Sanford's Son, Demond Wilson, Leaves His Demons Behind to Become a Full-Time Evangelist

updated 04/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

A sudden thaw is turning the snow into slush, but that does not deter some 1,000 people from venturing out to the New Greater Bethel Church in Cambria Heights, N.Y. this midwinter night. The church is actually a refurbished movie theater, an appropriate switch considering the evening's program. "From San ford and Son to God and Son," reads a flyer, "from television to evangelism."

Onstage is Demond Wilson, Redd Foxx's foil on NBC's Sanford and Son (1972-77) and now an evangelist. A solid 185 pounds, Wilson is nattily attired in a blue suit, accented by a striking gold watch and ring. "I'm just a nobody telling everybody about Somebody who can save anybody," he shouts gleefully. After a 4½-hour service the uplifted throng departs, and the Demond Wilson Ministries (headquartered in Laguna Hills, Calif. and Dallas) hits the road once again. "I'm Johnny Jesus-seed," he says. "I just plant my seeds and go on."

Since he was ordained as an interdenominational preacher last fall, Wilson has been on the gospel circuit nonstop. When he appears at large auditoriums, his entourage includes a secretary, two bodyguards, another evangelist, a five-piece band and as many as eight singers. "It looks like Ringling Bros, when we come to a place," says Wilson, who has preached to as many as 6,000 people.

Just two years ago Wilson was making $40,000 a week starring in The New Odd Couple for ABC, which went off the air after one season. He had all the trappings of success: a 27-room antique-filled house in Beverly Hills with a Rolls-Royce in the driveway. But he also had a $1,000-a-week cocaine habit and a rocky marriage to Cicely Johnston, a stewardess turned model. Recalls Wilson: "All Satan had to do was say, 'Go commit adultery,' and I'd say, 'With whom?' "

In May 1982 Wilson experienced his spiritual epiphany, which came, of all places, on his tennis court. He was waiting for guests who never showed. His wife was in the hospital. His closest neighbors lived half a mile away. In the midst of all his wealth, Wilson felt totally alone. "Lord Jesus," he prayed, "if you put my family back together, if you give me my mind back, I'll turn it around." Over the next six months Wilson became obsessed with his newfound beliefs. He lost 35 pounds but eventually he found peace, and after immersing himself in the Bible and ministerial counseling, he became an evangelist. "The old Demond Wilson is dead," asserts the new Demond Wilson.

Today Wilson's forehead wrinkles with impatience when he is confronted with inquiries about his showbiz past, although some questions will prompt one-liner retorts. What did your parents do, Demond? "They were in the iron and steel business. My mother would iron and my father would steal." Actually his mother was once a dietitian and his father was a tailor. Born in Valdosta, Ga., Wilson grew up in New York City, where he studied tap dance and ballet. He made his Broadway debut at 4 and danced at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater at 12. Raised as a Catholic, Wilson was an altar boy and spent summers with a Pentecostal grandmother in Georgia. He considered the priesthood but took up acting instead. After a brief stay at Hunter College and a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam, Wilson returned to pursue acting in earnest. A guest shot on All in the Family led to his casting in Sanford and Son. "We had a long run and made lots of money," Wilson remembers.

In keeping with his new image, Wilson does not drink, sm0ke or evan dance. A year ago he sold his Beverly Hills house and relocated his wife and four children to a smaller place on a lake in Orange County. He is home only about one week a month, but "it's quality time," he says. "Every day is like Christmas."

Wilson's total break with show business is evidenced by the reaction he got when he went to audition for a role in November 1983. The producers asked him what he'd been up to lately, and he proceeded to tell them. "That guy doesn't want to act," a studio spokesman later told Wilson's manager over the phone. "He wants to preach." Exactly.

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