While it was a spin-off from The Cosby Show, A Different World typically addressed issues that were avoided by The Cosby Show writers (race and class relations, or the Equal Rights Amendment). One episode that aired in 1990 was one of the first American network television episodes to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The original premise was to have a white student there and have Lena Horne as an acting teacher, but in production, the premise changed from being a story about a white girl in a black college to a black girl (Denise Huxtable) in a black college with a white friend. It was ultimately decided that Denise, who was of college age, would be spun off and have a white roommate in order to show the dynamic of a white girl in predominantly-black surroundings. Meg Ryan was originally cast for this role, but she decided to pursue a film career, so Marisa Tomei was cast. The first season of Hillman's student body consisted of both black and white students, but this was changed at the beginning of the second season and a very predominantly-black student body maintained until the series ended.
After the first season, it came to Cosby's and the producers' attention that the series was not accurately portraying a historically black college and life on campus, so Debbie Allen, an alumna of Howard University, was hired as the chief creative force to revamp the show. During the summer of 1988, Lisa Bonet announced that she and husband Lenny Kravitz were having a baby. Allen was in favor of having a young pregnant student in the show, but Cosby said that Lisa Bonet may be pregnant but not Denise Huxtable. It was felt that viewers would not accept Denise as an unwed mother, having grown to know her as a "good girl" after four seasons of The Cosby Show. Thus it was decided that Denise would drop out of Hillman, return home to her family, and eventually travel to Africa throughout the fifth season of The Cosby Show, ensuring that viewers would not see a pregnant Denise. Allen was also in favor of keeping Tomei, as she herself recalls a white student at Howard and wanted to relate that in the show and even had possible premises for her character, such as meeting Dwayne's parents and seeing the other side of racism. However, Tomei left the show, and she and Marie-Alise Recasner were replaced by Cree Summer and Charnele Brown, respectively. Darryl M. Bell and Sinbad were promoted to the principal cast, and Glynn Turman and Lou Myers were added as supporting cast members. These changes led to the placement of Whitley and Dwayne at the center of a wider ensemble, dealing with more relevant issues of the day.Cory Tyler as Terrence Taylor (seasons 4 and 5)
Patrick Malone as Terrell Walker (season 6)
Bumper Robinson as Dorian Heywood (season 6)
Michael Ralph as Spencer Boyer (season 6), various characters (seasons 4 and 5)
Gary Dourdan as Shazza Zulu (seasons 5 and 6, guest starring in episode 86)
Marie-Alise Recasner as Millie (season 1)
Andrew Lowery as Matthew (Freddie's cousin/Kim's boyfriend; season 4)
Kim Wayans as Allison (season 1)
Alisa Gyse Dickens as Kinu Owens (Dwayne's girlfriend; 9 episodes)
Jenifer Lewis as Dean Dorothy Dandridge Davenport (9 episodes)
Diahann Carroll as Marion Gilbert (Whitley's mother; 7 episodes)
Patti LaBelle as Adele Wayne (Dwayne's mother; 7 episodes)
Roger Guenveur Smith as Prof. Howard Randolph (season 4)
Rosalind Cash as Dean Hughes (4 episodes)
Ron O'Neal as Mercer Gilbert (Whitley's father; 4 episodes)
Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable (4 episodes)
Jonell Green as Dashawn Curtis (4 episodes)
Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable (3 episodes)
Keshia Knight Pulliam as Rudy Huxtable (3 episodes)
Robert Guillaume as Dean Winston (history professor; 3 episodes)
Harold Sylvester as Woodson Wayne (Dwayne's father; 3 episodes)
Malcolm Jamal Warner as Theo Huxtable (2 episodes)
Vanessa Bell Calloway as Lily Connors (season 3, episode 18) & Jaleesa's sister (Danielle; season 4, episode 18)
Tisha Campbell-Martin as Josie Webb (2 episodes)
Nestor Carbonell as Malik Velasquez (Whitley's mother's hired "boyfriend"; 2 episodes)
Art Evans as Mr. Johnson (Ron's father; 2 episodes)
IMx as Whitley's students (2 episodes)
Richard Roundtree as Clinton Reese (Kim's father; 2 episodes)
Halle Berry as Jaclyn (Ron's girlfriend; season 4, episode 15)
The Boys as Mice 2 Men (singing group; season 5, episode 13)
Dean Cain as Brian (A&M University student; season 5, episode 14)
Ernie Sabella as Campus Security (season 5, episode 14)
En Vogue as Faith, Hope, Charity, and Henrietta (Mr. Gaines' nieces; season 6, episode 16)
Whoopi Goldberg as Dr. Jordan (professor; season 4, episode 24)
David Alan Grier as Professor Byron Walcott (season 1, episode 9)
James Avery as bowler (season 3, episode 4)
Alfonso Ribeiro as Zach Duncan (prospective freshman; season 3, episode 19)
Heavy D as himself (season 3, episode 6)
Lena Horne as herself (season 6, episode 25)
Jesse Jackson as himself (season 2, episode 21)
Trina McGee as Gennifer (season 5, episode 18)
Khandi Alexander as Theressa Stone (season 2, episode 21)
Gladys Knight as herself (season 2, episode 5)
Kris Kross as Dwayne's juvenile mentees (season 6, episode 11)
Tupac Shakur as Piccolo (season 6, episode 21)
Obba Babatundé as Frank (season 3, episode 22)
Blair Underwood as Zelmer Collier (season 4, episode 14)
Billy Dee Williams as Langston Paige (landlord; season 6, episode 23)
Thomas Mikal Ford as Lamar Vinson (Jaleesa's ex-husband, season 2, episode 17)
Raven-Symoné as Olivia Kendall (Denise's step-daughter, season 3, episode 5)
In season one, the episode "Rudy and the Snow Queen" marks the beginning of the softening of Whitley's image as a spoiled troublemaker at Hillman. Denise's kid sister Rudy (Keshia Knight-Pulliam) visits Hillman and becomes smitten with Whitley. Flattered at the attention, Whitley befriends the little girl, but when it becomes clear that she's trumping Denise as a role model, Whitley has a change of heart, steps back and gently persuades Rudy to return to her sister.
In season two, the episode titled "No Means No" deals with date rape. Freddie has a crush on Hillman's new top-notch baseball star Garth Parks (played by Taimak). Dwayne hears Garth discuss a disturbing incident involving another woman. Dwayne goes to Walter (Sinbad) for advice, and Walter tells him about date rape. Dwayne tries to warn Freddie, but she does not believe Garth would do such a thing. Later at a dance, Garth goes off alone with Freddie and attempts to rape her, but Dwayne finds them and fights Garth. At the end of the episode, Walter takes Garth to the police station for his assault on Freddie and the rape of the other woman.
In January 1991 (seven days before the beginning of Operation Desert Storm), Blair Underwood guest-starred in the episode "War and Peace" (written by Jasmine Guy and Dominic Hoffman) about the impending Persian Gulf War. A Different World became the first situation comedy to address this topic, and "War and Peace" was one of the highest-rated episodes of season four.
In the season four episode "Ms. Understanding", Hillman student Shazza Zulu (Gary Dourdan) peddles a book he has written and self-published that is highly critical of African-American men and their allegedly sexist behavior. The episode is based on the controversy surrounding the book The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman [sic]. This book, written by controversial African American author Shahrazad Ali, blamed many of the problems within the black family and the black community on African American women. Although many black women found the book highly offensive and intellectually deficient, African American men purchased hundreds of thousands of copies in 1989 and 1990, leading to a temporary rift between many African American men and women. Ali's book is mentioned specifically in the 1990 episode "Time Keeps on Slippin'" where Ron suggests putting it in the time capsule to represent a female point of view, but is shouted down by the women in the group.
The season five episode "Mammy Dearest" addresses two subjects almost never discussed on prime time television: the "mammy" image and its negative effect upon African Americans' sense of beauty and self-worth, and the little-known fact that some well-to-do African-Americans actually owned slaves themselves. Kim is disheartened with the display of several "mammy" dolls in a cultural exhibit, while Whitley learns that some of her African-American ancestors were slave owners. In some regions of the U.S., blacks owning black slaves (or relatives) would ensure that they would not be sold to leave the town.
The season five episode "Cat's in the Cradle" deals with racism, from both sides of the proverbial fence. While attending a Hillman football game on a predominantly white campus, Ron and Dwayne are involved in a bias incident with three white students, which culminates with Ron and Dwayne fighting the white students as they attempt to spraypaint the word "Nigger" on Ron's car, stopping them before they could complete the slur. They are all arrested by the campus police. They share with the campus police chief (Ernie Sabella) the perspectives of the incident, shown from each side. Predictably, it shows drastically different takes. The racist act by the white students is not alone, however, as Dwayne is guilty of the same prejudice by assuming the white campus chief is racist. Poignantly, the ending scene find both parties returning to the parking lot where the altercation started, only to find that some unknown other person or persons finished spray-painting the "Nigger" slur on the car. This episode features one of actor Dean Cain's earliest television appearances.
