Dealing with bullying from his own kind in his hometown of Gary, Indiana while seeing racism firsthand during his trips down South in the summertime were things that Ernest Lee Thomas recalls well. The famous photo of Emmett Till in Jet Magazine firmly embedded in his mind kept him honest while in the South.
Upon landing the lead role in the ’70s sitcom “What’s Happening!!”, Thomas understood that popularity and laughter broke the racial barrier for all. Thomas refers to those times as “heaven on earth.” Recalling his days as Raj on the hit sitcom was much different than the harsh upbringing he had dealing with bullies both black and white, who taunted him for his looks and skin tone. His fatherless upbringing only added fuel to the bullies’ taunts.
“What’s Happening!!” made Thomas a star revered around the nation. At one point, it was the No. 3 show in the country and a far cry from the kid being bullied in Gary, Indiana. Fast forward decades later and he becomes Mr. Omar on “Everybody Hates Chris”. His “tragic” line is still screamed today by fans of Thomas and the show. He has stood the test of time and deserves all accolades. A legend in the entertainment world with a half-century under his belt, Ernest Lee Thomas is acting royalty.
Zenger News tracked down the icon to discuss his time on the set with Denzel Washington, the popularity of both “What’s Happening!!” and “Everybody Hates Chris” plus Thomas goes into detail about the message he conveys during his motivational speeches.
Percy Crawford interviewed Ernest Lee Thomas for Zenger News.
Zenger News: When your career started in the ’70s, racial tensions were still high. Things weren’t prosperous for black entertainers, and yet you were able to break through and get your own sitcom. What was it like to be a Black celebrity during those times?
Ernest Lee Thomas: It was heaven on earth. That really is the best way to explain it. Because coming from Gary, Indiana and being on welfare and relief and not having a father, never met my father, being bullied by Black kids. Then having to go to the South for the summer, and having to deal with being called, ni—er and going to the back of the restaurants and saying, yes sir and no sir to white kids. Especially because of Emmett Till at that time. The photo of him in Jet Magazine. My mother and grandmother said, “Look, you don’t wanna end up like this, this is what white men do to little boys if you don’t say yes sir and no sir.” So, they put the fear in me. We dreaded going to the South. We stayed in most of the time. I had one incident. That was when we went to Arkansas. I experienced going to the back of a restaurant, but still I’m not quite understanding that and saying, “Why can’t we go to the front?” “Shut up, boy. You going to get us killed.” I remember crying about that.
So, coming from that whole thing of being bullied by my own people and called nappy-headed, you look like a monkey, you have hand-me-down clothes, hand-me-down shoes. You ain’t got no daddy, you talking proper because you’re trying to talk like your teachers, who were Black. But when I did it, they said, “Oh, you think you’re better than me by trying to sound white.” It was hell there, and I can see why kids commit suicide today. I thank God I had Jesus Christ from the day I was born. I was introduced to Jesus Christ, so I had that going for me. So, you catapult me from that to having “What’s Happening!!”. You can see why it can be heaven on earth. Everybody loves you; everybody knows your name. Everywhere you go, people get all excited, people handing you gifts. I remember being at the airport, and you go to those little stores inside, and a lady saw me, and she said, “Oh my God, Roger Thomas; you remind me of my nephew. Let me give you this gift. Would you accept this gift?” And she gave me a glass elephant. I will never forget that. It crossed all cultural boundaries. We had so many. … It was a lot of Latinos, Puerto Rican, Mexican, you name it, that loved us. Asians, India, people from India, where the name Raj means prince. I found that out while I was being interviewed by a journalist from India.
No one knew; even our producers were shocked when the show was canceled. We only did three years, about 69 episodes. They told us, “Look kid, they probably won’t want a syndication because it is a Black show. And as God would have it, it became more popular on reruns than it was when it was on ABC prime time. Who knew? Twice a day, seven years straight, so it literally was heaven on earth. Yeah, a lot of stuff was still going on, but the ’70s were a great time. I think everybody would say that — Black and white. It was a great time for music. You already had “Sanford and Son”; you had “Good Times”; you had “The Jeffersons”; and then we came along as youth. We were the first youth to be the stars of the show. I was the first Black nerd. I was doing an interview, and the guy says, “You’re the first Black nerd,” and I had never thought about it, so I said, “Oh okay, that’s cool.”
Zenger: On “Everybody Hates Chris”, you made one phrase — actually one word — become probably the most talked about line and funniest line in the show. How were you able to do it, and why is that one word so funny in the manner in which you express it?
