Fred Berry, aka “Rerun” and “Mr. Penguin,” was one of the most iconic dancers, actors and performers in show business history. He was also a good friend of mine. His style of dancing was often imitated but never duplicated. Although overweight, he was smooth and light on his feet and he could out-dance a number of professional dancers.
Born March 19, 1951 in St. Louis, Missouri, Fred grew up in public housing before he and his family later moved to Los Angeles. In the recent SoulTrain.com Diary of an Ex-Soul Train Dancer interview, Don Campbell of the legendary Lockers dance troupe explained that he and Fred first met at the club Maverick’s Flat. Fred was real quiet but after he watched Don dancing he started getting into dancing. Eventually, Fred and Don became close friends and Fred wound up becoming a dancer on Soul Train and became a standout, mixing locking with his own freestyle moves. He later became a part of the Lockers dance troupe and was given the nickname “Penguin.”
Aside from the Lockers, Fred also did outside work, performing in a Dick Clark-produced TV special about the history of dance and also appeared in a club scene in the 1972 movie Hammer starring Fred Williamson.
After performing with the Lockers for four years, Fred auditioned for a new television sitcom for ABC called What’s Happening!!, which was loosely based on the motion picture Cooley High. The role he auditioned for, Rerun, was originally written for a skinny white guy. Fred said that when he showed up for the auditions, the casting directors and producers told him they needed a skinny white guy for the role but Fred kept insisting to them that, “I am a white skinny guy!” Fred’s persistence paid off as the casting directors and producers fell out laughing at the sight of this young, portly black guy proclaiming he was a skinny white guy. The role of Rerun was rewritten for a fat black guy, and Fred won the role.
Fred played the role of Frederick “Rerun” Stubbs, a high school kid who always wore a red tam and rainbow suspenders and loved to eat as well as dance. He was nicknamed Rerun due to repeatedly getting left back and having to “rerun” all of his classes. He was best friends with Roger Thomas and Dwayne Nelson (played by Ernest Thomas and Haywood Nelson, respectively), all of whom often got into typical teen mischief. Rerun often verbally sparred with Shirley Wilson (played by the late comedian Shirley Hemphill), a loudmouth, no-nonsense waitress at the neighborhood teen hangout Rob’s Place. Rerun was also the target of putdowns by Roger’s bratty kid sister, Dee (played by Danielle Spencer), while he and Dwayne were often treated as sons by Roger’s mother Mabel Thomas (played by the late Mabel King).
Although Fred was no longer a part of the Lockers, he never forgot his old companions and helped to get all of them on the fourth episode of the series in which they played a dance group called The Rockets and Rerun wanted badly to become a part of their group.
The character of Rerun, like that of Jimmie Walker’s J.J. character on Good Times, was often criticized for being silly and buffoonish. Black critics of the time felt that those characters gave bad images to impressionable young black kids watching (particularly the characters’ lackadaisical attitudes toward school). But What’s Happening!! was just a comedy. Rerun and J.J., just like Lucy, Ralph Kramden and Carol Burnett’s many characters, were essentially just comedic characters designed to entertain and make people laugh. If there were characters like this in the dramatic landmark miniseries Roots, for example, criticism could be justified (imagine Kunta Kinte yelling “DY-NO-MITE” during that horrible whipping scene).
In hindsight and in all fairness, Rerun was a black kid who was just trying to find his way. His constant eating habits were a sign of insecurity as well as an emptiness he was trying to fill on the inside. Like all teenagers, Rerun was searching for self, his place in the world. When he was cracked on by Shirley or Dee or anyone else, the hurt was evident in Rerun’s eyes; but he persevered, trying to make something of himself. He had big dreams beyond his inner city neighborhood of Watts and wanted to do better and become better, hence his desire to be a professional dancer and an actor before he eventually landed a job at ABC as a TV studio page in the program’s last season.
After What’s Happening!! went off the air in April 1979, Fred continued to do dance work and even reappeared for a brief time as a Soul Train dancer in 1984. He also did some film and TV work, including appearing as Sugar Pimp Dorsey in the 1982 movie Vice Squad and appearing as a breakdancer named Bobo on a 1984 episode of the television sitcom Alice.
In 1985, Fred returned to television in the series What’s Happening Now, which featured all of the original characters of the classic What’s Happening!! series. Rerun had a job as a car salesman, while Roger became a fledgling writer and Dwayne became a computer programmer. However, Fred’s stint on the show was short-lived as he left after one season (the show itself was cancelled in May 1988).
Fred had sporadic work here and there (including a 1993 episode of Martin and in Snoop Dogg’s music video “Doggy Dogg World,” which celebrated 70s black film and TV icons). He moved to New York City in 1997 and opened up an acting school called Rerun’s Acting School. I was one of his students and I had the pleasure of going to his studio suite on West 33rd Street every Saturday morning. I was surprised at how deep his actual voice was. He said he made his voice go high whenever he played the younger role of Rerun. He would have me perform monologues and create commercials and do other acting exercises. I learned so much from this man not only about the acting business but the business of acting and the entertainment business as well.
Fred shared a story with me about the child actress Reina King (sister of actress Regina King) who played Carolyn, Roger Thomas’ adopted daughter on What’s Happening Now. There was an episode which spoofed The Wizard of Oz–in which Carolyn played Dorothy, and the lines called for her to become hurt and sad that her dog Toto was taken away by the Wicked Witch. Reina laughed it off, looking at the plot matter as silly. Fred told me he took her aside and told her that she was an actress and had to take this seriously, so she eventually was able to get through the lines. But this is how Fred was in his acting class. He was totally serious about the acting profession and show business in general. He wanted to be sure that I remembered lines, went to rehearsals prepared and maintained my energy level (I actually made him cry during one of my recitations and he got up and gave me a hug).
Fred also taught dance classes as well at his school and I learned steps from him that I still do today.
I would sometimes go with Fred to a restaurant across the street where his photo was on the wall along with other celebrities. As he would eat his breakfast, I would also see him taking his medicine for his diabetes, which he shared with me he was battling.
Eventually, Fred moved his acting school to Los Angeles, in the hopes of getting more clients. We became good friends during his time in New York City. Once when I was at a dance party, Fred was a special guest and he gave me a shout out as one of his students. I never forgot that.
Fred did some more film work, such as 1998′s In The Hood and 2000′s Big Money Hustlas. Before he moved back to Los Angeles, he had shared with me some footage of an independent film he was working on with Sinbad. He also appeared on the TV sitcom Scrubs and did a cameo in Will Smith’s “Will 2 K” video, pop locking down the Soul Train line. He also appeared in the 2003 film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. His last TV appearance a few weeks before his passing was on the program Classmates, which reunited former classmates. Fred appeared with Charles Bradshaw, a beefy football player whom he thanked for defending him when other kids teased him because of his weight.
Fred’s last movie role was in The Land of Merry Misfits which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. In our last correspondence, he told me he became a minister and I was very happy for him.
In October 2003 I got a call from former Soul Train dancer Damita Jo Freeman that Fred had passed away, succumbing to Type 2 diabetes. I was saddened to hear about the loss of my friend and I miss him to this day.
Fred Berry, to me, will always be remembered as a lovable, fun person who was smart and intelligent and I was honored to have known him and call him a friend and I learned so much from him. Indeed, Fred “Rerun” Berry, like his famous red tam, will forever be an icon.
Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, performer, former Soul Train dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian.