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Fred Berry, 52; Actor Became a Minister After Playing 'Rerun' on 1970s' 'What's Happening!'

October 24, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Fred Berry, the rotund actor who played the jolly, red beret- and suspenders-wearing Rerun on the 1970s sitcom "What's Happening!" and later became an ordained minister, has died. He was 52.

Berry, who recently suffered a mild stroke, died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles, apparently of natural causes. A coroner's investigation was being conducted to determine the cause of death.

A former member of the dance group the Lockers, Berry shot to TV fame in 1976 as the happy-go-lucky Freddie "Rerun" Stubbs on "What's Happening!," a comedy about three black high school students. (The others were Ernest Thomas as Raj and Haywood Nelson Jr. as Dwayne.)

The series aired on ABC until 1979. An updated version, "What's Happening Now!," ran in syndication from 1985 to 1988, although Berry left after its first season because of a contract dispute.

But there was a down side to his celebrity.

"I was a millionaire by the time I was 29," he told People magazine in 1996, "but then the stress of success got to me. The fat jokes got to me. And I got heavily into drugs and alcohol."

Berry said in another 1996 interview that he had been "experimenting with drugs and alcohol" since he was a teenager, but as he became more successful, he could afford more drugs.

He was, he told the Cincinnati Call and Post, "addicted to drugs and alcohol for 10 years and probably spent a million dollars partying, and tried to commit suicide three times. I just got tired of being tired and decided to rededicate my life to the Lord in 1984. That's when I also got delivered from the drugs and alcohol."

At the time of the interview, Berry was an unpaid associate minister and evangelist at the Little Shiloh Church on the outskirts of Huntsville, Ala., where he had moved from Los Angeles a year and a half earlier.

"I'd been going to churches for the past 12 years, to all kinds of services, but when I walked in here, I felt the power of God," he told the Los Angeles Sentinel. "I didn't want to leave."

Raised in a St. Louis housing project, Berry moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1965. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, he once said, "because they wanted me to read books on a fourth-grade reading level."

He began dancing on the television dance show "Soul Train" as a teenager and, in the early '70s, joined the Lockers, who performed in Las Vegas and opened for Bill Cosby, Dean Martin and other entertainers.

Berry was still dancing with the Lockers when he heard that auditions were being held for "What's Happening!"

In the years after the show ended, Berry never tired of being recognized as Rerun, a moniker he legally adopted as his middle name. He had cashed in on his TV fame in recent years by donning his trademark red beret and working as a pitchman for various companies.

"I'm still Rerun and I love it!" Berry said in an interview a year ago. "People ask me to dance every day, no matter where I am -- in the grocery store or in the boardroom."

Berry, who lived most of the time in Los Angeles, also kept busy as a minister. "I'm not the ordinary, orthodox, pat-you-on-the-head type," he said. "I'm the type of minister that will get in your face. I'm real because it's a real world out there."

Berry also kept his hand in show business, including making a recent guest shot on NBC's "Scrubs" and a cameo in the David Spade comedy "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star."

Last summer, Berry began working with a new Web site -- www.hollywoodiscalling.com -- which, for a fee, provides 15-second phone calls from celebrities who offer up birthday greetings or simple hellos.

Berry received more than 130 requests a month for calls, and fans sometimes screamed with delight when he told them Rerun was on the line and gave them him his signature "Hey, hey, hey."

"I'm not doing it for the money," he insisted in an interview with the Washington Post in August. "Hearing the excitement in people's voices -- I think I would pay them if I really had the money."

Berry was married six times (he married two wives twice) and had three children, DeShannon, Portia and Freddy.

Services are pending.

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