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Shirley Hemphill

Shirley Hemphill

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Shirley Ann Hemphill (July 1, 1947 – December 10, 1999) was an American stand-up comedian and actress.

A native of Asheville, North Carolina, Hemphill moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. After working the Los Angeles comedy club circuit, her routine eventually attracted attention leading to her being cast in guest starring roles on television. In 1976, she landed the role of wisecracking waitress Shirley Wilson on the sitcom What’s Happening!!. The series was a modest hit for ABC, but production and cast problems caused ABC to cancel the series in 1979. The following year, Hemphill was cast in her own sitcom, One in a Million. The series failed to attract an audience and was canceled in June 1980.

In 1985, Hemphill reprised the role as Shirley Wilson in the syndicated revival of What’s Happening!! titled What’s Happening Now!!. Like its predecessor, What’s Happening Now!! aired for three seasons. After the show’s cancellation, Hemphill returned to stand-up comedy and also made occasional appearances in films and television.

In December 1999, Hemphill died of renal failure at her West Covina, California, home at the age of 52.

By 1976, Hemphill’s stand-up routine started to get noticed and caught the attention of casting agent Joan Murray. Murray cast Hemphill in guest roles on Good Times which led to another guest starring role on All’s Fair. After seeing her performance on Good Times, Norman Lear offered Hemphill her own spin-off series but she turned it down. Instead, she auditioned and won the role of sarcastic waitress Shirley Wilson on the ABC sitcom What’s Happening!!.

Loosely based on Eric Monte’s film Cooley High, the series follows the adventures of three teenaged boys: Raj (Ernest Thomas), Rerun (Fred Berry), and Dwayne (Haywood Nelson). Hemphill’s character worked at Rob’s Place, the restaurant the boys frequented. The series was a modest hit for ABC but was beset with behind the scene problems. In the series’ second season, Fred Berry and Ernest Thomas staged a walkout over their dressing room conditions which they claimed were unsuitable. During the series’ third season, Fred Berry demanded more money and reportedly convinced Ernest Thomas and Haywood Nelson to join him in a strike. Producers opted to cancel the series instead of increasing the actors’ salaries.

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