Shirley Hemphill

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

Shirley Hemphill
Shirley Hemphill.jpg
Shirley Ann Hemphill

(1947-07-01)July 1, 1947
DiedDecember 10, 1999(1999-12-10) (aged 52)
Alma materMorristown College
OccupationComedian, actress
Years active1976–1999
From TV's What's Happening!! (1977). Seated, L-R: Fred Berry, Ernest Lee Thomas, and Haywood Nelson (back to camera). Standing: Shirley Hemphill.

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 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 her 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 kidney failure at her West Covina, California, home at the age of 52.

Early lifeEdit

Hemphill was born in Asheville, North Carolina, to Richard and Mozella Hemphill. She had a brother, William. Hemphill attended Hill Street School and Stephens-Lee High School, and later won an athletics scholarship to Morristown College where she majored in physical education. Hemphill returned to Asheville two years later where she got a job in a factory manufacturing nylons.[1]

An aspiring stand-up comedian, Hemphill sent a cassette tape of one of her comedy routines to Flip Wilson. Wilson was impressed by her routine and in turn, sent her a cassette recorder and a dozen roses. Wilson also invited Hemphill to visit the set of The Flip Wilson Show. After the visit, Hemphill returned to her job in Asheville but decided to pursue a career in comedy instead. She quit her job and traveled to Los Angeles by bus. Hemphill got a job waitressing during the day and performed at The Comedy Store at night.[2][3]


By 1976, Hemphill's stand-up routine started to get noticed and caught the attention of casting agent Joan Murray.[3] 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 waitress Shirley Wilson on the ABC sitcom What's Happening!!.[2] 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.[4] 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.[5]

Following the cancellation of What's Happening, Hemphill auditioned for the role of the cook on Archie Bunker's Place, but the role went to Anne Meara. The day after losing the role, Hemphill was offered the starring role in her own sitcom One in a Million.[6] On the series, she portrayed Shirley Simmons, a taxi driver who inherited a huge corporation and fortune from one of her customers.[7] The series debuted on ABC on January 8, 1980, but failed to attract a sufficient audience. ABC canceled the series in June 1980.[8]

Afterward, Hemphill spent most of the early 1980s working in nightclubs around the U.S. and doing the occasional guest appearance on TV shows, including The Love Boat and Trapper John, M.D.. In 1985, she was invited to co-star on the revival of What's Happening!! entitled What's Happening Now!!, which aired in syndication from 1985 to 1988.[9] After What's Happening Now!! ended its three-year run, she again worked the nightclub scene and doing the occasional acting gig on a number of '90s comedy sitcoms, including Martin and The Wayans Bros..[8] In 1993, she appeared in her first movie, CB4, starring Chris Rock. Two years later she co-starred in her second movie, Shoot the Moon, starring Whitney Anderson.

Throughout her career, Hemphill performed her stand-up routine on a number of popular TV shows including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, A&E's An Evening at the Improv, BET's Black Comedy Showcase and Black Comedy Tonight. She was also a regular at The Laugh Factory comedy club in Los Angeles.[10] A year before her death, Hemphill appeared in an episode of The Jenny Jones Show in a What's Happening!! reunion show; actors Ernest Thomas and Haywood Nelson also appeared.


On December 10, 1999, Hemphill was found dead at her home in West Covina, California. Her body was discovered by a gardener who looked through a window and saw her lying on her bedroom floor. An autopsy determined that Hemphill died of kidney failure.[11][12] Hemphill was cremated.


Year Title Role Notes
1976 All's Fair Big O Episode: "The Gang Leader"
1976 Good Times Rozzie Episode: "Rich Is Better Than Poor... Maybe"
1977 The Richard Pryor Special? Pushy Fan from Tour Group Television special
1976–1979 What's Happening!! Shirley Wilson 60 episodes
1980 One in a Million Shirley Simmons 13 episodes
1982 The Love Boat Charlene Grover Episode: "Isaac Gets Physical/She Brought Her Mother Along/Cold Feet"
1983 Trapper John, M.D. Lacy Episode: "Fat Chance"
1984 Pryor's Place Episode: "Sax Education"
1985–1988 What's Happening Now!! Shirley Wilson 66 episodes
1993 CB4 976-Sexy
1993 The Sinbad Show Mamie Episode: "I Coulda' Been the Man"
1994 Martin Sister Claus Episode: "Go Tell It on the Martin"
1996 Shoot the Moon Lula Jones, PhD
1996 The Wayans Bros. Coco Episode: "Hearts and Flowers
1999 Linc's Episode: "Speaking in Tongues"


  1. ^ "Shirley Hemphill: A Star Is Born". Ebony. Johnson Publishing Company. 35 (7): 93. May 1980. ISSN 0012-9011.
  2. ^ a b Buck, Jerry (February 6, 1980). "Shirley Hemphill's career has taken off in a taxicab". Merced Sun-Star. p. 6. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  3. ^ a b "What's Happening!!: ABC's popular teen-age sitcom succeeds in spite of itself". Ebony. Johnson Publishing Company. 33 (8): 82. June 1978. ISSN 0012-9011.
  4. ^ "Messy' Dressing Room Cleaned Up, 'What's Happening' Stars Return". Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. 53 (5): 57. 1977-10-20. ISSN 0021-5996.
  5. ^ Huff, Dominique (April 19, 2006). "The Exploitation of Fred 'Rerun' Berry". Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  6. ^ Winfrey, Lee (January 30, 1980). "Shirley Lost Cook's Job, But Won Whole Company". Toledo Blade. pp. P–4. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  7. ^ "Which Would You Choose?". The Evening Independent. January 8, 1980. pp. 9–B. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  8. ^ a b McCann, Bob (2010). Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television. McFarland. p. 155. ISBN 0-786-43790-1.
  9. ^ "'What's Happening' Show Returns In Syndication". Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. 68 (24): 64. August 26, 1985. ISSN 0021-5996.
  10. ^ "Actress Shirley Hemphill, 52, Found Dead In Her Los Angeles Home". Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. 97 (5): 17. January 10, 2000. ISSN 0021-5996.
  11. ^ "Shirley Hemphill". Toledo Blade. December 12, 1999. p. 24. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  12. ^ Christian, Margena A. (2007-10-15). "Where Is...The Cast of 'What's Happening'?". Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. 112 (15): 50. ISSN 0021-5996.

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