The season five episode "Love Taps" dealt with domestic violence. Gina has been dating an up-and-coming rapper named Dion, aka "I'm Down" (played by Edafe Blackmon), who many of the students admire, including Terrance. When Lena suspects that Dion has been beating up on Gina (who is sporting a black eye), she confronts her about it, but Gina makes excuses for Dion's rages and tells Lena to back off. Lena confides in Kim about Gina's situation; Kim informs Lena that some things should not be kept secret. Eventually, Dion's reputation is spread all over campus. After having a heart-to-heart talk with Whitley and engaging in a confrontation with Dion (in front of Terrance who has called the police), Gina finally decides to press assault charges against him.
Various episodes in the last two seasons of the series referenced contemporary high-profile cases of sexual harassment, such as the Mitsubishi scandal and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. In the episode "Bedroom at the Top," Whitley is sexually harassed at her new job by an executive. The Anita Hill hearings also are mentioned in the episode "The Little Mister," in which Dwayne dreams about the 1992 elections imagining himself as Hillary Clinton, while Whitley is Bill.
The season six premiere includes Whitley and Dwayne's recounting of their honeymoon in Los Angeles, during which four white police officers who were on trial for the videotaped beating of African American motorist Rodney King were acquitted of state criminal charges, sparking the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (Actors Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, comedian Gilbert Gottfried and rapper Sister Soulja made cameo appearances in this two-part episode.)
In "Homie, Don't You Know Me?" (one of the "lost episodes" from season 6), rapper Tupac Shakur portrays Lena's (Jada Pinkett) old boyfriend from back home. The two bump heads over Lena's new college "attitude", not to mention her new boyfriend Dorian (Bumper Robinson). This is one of the few television sitcom appearances made by Tupac, though his appearance was more serious than the show's tone itself.
The season four episode "If I Should Die Before I Wake" dealt with the AIDS epidemic. It featured actress Tisha Campbell-Martin as Hillman student Josie, who reveals during a class project that she has contracted the disease from a former boyfriend and would probably die shortly after graduating college. Because of the reveal, some of the students (including Gina and Terrance) start to treat Josie as an outcast by either covering their face around her, or refusing to have her serve food at the Pit. Their attitudes towards Josie change after being chastised by Kim and Mr. Gaines. The dialogue also causes Whitley (who was still a virgin) to put off a sexual relationship with Dwayne. Whoopi Goldberg stars as the professor who conducts the class.
As a show developed by Bill Cosby for a character from The Cosby Show, A Different World had many connections to its parent program, even before the latter program was created. The third season finale of The Cosby Show, entitled "Hillman", was essentially a pilot episode for the new show.
The theme song was co-written by Stu Gardner, Bill Cosby, and Dawnn Lewis – who was also a cast member. In the online interviews related to the 2006 "Hillman College Reunion," Lewis revealed that her being approached to write the song and to audition were two separate events that occurred within a short time of each other, such that she thought it was a practical joke by her friends. The song was performed by Phoebe Snow in season one, then by Aretha Franklin in seasons two through five, and Boyz II Men in season six.
The spin-off program featured many appearances by characters from the parent program, especially in the initial season, in which Denise's father Cliff (Bill Cosby), mother Clair (Phylicia Rashad), younger sisters Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe) and Rudy, brother Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), and grandfather Russell (Earle Hyman) all appeared on the show, either at Hillman or at the other end of a phone call. Denise's departure from Hillman after Season 1 did not stop her mother from reappearing on the show. Three of Phylicia Rashad's four appearances as Hillman alumna Clair Huxtable took place after season one, and in one of these, she brought her younger daughter Vanessa to tour the college. Sondra was the only Huxtable child not to appear on the show. Martin (Joseph C. Phillips) and Olivia (Raven Symone) appear in season 3 episode "Forever Hold Your Peace" along with Phylicia Rashad and Lisa Bonet. Elvin (Geoffrey Owens) and Pam (Erika Alexander) also never appeared on the show.