Thomas: (Laughing). Tragic … tragic (laughing)! Brother … I do not know. I just know that when we were doing the show, the creators, Ali LeRoi and Chris Rock said they created the role for me, so I didn’t audition for it. They gave it to me, right, which made me happy and extremely nervous because I got to present something they’ve never seen. They just believed in my ability to create this guy. It was all Jesus. I remember being there at six in the morning; I’m pacing back and forth; I went over it; I had the lines down and all that, but I’m pacing back and forth. And this elderly lady who was an extra says, “Baby, what’s wrong? Why are you so nervous?” I said, “Well, this is a new role; they gave it to me, but they may not even like what I’m doing.” And she said, “Oh baby, you’re not doing it for them; you’re doing this for Jesus.” And when she said that, brother, it was like, Oh bring it! I forgot who I was. When I went in there, brother, it was like everything I said was just on point. Loretta Devine was in that episode — and so was Jimmie Walker — but we didn’t have any scenes together. He was the father of Tichina [Arnold].
Zenger News: It’s an honor to speak with you, Mr. Thomas. I have been a huge supporter for a very long time. How are you doing?
But the “tragic” thing … after that, I was saying it in every show. And I was tired of it. I said, “Okay, I don’t understand why I keep saying “tragic.” Ali Leroi said “Oh, trust me, Ernie, everybody is going to be saying “tragic.” I’m saying whatever is in my mind, but I’m not trying to lose a job. But honestly, I have no idea. I remember we did Comic-Con, and Bern Nadette [Stanis] was there from “Good Times”. We’re signing autographs and we’re sitting next to each other and man … people kept coming in and saying, “tragic, tragic, say it for me.” Bern Nadette says, “Ernie, what’s going on?” I said, “I don’t know.” And this little white boy, ah man, I wish I could’ve filmed that. I wish somebody had filmed that. He was the cutest little kid you would ever want to see. He came and stood in front of our table and he said, “Mr. Omar,” and he just reached his arms out like, pick me up. And everybody started applauding. And I picked him up. Bern Nadette had not seen the show. She said, “Ernie!” But Ali LeRoi said, “It’s the way you say it.”
People think we’re popular here, but you go to Europe, we’re really popular in Europe, France, Italy, Germany, Hong Kong and Brazil. We’re like gods. Someone sent me a video of Tichina going over there, and you would think she’s Michael Jackson. I could not believe it. There are huge crowds screaming. People told me that, and you believe it, but I didn’t know it was to that extent. I was at a signing in Alabama. And there was a kid there who was a student-exchange kid from Brazil, and his friends were bringing him over; they had to literally hold this guy. They were flanking him on both sides, holding him up. He’s shaking coming to me, meeting Mr. Omar. I just could not believe it. I just thank God because I didn’t see that show coming like that.
I didn’t know Chris Rock had me in mind. So many celebrities over the years say, “I’m going to do this and that for you,” and Chris Rock never promised me anything. He would just say, “Hello,” and keep going. Very nice, but never a lot of talk, and he was the one. I thanked him after my four years. I was on there for four years and 33 episodes. I was thanking the producers. I said, “Thank you guys so much,” and they go, “What are you talking about, Ernie?” I said, “Thank you for hiring me.” “Ernie, we didn’t hire you for charity; you have a brand. We love you and all that, but it’s about money. You bring money to the table because you have a brand, and people are going to come and see you.” Honestly, in all of those four years, I thought they were just doing it because they liked me. That was a blessing. I said, “Lord Jesus, you are something else, Lord.” Here you are now, people my age, the Baby Boomers know me as Raj. But the Millennials, it is Mr. Omar. They don’t know nothing about no “What’s Happening!!”; they don’t want to hear about it. They just want to talk to Mr. Omar and hear “tragic.” It’s just a supernatural blessing from Jesus Lord.
Zenger: You played Sidney in the movie “Malcolm X” in which you showed a completely different side of your acting abilities. Your diversity as an actor is so impressive, Mr. Thomas.
Thomas: Well, thank you! I was pinching myself (laughing) for the “Malcolm X” movie because everybody wanted to be in that movie. Brother, I mean everybody was trying to get in that movie. People were talking about it, because Denzel [Washington] had done a stage version of it years before that. In L.A. there were several brothers doing a one-man show of it. When we heard that Spike [Lee] was actually doing the movie, everybody was trying to audition. So, when I got it, man. And Denzel, he is one of the greatest of all time. There is no doubt about that. Hands down one of the greatest for all the other films he’s done, but “Malcolm X”, definitely Academy Award.
He was just so focused. You can’t help but be good if you’re in a scene with him because he’s not playing around. He’s going to be Malcolm, so you had to be whoever you had to be, which was Sidney. I remember he was telling me … I try to do a scene the same way, because if they like it, they’ll say, “That was great! We’re going to redo it because the lighting was off,” or something like that. So, you try and do it the same way since they weren’t saying your acting was off. I remember Denzel telling me, “Perfection is boring. Be that character, but as it hits you in that moment, let it be what it is. The fans that are watching will feel that spirit. They’ll feel that.” And I never forgot that. Perfection is boring. You’re not trying to do it the same way. It’s all about however it comes out of that character at that moment. It was a great piece of advice.
