Before moving to California where he would play Dwayne, a lovable teen coming of age amongst a trio of lovable teens, on the ABC television series What's Happening. actor Haywood Nelson came of age in his own right in a neighborhood rich with experiences upon which he capitalized to become an effective performer. That neighborhood was Garden City Park.
Nelson lived in Garden City Park from 1969 to 1979. His career, which began at the age of 5 while he was living in Harlem, was already in full swing appearing in some 30 national commercials.
Sheldon Dumain, the former principal of Nelson's elementary school, Jackson Avenue School in Mineola, remembered Nelson as a student who had the intangibles that make for success.
"He was a wonderful kid, very outgoing, cooperative, the kind of kid that you would want to see succeed," commented Dumain, "When you are a kid's principal and you see that kind of thing you are always so proud."
In 1971 Nelson appeared in the film Mixed Company with Barbara Harris and from 1973 to 1974 Nelson performed in the Broadway show Thieves by Herb Gardner, alongside Marlo Thomas and Richard Mulligan.
Recalled Nelson's former High School English teacher, Bruce Castellano, Nelson once handed in a paper with his name and the following advice, "Hold on to that. You have an autograph. I'm going to be famous some day."
Though he did have a sense of humor and perhaps an eye trained on the future, Nelson remained grounded by a strong family unit which kept him busy with chores as basic as walking the dog. "I stayed close to my family. My family never changed. My family was my guide to my reality," he said.
A strong family did not keep Nelson from having his own adventures, however. For instance, the time he and some friends snuck onto a freight train filled with plywood, only to be locked in when they remained silent for fear of being caught by a train employee who was securing the train for its North Carolina destination. After a few tense moments, it was Nelson's friends on the outside who called to the conductor who freed him from the train.
"I was one of the wild boys around there," recalled Nelson with a hint of laughter in his voice,"We were really crazy when I think about it."
Nelson remembers Garden City Park fondly with "good little houses" and great schools. To him the sounds of a Garden City Park summer could be heard through the songs of the cicadas.
It was a wonderful place to live, but not perfect as evidenced in the racial tensions that Nelson attributes to misunderstanding and intolerance on both sides.
However, Nelson made the most of it. "It taught me a great deal about people," he said and a decent perspective on human existence that expanded his perspective and allowed him to improve his acting abilities.
Nelson reluctantly left Mineola High School and Garden City Park to concentrate on his acting career. Tutored on the set, in a class that included then unknown actresses Valerie Bertinelli and McKenzie Phillips (who were appearing on the television series One Day At a Time) as well as What's Happening co-star Danielle Spencer (who played Dee, the sharp tongued sister of Dwayne's friend Roger) Nelson doubled his workload and graduated a year earlier than planned in 1977.
The series What's Happening, about young African Americans growing up in California during the '70s, through its initial run and years in syndication has cultivated an audience that Nelson has found spans across the different sexes, races, creeds and ages. "It is a wonderful thing," he commented.
He parlays this mass appeal into a bridge to different people with whom he shares a message of self-improvement, something he found through Scientology.
Scientology was established by L. Ron Hubbard in books like Dianetics and A New Slant on Life and has a great appeal to Nelson for its acceptance and appreciation of art, such as Nelson's first love, acting.
"I had the opportunity to do what I enjoy," said Nelson, "Now I know it has a great purpose in human existence and society."
When the opportunity is afforded him he spreads this message to young artists encouraging them to do more with their talents and explaining the value of art to the artists and their audiences.
Recently Nelson, joined by fellow entertainers Isaac Hayes, Anne Archer and Chick Corea, honored 11 human rights activists who have fought for children, religion and individual rights at the 30th anniversary of Freedom Magazine, the Church of Scientology's investigative news journal, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
At the event Nelson gave a dramatic reading from one of the articles typically found in Freedom Magazine, stories such as one about a mysterious number of deaths at a mental institution or one about US Navy operations affecting unsuspecting US citizens.
The reaction from the audience was that of "stone cold" silence according to Nelson. It is moments like this, where as an actor he has communicated an important message to an audience, that he relishes.
"Just to be a part of it was an honor," said Nelson.
After What's Happening ended, Nelson went back to school studying Architecture at Porter and Chester Institute in Connecticut and Electronic Engineering at Pratt Institute in New York. His tenure at Pratt was cut short however, when he was called to return to his role as Dwayne on an updated version of his former series called What's Happening Now.
This time around there was less creative freedom. Nelson was not allowed to direct any of the episodes or submit any of the scripts he wrote. He said he did his job as an actor, and when they told him the show was over he said good and moved on to other projects.
After the second series came to an end Nelson took on a job as a camera assistant, directed a few music videos and since then has remained in the entertainment field.
It is through his studies of electronics and his experiences as an actor that Nelson has been given a unique converging perspective on his current career as a distributor of screenplays as well as a screenwriter himself and as a participant in multiple entertainment industry related Internet operations such as Simply TV which is bringing television to the Internet.
Writing is his new love, and though he has had experience in front of the camera, he said it is his knowledge of characters and people that are the strength of his scripts. There is even a story about Garden City Park.
Nelson said he has often considered moving back to Garden City Park or at the very least visiting the many friends he misses. For them and for those who still live in the neighborhood Nelson has this to say, "It was a wonderful place. Keep turning out good people."