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'Sanford and Son' to Evangelist : Ex-TV Star Demond Wilson Turns to Religious Calling

October 13, 1986|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

"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.

"I'd go home and tell my wife I didn't want to be doing this; I kept hoping the money would make me happy. But the more I made, the more my life came apart. I was depressed; Cicely was depressed. She even left me."

'No Friends in Hollywood'

Wilson said he felt further isolated and alienated because "I had no friends in Hollywood, just associates from work." (It has been years since he's had any contact with "Sanford and Son" co-star Redd Foxx.)

Wilson says many people find it bizarre that he has given up acting's good life to take up the mantle of an itinerant evangelist. Not Wilson.

"I did not find religion . You always hear these negative things when you hear a celebrity's turned to God: 'He did it because he was having financial problems; he had no place else to go; he was on dope and was at the end of his ropes.' None of this applied in my case.

"It wasn't like I had been out of show business for five years. I started preaching the gospel eight months after the filming of 'The New Odd Couple' came to an end; even then I had been approached about appearing in another television series, but took myself out of consideration.

"I'd been thinking about becoming a minister since the third year of 'Sanford and Son'; I figured it was now or never.

God Is Guiding Force

"I was always aware that God was the guiding force in my life. It's just that I didn't think about Him much. I'd pray to him to get me out of some personal or financial crisis; once the problem was solved, I'd forget about him."

Wilson, recalling the eclectic origins of his faith, said, "I was raised a Catholic, was an altar boy, and at 14 I seriously considered becoming a priest."

This occurred against the backdrop of his growing up in New York City where his mother (Laura, "a spry 83") was a dietitian and his father was a tailor.

"Every summer my mother would send me down to my grandmother's in Georgia because she didn't want me on the streets of Harlem. My grandmother was very religious, and she was always taking me to Pentecostal services."

Despite his longstanding "affair with the Lord," Wilson said show business proved a stronger lure. Having studied tap dance and ballet, he appeared on Broadway at 4 1/2 and four years later was making guest appearances on television.

Heroin Habit in 1967

When a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam ended in 1967, Wilson brought home a heroin habit. It took him four years to give up snorting the drug.

"Until four years ago, I was still bearing the scars of that experience. I was apprehensive of people and showed a lot of hostility.

"I was overprotective of myself and family." For example, he maintained a $750,000 condo in Century City so his privacy wouldn't be invaded by entertaining people in his Bel-Air home.

"By the time I was in 'The New Odd Couple,' nothing in life was exciting. My values were distorted.

"I was involved in drugs--though it didn't affect my work or business. To all the world I looked like a success, but I was just going through the motions of living."

After "The New Odd Couple" was canceled in March, 1983, Wilson spent the next eight months watching religious programs on TV, studying the Bible, and "down on my knees a lot praying."

Despite the distaste he now has for "Sanford and Son," Wilson readily acknowledged, "I wouldn't be attracting thousands of people to my crusades without the name recognition that show gave me.

"Yes, I've traded on the fact that it's in syndication here and in 100 foreign countries," he said. "But I've gotten people to come and hear me who wouldn't see somebody like Billy Graham. And after two years as an evangelist, it's obvious people wouldn't still be coming out to see me if I didn't have something to say."

Staff of 16 Helps

He heads the Demond Wilson Ministries, which is headquartered in Laguna Hills. It has a staff of 16. He's on the road three weeks out of the month preaching in churches, auditoriums and outdoor stadiums, primarily to the black community.

(During these absences he talks twice daily on the phone to his wife.)

"I'm not in this to build a personal ministry or make a buck," maintained Wilson, who was ordained an interdenominational preacher in the fall of 1984. "I'm doing it for the glory of the Lord."

However, he declines to say how much he makes as an evangelist. "That's not something I concern myself with. God takes care of my needs."

For the past year, Wilson's organization has operated the Christian International Outreach Center in Miami, which he says is a drug rehabilitation program and street ministry.

He also is a founder and member of the board of directors of "The Lord's Airline," a New Jersey-based carrier that specializes in charter flights for religious groups.

During the first two weeks of this month, Wilson is using one of the airline's four planes to transport nearly 200 staffers, ministers and other followers (paying $3,000 each) on his self-styled "Victory in Africa" tour. During this evangelical crusade, similar to one he conducted last year, Wilson is scheduled to hold massive outdoor rallies in Nigeria and Kenya.

"I'm now doing what the Lord wants me do do; I'm happy at last."

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