Who was Shirley Hemphill?
Shirley Hemphill was an American standup comedian, best known for her role in the comedy sitcom, ‘What’s Happening!!’. Born and raised in Asheville, she earned her degree in Physical Education from Morristown College and then returned to her hometown to work in a nylon manufacturing unit. It was while working there, that she began to perform as a standup comedian, eventually moving to Los Angeles, where she began to perform at The Comedy Store. Very soon, her acts got noticed and at the age of twenty-nine, she debuted on television, bagging the role of Shirley Simmons in ‘What’s Happening!!’ later in the same year. Thereafter, she continued appearing on television, sometime in recurring roles and sometime as guest artist, concurrently traveling across USA to perform in various nightclubs as well as at The Laugh Factory comedy club in Los Angeles. At the age of fifty-two, she died from renal failure.
Childhood & Early Years
Shirley Ann Hemphill was born on July 1, 1947 in Asheville, North Carolina. Nothing is known about her family background except that her father’s name was Richard Hemphill while her mother’s name was Mozella and that her brother, William, was a Vietnam War veteran. They were of African-American descent.
Beginning her education at Hill Street School, she later moved to Stephens-Lee High School, the legendary African-American school known for excellent faculty and wide curriculum. It is likely that she developed an interest in athletics while studying here. Eventually she graduated from there in 1965.
After graduating from school, she entered Morristown College, an African-American institution located in the state of Tennessee, on an athletics scholarship, graduating from there with a degree in Physical Education, in 1967. Thereafter, she returned to Asheville, where she took up a job in a nylon manufacturing factory.
There is little information regarding how or when Hemphill developed an interest in standup comedy. But by early 1970s she had started performing comedy acts, concurrently maintaining her job at the nylon factory.
Sometime in early 1970s, she recorded one of her acts on a tape recorder and sent the cassette to noted comedian Flip Wilson. Impressed, he sent her dozen roses, a cassette recorder and an invitation to visit the set of ‘The Flip Wilson Show’ (1970-1974), an offer she happily accepted.
On returning to Ashville, Hemphill decided to try her luck as a professional comedian. Therefore, she quit her job and moved to Los Angeles in order to pursue her career as a standup comedian.
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On reaching Los Angeles, Hemphill began to maintain herself by working as a waitress. Eventually, she found a spot at The Comedy Store, a well-known comedy club in Hollywood, where she began to perform at night. To earn extra income, she continued waitressing during the day.
In 1976, her acts caught the attention of casting agent Joan Murray and she was selected for the role of Rozzie in the ‘Rich Is Better Than Poor... Maybe’ episode (season 4, episode 10) of the CBS sitcom ‘Good Times’. Taped on September 2, 1976, the episode was aired on December 8, 1976.
While her debut television role was Rozzie, her first television appearance was as Big O in ‘The Gang Leader’ episode of the CBS sitcom, ‘All’s Fair’. Taped on November 1, 1976, the episode was aired on November 8, 1976, one month before ‘Rich is Better’ was broadcast.
Her performance in ‘Good Times’ was noticed by producer, Norman Milton Lear, who offered her, her own spinoff series. However, she decided to turn it down, instead auditioning for the role of Shirley Wilson on the ABC sitcom ‘What's Happening!!’, appearing in its 60 episodes from 1976 to 1979.
In 1980, she got her first starring role, appearing as Shirley Simmons, a sharp-tongued taxicab driver who inherits controlling interest in Grayson Enterprises, in the ABC sitcom, ‘One in a Million’. However, it was not very successful and was therefore cancelled after thirteen episodes.
After ‘One in a Million’ was cancelled in June 1980, she spent some years performing in nightclubs throughout the USA. Also during this period, she appeared in guest roles in a few television productions like ‘The Love Boat’ (1982), 'Trapper John, M.D.' (1983) and 'Pryor's Place' (1984).
In 1985, she was asked to reprise the role of Shirley Wilson in ‘What’s Happening Now!!’, subsequently appearing in its sixty-six episodes till its cancellation in March 1988. Thereafter, she returned to the nightclubs, performing standup comedies.
In 1993, she debuted in films with the role of 976-Sexy in ‘CB4’. Her only other film, ‘Shoot the Moon’, in which she appeared as Lula Jones PhD, was released in 1996.
Also in 1990s, she appeared in guest roles in various television productions like ‘The Sinbad Show’ (1993), 'Martin' (1994), 'The Wayans Bros.’ (1996) etc. Her last appearance on television was in the ‘Speaking in Tongues’ episode of ‘Linc’s’ (aired on August 15 1999).
Shirley Hemphill is best remembered for her role in the ABC sitcom ‘What's Happening!!’, appearing in it as Shirley Wilson, the brash waitress in a neighborhood restaurant, where the protagonists were regular customers. She later reprised the role in its sequel, ‘What’s Happening Now!!’
Shirley Hemphill did not marry or have any child. On December 10, 1999, she was found dead in her home in West Covina, California. Autopsy revealed that she had died of heart attack arising out of obesity and renal failure. Her mortal remains were later cremated.