It could’ve been when Ernest Thomas’s character, Raj, delivered the classic line, “Which Doobie you be?” Or maybe it was the argumentative exchange between Shirley and Al Dunbar at Rob’s Place. It might also have been Rerun’s hilariously failed attempt at bootlegging a Doobie Brothers concert. Whatever the case, there’s no question that the “What’s Happening!!” two-part, “Doobie or Not Doobie”, which first aired on January 28th, 1978, has remained one of the series’ most iconic episodes.
Much like The Doobies themselves, actor Ernest Thomas has remained as beloved and relevant as ever these last forty years. In addition to having starred in the successful spinoff series, “What’s Happening Now!!”, he’s also been featured in films like “Malcolm X” as well as the series “Everybody Hates Chris”. These days, Thomas is also an accomplished author as well as an in-demand mentor and public speaker.
I recently spoke with Thomas about the 40th anniversary of the famous “What’s Happening!!” episode with The Doobie Brothers, his career and more in this exclusive new interview.
It’s been more than forty years since “What’s Happening!!” first aired, and it remains one of the most beloved shows of all time. When you look back now with so much perspective, what thoughts come to mind?
I pinch myself and cry out to God in gratitude. Recently, I was on a military base doing a book signing, and the people there were telling me how much the DVDs had meant and given comfort to the solders in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m mystified and thankful that it continues to make people so happy.
How much of Ernest Thomas was in the character of Raj?
That’s a great question. In the original “Cooley High” [which “What’s Happening!!” is loosely based on], Preacher Jackson, who was played brilliantly by Glynn Turman, was a good kid, but was a little more street and mischievous. After my audition, I started thinking about how my grandmother, mother and pastor had crafted me and decided to go in to talk to the producers. I told them I didn’t see Roger as street at all. I told them I saw him as a person who loves everyone and was always trying to keep the peace. He was everyone’s best friend; every teacher’s favorite student and every woman’s ideal husband. Roger is every man. I remember they looked at me like I had just about lost my mind [laughs]. They thanked me for sharing but later wound up shaping Raj more like me. That’s why in the intro of the show, when you see me open the door and walk out with the big smile on my face, that really is me.
What do you think made the show so timeless and special?
I think it was because it was a show that people could easily identify with. That’s why it crossed all racial lines. Growing up, everyone has the heavy-set friend (Rerun); the shy, little Dwayne and the baby brother or sister who’s a little tattletale or snitch. Then you had Mama, who was going to spank you if you were bad. That was a real situation. The truth is, we had a divine chemistry. I remember when I first set eyes on Fred Berry, Haywood Nelson, Mabel King, Danielle Spencer and Shirley Hemphill, there was an instant familiarity. We all loved each other and it became more like a family.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the two-part episode with The Doobie Brothers. What was the inspiration behind it?
The director knew the band and saw that they were going through a transition with members. They really needed something to give them a hit. So, he came up with this crazy idea that they had gone to our school. Here you had these white, long-haired rockers coming back to the same teachers we had, and no one even questioned it. In fact, America ate it up.
Even today, when I talk to them, they’ll tell me how people always come up and ask them about “What’s Happening!!” It’s not about the music or even the next album. They want to know what the experience was like on the show [laughs]. I even remember seeing an interview with them where they said they think the band’s epitaph is going to read, “The Doobies Brothers. We’re what’s happening.” [laughs].
Just like The Doobie Brothers, you’re still as relevant as ever forty years later. What new projects are you’re working on?
I’ve recently written my autobiography, “From Raj to Riches: Overcoming Life Through Faith.” It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s a testimony that supernatural faith brings supernatural results. I want kids to know that I was bullied in grade school, and it didn’t help that I was into the church. At times, it felt like it would never end, but I was taught to have faith in God and to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The book also talks about my time working on the show and “Malcom X” as well as my relationships with people like Muhammad Ali and Dr. Maya Angelou. People have really responded well to it, and I thank God for what the book has done.
I also have a lot of other things brewing right now. I did a film called “Two Wolves” that will hopefully be coming out this year. There’s also a series called “The Chosen Ones” that’s a retelling of The Gospel of Christ, where I play a blind man who Jesus heals. I’m very excited about it.
You also recently did a short film, “Earworm” that was quite a departure for you. What can you tell me about it?
Tara Price wrote and directed the film and did such a great job. She and I had met on another film and liked each other immediately. At first, I was hesitant about doing it, because I didn’t want to look feeble and like someone who couldn’t take care of myself. But that’s part of life, and Tara told me that it would be a challenge for me to not always play the hero or be the one that has all the answers. It was a long, twelve-hour day of filming, but I’m so happy for her and the producers. She lit a fire with it.
Of all the highlights of your career, what stands out to you as most memorable?
If I look back, “What’s Happening!!” was like Heaven on Earth because at one point, we were so huge that we were seen by fifty million people in America. Suddenly, everyone knows your name. Although I love the people and the nostalgia of the show, for me, the best time is right now. I love that there are new films of mine that people have yet to see, and I’m also excited about how well the book is doing. I love the past, whether it’s “What’s Happening!!” or being in “Malcolm X” with Denzel Washington, or meeting Muhammad Ali and having him take me under his wing, call me a friend and really say that he loved me like a brother. All of those things were out of body experiences, but I believe that right now is the best time. My greatest joy is making people happy.