Laughter’s power to open people’s hearts became clear to Ernest Thomas shortly after he began playing Raj on TV’s What’s Happening!! Loosely based on the 1975 movie Cooley High, the sitcom followed the adventures of three African-American teenage best friends.

“I met one racist lady who told me she hated Black people until she was channel-surfing and discovered our show and started laughing,” Ernest, 75, tells Closer.

It wasn’t Ernest’s first brush with racism. As a teen in Gary, Indiana, he attended an all-white school where he wasn’t even allowed to use the front door.

“When I look at the young kid I was before I got What’s Happening!!, he’s my hero now,” Ernest says. “I’d told the Lord I couldn’t take any more rejection, but He did not allow me to give up. That’s the power of belief!”

What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid?

“I wanted to be a social worker because of this lady who helped our family. That was my intent when I went to college. I was a shy church boy who stayed in his room, so I never thought I could be an actor.”

You overcame a lot in your young life, including racism, physical abuse and bullying. What do you credit your strength to?

“Because of my faith in God, those things were made smaller. I think without that, I could have become a drug addict or committed suicide. A lot of my friends in similar situations drank themselves to death because they allowed these situations to consume them.”

What do you consider your big break?

“I did an episode of The Jeffersons, and one of the agents told me about a pilot for a new show that became What’s Happening!! I wanted that show so bad. It was do it or die.”

Was your family supportive of your desire to become an actor?

“Everyone told me the statistics, but I didn’t care about that. I went, ‘No. I am what the world needs. They’re waiting for me.’ I convinced myself that I could be the lead on a sitcom. And I told God I would always have time for my fans and pay it forward.”

What was the biggest blessing of starring on What’s Happening!!?

“The blessing was being my character, Raj. I told the producers he’s every man’s best friend, every woman’s ideal mate, every teacher’s ideal student and every parent’s ideal child. When you see him come out of the house smiling in the opening, that’s me.”

You had a complicated relationship with Fred Berry, who played Rerun on What’s Happening!! and passed in 2003.

“He was my brother, my frenemy, and then became my brother again. We were very close in the beginning, but cocaine turned him into a different person. There was gossip and backstabbing, but before he died, he took everything back. He had become born-again and a preacher. I officiated his funeral. Now, I’ve become like an uncle to his daughter, Portia, who’s a comedian and looks just like him.”

What's Happening!! Star Ernest Thomas Talks Overcoming Racism
Michael Tullberg / Getty Images

At the height of the series, Gary, Indiana, celebrated Ernest Thomas Day.

“That was June 9, 1977. They had Coretta Scott King, Dick Gregory, Deniece Williams and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jesse gave me a little ’tude because he was not getting the attention. At the podium, people rushed the stage to touch me, and people were holding their babies up. A man presented me with a bust of my head, and they held a big parade. And my mother shouted, ‘You are not Jesus Christ!’”

Your mother, Liza, lived to age 91. Tell us about her.

“My mother was never lazy. She wanted to get off welfare, so she took on two jobs that about killed her. But she never watched What’s Happening!! or my movies. That hurt me initially. I had to get used to [the idea] that she was just not into TV or film. She read her Bible every day and called people and prayed for them. She would speak to people and heal them.”

Who were your role models growing up?

“My teachers. My pastor. My four uncles. Sidney Poitier. Seeing a man that dark being so classy and articulate. He became my imaginary father. I tried to copy the way he walked and talked.”

It must have been wild to work with Sidney on 1977’s A Piece of the Action.

“Man, he had to tell me to stop staring at him. ‘Snap out of it,’ he said. ‘But you don’t know what this means,’ I told him. He said he was a fan of mine, too. He watched What’s Happening!! and actually acted out one of Raj’s bits verbatim.”

Have any other famous actors impacted your career?

“Burt Reynolds gave me his number — twice — but I never felt comfortable calling him. Anthony Anderson [Blackish] just called a few weeks ago to tell me, ‘Without you, there’s no me.’ He wants to get together.”

The legendary Muhammad Ali also gave you some great advice. Tell us about that.

“I went missing for a while. Ali lit a fire in me to stop singing the blues. People took advantage of him. I think we bonded when I offered to hear his problems and he told me things I would never [repeat to] anyone. He told me not to be intimidated by anyone and encouraged me to write a treatment to bring back What’s Happening!! into the ’80s. What’s Happening Now!! ended up running for three years in first-run syndication.”

What’s next for you?

“I’m recurring on a BET show called Diarra From Detroit. In June, the animated Everybody Hates Chris premieres on Comedy Central, and I’m reprising my part as Mr. Omar, the funeral director. You’re going to love it. It is so funny. And they’re talking about rebooting What’s Happening!! with a whole new cast. I’d probably play a part.”

Do you follow any words of wisdom?

“Live every day like it’s the last. Don’t sweat the small stuff — it’s all small stuff. If you put God first, it’s all going to work out for the good.”