'Sanford and Son' to Evangelist : Ex-TV Star Demond Wilson Turns to Religious Calling

Times Staff Writer

When Demond Wilson surreptitiously slid into a pew on the stage of the Ephesian Church, his hand-tailored dark blue Italian suit couldn't conceal the 25 pounds he'd gained since he appeared on the "Sanford and Son" television series in the mid-'70s.

"Yea, that's Lamont," a woman whispered to a fellow parishioner as she pointed toward Wilson, who as Lamont had played the foil to the irreverent Redd Foxx during the comedy's 1972-77 prime-time run on NBC.

On this night, however, he had come in the role of the Rev. Wilson to deliver the gospel to both the curious and converted who packed the pews of the small Pentecostal church in South-Central Los Angeles.

No to the High Life

At 40, Wilson has turned his back on the Hollywood high life to become a fundamentalist evangelist preaching to audiences as large as 20,000--and as small as the 300 he held mesmerized during his fiery 90-minute sermon.

With his right hand pounding on a well-worn Bible spread open on the podium before him and his left hand pointing accusingly at the worshipers, Wilson bellowed: "Nobody wants to live for God! You want to 'do your own thing.'

"You turn away from God and expect him to forgive you. You think you can stray from the straight and narrow course the Lord has set for you and still get into heaven just by praying: 'Lord, you know in my heart I always believed in you.'

"Well, don't expect God to forgive you! Salvation is not free! Think again, you homosexuals, adulterers, fornicators and apostles of hatred and strife. You're going to bust the doors of hell open with your hard heads!

"When I worked in a little community north of here, Holly weird , I was supposed to be at the top of the hill of success. But I had nothing. It was like standing on a hill of goat droppings because, like a lot of you, I was separated from the Lord."

Wilson's sermon, delivered in a sarcastic style, was interrupted sporadically by knowing laughter, applause and standing ovations from the enthusiastic congregation.

At 11 p.m. as she filed out of the church at the conclusion of the three-hour service, Blanche Howard, a 40ish saleswoman from Compton, beamed: "I loved what Rev. Wilson had to say. He preached the word of Jesus Christ--and what you have to do to obey it."

Echoing this view, Denver Locke, a 26-year-old school bus driver from Los Angeles, said: "I've never heard a man preach like that before. He has the ability to say what God lays on his heart."

Clearly, Wilson is still a crowd pleaser. Until three years ago, however, his roles had been limited to stage and screen.

He garnered his greatest success during the six years he played on "Sanford and Son." This series, along with "Baby, I'm Back" (CBS, 1978), and "The New Odd Couple" (ABC, 1982-1983) resulted in a decade during which Wilson seldom was absent from the television screens of America's homes. And "Sanford and Son," now in syndication, is shown daily in almost every American city and many foreign countries.

At the height of his acting career, Wilson walked away from it all--the $40,000-a-week salary, the 27-room Bel-Air mansion and Rolls Royce in the driveway.

He also left behind a $1,000-a-week cocaine habit and the gnawing self-hatred that acting engendered, Wilson explained during an interview before his recent three-day appearance as guest preacher at the Ephesian Church of God in Christ's three-day revival.

"Unlike a lot of actors in Hollywood who sit around a long time between jobs, I was lucky because for 10 years I was working all the time," Wilson said as he strolled along Dana Point Harbor, where he often comes to meditate. "Unfortunately, what I was doing was trash."

Repaired the Damage

Today, he says he's repaired the damage his acting career and accompanying extramarital affairs did to his 14-year-marriage to Cicely Johnston, a 41-year-old former model. Two years ago, they and their five children moved to what he half-jokingly calls "respectable, Republican, upper-middle-class" Mission Viejo.

"It was here or Hawaii," Wilson said in explaining his move from Los Angeles to Orange County. "If we'd stayed in Bel-Air, my children would have become precocious kids who'd want nose jobs at 13."

Instead, he says his five children, ranging in age from 13 years to 10 months old are having "normal childhoods."

"We've left the rat race and false people behind," he said. Family life now revolves around picnics at the shore, bicycle riding, sailing and deep sea fishing.

"I have no desire to act again," said a relaxed and witty Wilson, who looked years younger than when he last appeared on prime-time television three years ago playing Oscar Madison in "The New Odd Couple."

