed. He also said Vanessa Williams was supposed to play his wife, Nadine, but she lost the part when nude photos of her came out in 1984 after she was crowned Miss America. He remains happy with the reboot, which years later may best be remembered as the first TV show to cast an unknown funnyman named Martin Lawrence, who joined the series in 1987.

Nearly a half-century has passed since “What’s Happening!!” first graced the airwaves. Berry, Hemphill and King have died. Thomas marvels at how the show continues to resonate, pointing to how he’s met soldiers on military bases who watch episodes “to give them comfort.” He also remembers the response fans had when he went to a pop culture convention that proved the show had broken down color barriers.

“The first time we went there, we could not believe the line, we see all these lines of white people,” he said. “And I said, ‘Oh, somebody was really popular.’ And so one of the people working there said, ‘They’re waiting on you. They’re waiting to get in to meet you.’ We could not believe it.”