Zenger: You do motivational speaking as well. What audience do you reach, and what message do you try to convey during your speeches?
Thomas: Because I have both shows with Raj and Mr. Omar, it can be from Baby Boomers to Millennials. I might be at a college or high school, but the message, especially for the youth, because they want to know “How? How did I get this success?” So many people want to be an actor. So, I say to them, trust me, brother, this is all designed. I never ever wanted to be an actor. My best friend, Jake Smith, who I met through a fraternity brother, his brother was my best friend but then he came. He was older and he took me under his wing. Everything I did made him laugh, so I would just try harder to make him laugh. He started this thing that I was an actor.
So, I tell them, God will give you a word as Bishop Jakes says in that sermon, “The Divine Strategies”. God will give you a word that’s so scary, you can’t tell nobody. That’s what it felt like when that acting thing came along. It’s stressful; it’s uncomfortable. You feel like you’re losing your mind. And no one is in agreement with that, because I had gotten a degree from college — my Masters — and then I got a good job in this white steel mill. I took the job only so I can have money for acting school in New York. No one knew that. So, I quit after six months and started all over again as an acting student. So, everyone thought I had lost my mind, literally, that I had gone crazy. So, it was me and God against the world. So, I said, that’s what it is. You gotta have that faith. Everybody was saying that I had lost my mind, but God is telling you to do something. And it’s like, “God, what are you talking about?”
But I gotta be obedient. I was new at this; I had to learn how to act. I had to take this course. You cry many, many, many days. You have to know that God said, you will suffer a while. You will find yourself doing things … a knowingness that you never knew you ever had. Don’t get it twisted by my smile and all the love I give off; I have cried a river of tears before I made it. No one saw those tears. So, I tell them, put God first; God never lies. As he says in John 14, “Ask anything in my name and I will do it.” He will. Trust me, baby, there are going to be so many days where you’re not going to feel like it because you’re being rejected.
For “What’s Happening!!”, I came to California with nothing, no money, no agent and I just stayed with somebody here, somebody there. People would send me $5 or $10, so I would stay in this dingy hotel, rejected by about nine agents and crying myself to sleep. Your head hurts you’re crying so much. But I never let anyone see it. As far as people are concerned, “There’s that fool again,” when they see me coming out that little dingy hotel. You would hear people whispering and saying, “Hey man, you get your show yet?” It was almost a year, a few weeks less than a year, when I got the No. 3 show in the nation. I used to hear people saying, “Look at this fool,” and they would ask me every day, “Did you get your show yet?” And they would laugh at me, but God had the last laugh.
Put God first; your feelings are traitors to your soul. It ain’t about what you feel like. You get your butt up; you get in that shower; you pray and you go out there with a smile acting as though it is already. And anybody that tries to give you any negativity or any poison, talking about how hard it is, I silence them right away. “Excuse me, I’m in a hurry, but God promised this to me. I can’t enter a conversation with you about it, but God bless you,” and move on. Then, I would excommunicate friends who would try and call and make it a thing about “Come on man, you left a good job; you should go on back to that job, man. How long you been out there now?” I would say, “Do me a favor, God got me on a mission, so I won’t be able to talk to you until that mission happens. So lose my number until then and I’ll lose yours. Take care now.” That meant cousins, aunties, whoever. So, now it’s just me and God. That’s all I hear is me and God.
I had one friend, Jake. Jake would call me because he believed in me, but his wife hated my guts. If you stay on this course, yeah, you will suffer. But baby when God shows up, I spoke about the heaven on earth, you will experience heaven on earth. But work as if every day is your last day on earth. You gotta do that. Can’t be no days slacking up. You gotta be like, if I don’t do it today, I’m going to die. He’s going to give you an energy. This idea is going to come to you, and you’re going to surprise yourself. Oh, I better go knock on this door. Maybe I should go over there and do this. Maybe I should wear a certain suit.
All that’s going to come to you because you’re doing what most of the people on earth is not doing. Most people on earth is not living like it’s their last day on earth, and that’s why they don’t become successful. And they have more talent than me. There were actors who were far more talented than me, angry with me, but it ain’t my fault you didn’t have the faith and you didn’t have the time. I knew a guy that was so gifted, a man that I auditioned against. I just knew he had it. Faith and favor because I really think God says, “You love me that much that you appreciate every second that you’re on this earth.” Because that’s what you’re telling God. If you’re living each day like it’s your last, you’re telling God that you appreciate every second and that’s why he catapulted you above all those haters and all the competition.
(Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Alex Patrick)
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