"I'd stomached as much as I could saying: 'Hey pop, I'm back' (on 'Sanford and Son') and: 'No, Felix, I don't know where the top to the toothpaste is,' " he recalled.

"It wasn't challenging. And it was emotionally exhausting because I had to make it appear that I was excited about what I was doing.

"I'd go home and tell my wife I didn't want to be doing this; I kept hoping the money would make me happy. But the more I made, the more my life came apart. I was depressed; Cicely was depressed. She even left me."

Wilson says many people find it bizarre that he's given up acting's good life to take up the mantle of an itinerant evangelist. Not Wilson.

"I did not find religion . You always hear these negative things when you hear a celebrity's turned to God: 'He did it because he was having financial problems; he had no place else to go; he was on dope and was at the end of his ropes.' None of this applied in my case.

"It wasn't like I had been out of show business for five years. I started preaching the gospel eight months after the filming of 'The New Odd Couple' came to an end; even then I had been approached about appearing in another television series, but took myself out of consideration.

"I'd been thinking about becoming a minister since the third year of 'Sanford and Son'; I figured it was now or never.

"I was always aware that God was the guiding force in my life. It's just that I didn't think about Him much. I'd pray to him to get me out of some personal or financial crisis; once the problem was solved, I'd forget about him."

Wilson, recalling the eclectic origins of his faith, said: "I was raised a Catholic, was an altar boy, and at 14 I seriously considered becoming a priest."

This occurred against the backdrop of his growing up in New York City where his mother (Laura, "a spry 83") was a dietitian and his father was a tailor.

"Every summer my mother would send me down to my grandmother's in Georgia because she didn't want me on the streets of Harlem. My grandmother was very religious, and she was always taking me to Pentecostal services."

Despite his longstanding "affair with the Lord," Wilson said show business proved a stronger lure. Having studied tap dance and ballet, he appeared on Broadway at 4 1/2 and four years later was making guest appearances on television.

When a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam ended in 1967, Wilson brought home a heroin habit. It took him four years to give up snorting the drug.

"Until four years ago, I was still bearing the scars of that experience. I was apprehensive of people and showed a lot of hostility.

"By the time I was in 'The New Odd Couple,' nothing in life was exciting. My values were distorted.

"I was involved in drugs--though it didn't affect my work or business. To all the world I looked like a success, but I was just going through the motions of living."

After "The New Odd Couple" was canceled in March, 1983, Wilson spent the next eight months watching religious programs on TV, studying the Bible, and "down on my knees a lot praying."

Despite the distaste he now has for "Sanford and Son," Wilson readily acknowledged, "I wouldn't be attracting thousands of people to my crusades without the name recognition that show gave me.

"Yes, I've traded on the fact that it's in syndication here and in 100 foreign countries," he said. "But I've gotten people to come and hear me who wouldn't see somebody like Billy Graham. And after two years as an evangelist, it's obvious people wouldn't still be coming out to see me if I didn't have something to say."

He heads the Demond Wilson Ministries, which is headquartered in Laguna Hills. It has a staff of 16. He's on the road three weeks out of the month preaching in churches, auditoriums and outdoor stadiums, primarily to the black community.

"I'm not in this to build a personal ministry or make a buck," maintained Wilson, who was ordained an interdenominational preacher in the fall of 1984. "I'm doing it for the glory of the Lord."

'God Takes Care of My Needs'

However, he declines to say how much he makes as an evangelist. "That's not something I concern myself with. God takes care of my needs."

For the past year, Wilson's organization has operated the Christian International Outreach Center in Miami, which he says is a drug rehabilitation program and street ministry.

He also is a founder and member of the board of directors of "The Lord's Airline," a New Jersey-based carrier that specializes in charter flights for religious groups.

During the first two weeks of this month, Wilson is using one of the airline's four planes to transport nearly 200 staffers, ministers and other followers (paying $3,000 each) on his self-styled "Victory in Africa" tour. During this evangelical crusade, similar to one he conducted last year, Wilson is scheduled to hold massive outdoor rallies in Nigeria and Kenya.

"I'm now doing what the Lord wants me do do; I'm happy at last."

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