When Demond Wilson surreptitiously slid into a pew on the stage of the Ephesian Church, his hand-tailored dark blue Italian suit couldn't conceal the 25 pounds he'd gained since he appeared on the "Sanford and Son" television series in the mid-'70s.
"Yea, that's Lamont," a woman whispered to a fellow parishioner as she pointed toward Wilson, who as Lamont had played the foil to the irreverent Redd Foxx during the comedy's 1972-77 prime-time run on NBC.
On this night, however, he had come in the role of the Rev. Wilson to deliver the gospel to both the curious and converted who packed the pews of the small Pentecostal church in South-Central Los Angeles.
No to the High Life
At 40, Wilson has turned his back on the Hollywood high life to become a fundamentalist evangelist preaching to audiences as large as 20,000--and as small as the 300 he held mesmerized during his fiery 90-minute sermon.
With his right hand pounding on a well-worn Bible spread open on the podium before him and his left hand pointing accusingly at the worshipers, Wilson bellowed: "Nobody wants to live for God! You want to 'do your own thing.'
"You turn away from God and expect him to forgive you. You think you can stray from the straight and narrow course the Lord has set for you and still get into heaven just by praying: 'Lord, you know in my heart I always believed in you.'
"Well, don't expect God to forgive you! Salvation is not free! Think again, you homosexuals, adulterers, fornicators and apostles of hatred and strife. You're going to bust the doors of hell open with your hard heads!
"When I worked in a little community north of here, Holly\o7 weird\f7 , I was supposed to be at the top of the hill of success. But I had nothing. It was like standing on a hill of goat droppings because, like a lot of you, I was separated from the Lord."
Wilson's sermon, delivered in a sarcastic style, was interrupted sporadically by knowing laughter, applause and standing ovations from the enthusiastic congregation.
At 11 p.m. as she filed out of the church at the conclusion of the three-hour service, Blanche Howard, a 40ish saleswoman from Compton, beamed: "I loved what Rev. Wilson had to say. He preached the word of Jesus Christ--and what you have to do to obey it."
Echoing this view, Denver Locke, a 26-year-old school bus driver from Los Angeles, said: "I've never heard a man preach like that before. He has the ability to say what God lays on his heart."
Clearly, Wilson is still a crowd pleaser. Until three years ago, however, his roles had been limited to stage and screen.
He garnered his greatest success during the six years he played on "Sanford and Son." This series, along with "Baby, I'm Back" (CBS, 1978), and "The New Odd Couple" (ABC, 1982-1983) resulted in a decade during which Wilson seldom was absent from the television screens of America's homes. And "Sanford and Son," now in syndication, is shown daily in almost every American city and many foreign countries.
At the height of his acting career, Wilson walked away from it all--the $40,000-a-week salary, the 27-room Bel-Air mansion and Rolls Royce in the driveway.
He also left behind a $1,000-a-week cocaine habit and the gnawing self-hatred that acting engendered, Wilson explained during an interview before his recent three-day appearance as guest preacher at the Ephesian Church of God in Christ's three-day revival.
"Unlike a lot of actors in Hollywood who sit around a long time between jobs, I was lucky because for 10 years I was working all the time," Wilson said as he strolled along Dana Point Harbor, where he often comes to meditate. "Unfortunately, what I was doing was trash."
Repaired the Damage
Today, he says he's repaired the damage his acting career and accompanying extramarital affairs did to his 14-year-marriage to Cicely Johnston, a 41-year-old former model. Two years ago, they and their five children moved to what he half-jokingly calls "respectable, Republican, upper-middle-class" Mission Viejo.
"It was here or Hawaii," Wilson said in explaining his move from Los Angeles to Orange County. "If we'd stayed in Bel-Air, my children would have become precocious kids who'd want nose jobs at 13."
Instead, he says his five children, ranging in age from 13 years to 10 months old are having "normal childhoods."
"We've left the rat race and false people behind," he said. Family life now revolves around picnics at the shore, bicycle riding, sailing and deep sea fishing.
"I have no desire to act again," said a relaxed and witty Wilson, who looked years younger than when he last appeared on prime-time television three years ago playing Oscar Madison in "The New Odd Couple."
"I'd stomached as much as I could saying: 'Hey pop, I'm back' (on 'Sanford and Son') and: 'No, Felix, I don't know where the top to the toothpaste is,' " he recalled.
"It wasn't challenging. And it was emotionally exhausting because I had to make it appear that I was excited about what I was doing.