WHEN HE WAS 5, FRED BERRY had two dreams: to be on TV and be rich. Both came true. “I was a millionaire by the time I was 29,” says the once roly-poly star of the ’70s sitcom What’s Happening!!, “but then the stress of success got to me. The fat jokes got to me. And I got heavily into drugs and alcohol.”
Today, at 46, Berry is a rebuilt Rerun. Sober, slimmer (by more than 100 pounds) and drug-free, he teaches Bible classes and gives motivational speeches as an unpaid associate pastor at the Little Shiloh Primitive Baptist Church in Madison, Ala. “Brother Berry is still a big star,” says student Valarie Owens, 17. “But he’s also someone you can talk to. He wants us to know we can change, like he did.”
Before he could change, Berry had to bounce off the bottom. Raised in a St. Louis housing project, he was touring with a dance troupe when he landed the part of Rerun in 1976. Success turned his dabbling with drugs into a full-blown addiction. “I was empty inside,” he says. “I blew a million dollars on drugs, real estate, an airplane, horses, the whole nine yards.” Around the time Berry spent a season in the show’s 1985 revival, What’s Happening Now!!, he began attending support groups at a local church and finally kicked his addictions. In 1986 he started lecturing troubled kids and, two years ago, moved to Huntsville, Ala.
“Today I live strictly on faith,” says the thrice-married Berry, now a single father of three. “My basic expenses run $1,500 a month, and I never know where the next $1,500 is coming from. I have to depend on people calling me to speak.” Gigs like a recent Tostitos commercial are infrequent, and he claims his TV residuals amount to “gas money,” yet Berry gives 10 percent of his income to the church.
He also shares his buoyant spirit: not a day goes by without someone asking him to “do” Rerun. “I don’t mind at all,” says Berry, still light on his feet. “It gives me one more chance to tell people about God.”