Producer/director Debbie Allen is the real-life sister of Phylicia Rashad. Allen made one guest appearance on The Cosby Show, playing an aggressive aerobics instructor who helps Clair slim down for a special occasion. Allen appeared in later seasons in a recurring role as Whitley's psychiatrist. Dwayne and Whitley also visited the Huxtable home in an episode featuring the revelation that Denise had married and would not return to Hillman.
A young Kadeem Hardison appeared on The Cosby Show as one of Theo Huxtable's friends in the first-season episode "A Shirt Story", though not playing Dwayne.
Sinbad also appeared on The Cosby Show as a car salesman in third-season episode "Say Hello to a Good Buy."
A Hillman alumna by the name of "Louise Sujay" was mentioned on both Cosby and A Different World by Clair Huxtable, Whitley Gilbert and her mother Marion.
Like Lisa Bonet, Karen Malina White brought her Cosby Show character to Hillman. Charmaine was the best friend of Clair Huxtable's cousin Pam Tucker. White's Cosby Show costar Allen Payne turned down an offer to bring his role as Charmaine's boyfriend Lance Rodman to A Different World as a regular during Season 6, preferring instead to pursue a movie career; he and Jada Pinkett starred in the 1994 film Jason's Lyric, which is considered to be a milestone in both their careers. Payne did appear in one episode during season five in which Charmaine visits Hillman as a prospective student, bringing Lance along to see if he can gain admission as well. When Charmaine arrives at Hillman, she and Lance are maintaining a long-distance relationship and he is mentioned in multiple episodes. Lance and Charmaine later break up over the phone.
Years later, Tempestt Bledsoe (who played Vanessa on Cosby) and Darryl M. Bell (who played Ron on A Different World) became a real-life couple and co-starred on the 2009 Fox Reality Channel series Househusbands of Hollywood.
Hillman College is a fictional, historically Black college, founded in 1881 and located in the commonwealth of Virginia. The exact locality of the school is never revealed, but several geographic references are made which allude to the campus either being located somewhere in the Hampton Roads area or in the Roanoke Metropolitan Area. The school's motto is Deus Nondum Te Confecit, which literally translates from Latin to: God has not yet finished. The school colors are maroon and gray. Visual shots of the Hillman campus that were used in the series were actually filmed at two real-life Black colleges, Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College, both in Atlanta, Georgia.
The first references to Hillman on The Cosby Show were made during season one, when it is mentioned as the place where Cliff Huxtable and Clair Hanks went to school while they were engaged. Cliff's father Russell is also a Hillman alumnus. The school made its first on-screen appearance in the third-season finale of The Cosby Show, titled "Hillman", when Cliff and Clair and their family attend a Hillman commencement ceremony which also honored a retiring professor.
In August 2006, Nick at Nite aired a week-long marathon showing episodes of A Different World. Lisa Bonet, Dawnn Lewis, Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, Darryl M. Bell, Cree Summer, and Sinbad reunited for short vignettes that provided a glimpse of the current state of their characters. Nick at Nite's "Hillman College Reunion" website added details beyond those shown on television.
Critics say that A Different World benefited from airing between The Cosby Show and Cheers on Thursday night; however, the show consistently ranked first or second among African American viewers during most of its run.U.S. television
The Hollywood Reporter is quoted as stating that when Debbie Allen became the producer (and usually director) of A Different World after the first season, she transformed it "from a bland Cosby spin-off into a lively, socially responsible, ensemble situation comedy."
The Museum of Broadcast Communications states that Debbie Allen:a graduate of historically black Howard University – drew from her college experiences in an effort to accurately reflect in the show the social and political life on black campuses. Moreover, Allen instituted a yearly spring trip to Atlanta where series writers visited three of the nation's leading black colleges, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and Spelman. During these visits, ideas for several of the episodes emerged from meetings with students and faculty."
On August 23 & 24, 2012, Debbie Allen, the former chief creative force of A Different World from 1988 to 1993, wrote on Twitter that she wants to reboot A Different World. Over a million people on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs reacted to the tweet and approve the potential reboot.
Because of Debbie Allen's influence as the producer (and usually director) of A Different World after the first season, African-American youth who watched the show often cite it as a defining reason why many of them decided to attend a historically Black college or university.
Urban Works released Season 1 of A Different World on DVD in Region 1 on November 8, 2005. Several release dates for Season 2 were announced (May 2006, July 2006 & September 2006) but it was never released. Urban Works was acquired by First Look Studios in early 2006. The distribution rights for the series have since reverted back to the production company, Carsey-Werner Productions.