|Created by Jeff HarrisBernie Kukoff|
Written by Ben StarrBudd GrossmanHoward LeedsMartin Cohan
Directed by Herbert Kenwith(season 1)Gerren KeithMel FerberTony Singletary
Starring Conrad BainGary ColemanTodd BridgesDana PlatoCharlotte RaeMary Jo CatlettDanny CookseyDixie CarterMary Ann MobleyNedra Volz
Theme music composer Alan ThickeAl BurtonGloria Loring
Diff'rent Strokes - theme song (longer version)
Diff'rent Strokes is an American sitcom that aired on NBC from November 3, 1978, to May 4, 1985, and on ABC from September 27, 1985, to March 7, 1986. The series stars Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges as Arnold and Willis Jackson, two African American boys from Harlem who are taken in by a rich white Park Avenue businessman and widower named Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain) and his daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato), for whom their deceased mother previously worked. During the first season and first half of the second season, Charlotte Rae also starred as the Drummonds' housekeeper, Mrs. Garrett (who ultimately spun off into her own successful show, The Facts of Life).
- Diff'rent Strokes theme song (longer version)
- Seasons 1–4 (1978–82)
- Seasons 5–6 (1982–84)
- Season 7 (1984–85)
- Season 8 (1985–86)
- Supporting characters
- Very special episodes
- Spin off and crossovers
- Later appearances as the characters
- Additional catchphrase references and appearances in pop culture
- After Diff'rent Strokes ended
- Gary Coleman
- Dana Plato
- Todd Bridges
- DVD releases
The series made stars out of child actors Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, and Dana Plato and became known for the "very special episodes" in which serious issues such as racism, illegal drug use, hitchhiking, kidnapping and child sexual abuse were dramatically explored. The lives of these stars were later plagued by legal troubles and drug addiction.
In pre-production, the original proposed title was 45 Minutes From Harlem. The series was originally devised as a joint vehicle for Maude co-star Conrad Bain (after Maude had abruptly finished production in 1978), and child actor Gary Coleman, who had caught producers' attentions after appearing in a number of commercials.
The sitcom starred Coleman as Arnold Jackson and Todd Bridges as his older brother, Willis. They played two children from a poor section of Harlem whose deceased mother previously worked for rich widower Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), who eventually adopted them. They lived in a penthouse with Drummond, his daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato), and their maid.
There were three maids during the show's run: Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae), Adelaide Brubaker (Nedra Volz), and Pearl Gallagher (Mary Jo Catlett). They lived in the Penthouse Suite at 697 Park Avenue in New York City. As Arnold, Coleman popularized the catchphrase "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" The ending often varied, depending on whom he was addressing. Early episodes addressed typical issues in a family. Later episodes at times though focused on drug abuse, alcoholism, hitchhiking, crime, among other issues.
Seasons 1–4 (1978–82)
In Season 1, Charlotte Rae appeared in every episode as Edna Garrett, but she departed the show partway through the second season to star in her own spin-off, The Facts of Life. Following Rae's departure, Nedra Volz took over as the housekeeper, Adelaide Brubaker. Although she was not part of the official main cast and not added to the opening credits, Volz appeared as a frequent semi-regular character.
Seasons 5–6 (1982–84)
In Season 5, Mary Jo Catlett portrayed Pearl Gallagher, the last of the three maids, and joined the cast as a series regular. Pearl appeared in almost every episode until the final season. Midway through Season 6, Dana Plato became pregnant and approached the producers of the show to include her pregnancy. Initially they agreed to add it, but they later decided not to add the pregnancy, with Plato's publicized brushes with substance abuse contributing to this decision, resulting in her dismissal from the series.
Plato's character, Kimberly, was written out of the story lines with the explanation that she moved to Paris to study for a couple of years. Plato did not appear as a regular cast member in the final two seasons of the series, but she made several guest appearances.
At the same time, ratings were beginning to fall, so new characters were added to open up future storylines. Dixie Carter and Danny Cooksey portrayed recently divorced television aerobics instructor Margaret "Maggie" McKinney, and her son, Sam McKinney. Carter was introduced midway into the sixth season; after she left for California, Drummond and the family took off after her, during a two-part trip in February 1984, a storyline which also introduced Sam.
Phillip proposed to Maggie, and they married. Several past characters attended the wedding ceremony including Dudley, Aunt Sophia, Adelaide, and Mrs. Garrett.
Season 7 (1984–85)
In the seventh season, Dixie Carter and Danny Cooksey were added to the opening credits (with Carter getting special "and" billing, last in the order), and many new areas and ideas were explored in the storylines, as viewers now got to see Philip as happily married. Dana Plato was no longer appearing as a main cast member, because of her pregnancy in real life. The producers felt that the pregnancy wouldn't be acceptable, so she was dropped from the show and returning for the season finale A Special Friend as a guest star. Also, since there was a new fresh-faced kid in the house with Sam, Arnold now had his own little sidekick and was happy to be a "big brother" for a change, and with Willis being dropped into the background slightly, this new brotherly duo took center stage for many storylines. In the season, Todd Bridges was continuing the show as a main cast member, but developed absences in several episodes. Additionally, stories focusing on Arnold's school life (featured occasionally in many previous seasons) were delved into much more. The ratings did not improve to NBC's hopes. Dixie Carter departed at the end of the seventh season and was replaced with Mary Ann Mobley in the eighth season.
Season 8 (1985–86)
In the spring of 1985, NBC canceled the series because of poor ratings. ABC picked up the series for an eighth season, and aired it Friday nights. In this season, which turned out to be the last, Mary Ann Mobley replaced Dixie Carter as Maggie McKinney Drummond. Mobley, who had previously played an unrelated, one-off love interest of Drummond's in the second-season episode "Teacher's Pet", had originally been a contender for the role but was not chosen due to the obvious age disparity between her and Conrad Bain. However, producers later had second thoughts about Carter's casting, and with ratings falling, decided to cast Mobley for the role of Maggie Drummond.
ABC canceled the series after 19 episodes, and aired its final episode on March 7, 1986. The show returned to ABC's schedule in June for three months of summer reruns, which ended on August 30, 1986. The final season ranked 76th out of 106 shows, and averaged an 11.5 household rating.
Phillip Drummond is the only character to appear in every episode of the series. Arnold Jackson missed five episodes. Two from the 1981–82 season, "First Day Blues" and "The Team". He then missed three episodes from the 1984–85 season, "The Gymnasts", "Sam Adopts a Grandparent" and "Baseball Blues".
Outside of the Drummond household, there were a large number of supporting characters seen over the years. Phillip's slightly dotty sister Sophia (Dody Goodman) was regularly seen in the fourth season, playing matchmaker for her brother in hopes of getting Philip to marry again. Dudley Johnson (Shavar Ross) was Arnold's new best friend, who, like Arnold, was also adopted, with whom he shared many memorable childhood scrapes. Some of these were important or serious storylines under the "very special episode" heading, which Diff'rent Strokes popularized (see below). Ted Ramsey (Le Tari) was Dudley's adoptive father, who turned up occasionally.
In the third season, Janet Jackson played Willis's girlfriend Charlene DuPrey. She was a frequent recurring character until Season 6, when Charlene and Willis decided to break up, but remain friends.
Other classmates and friends of Arnold seen over time included Robbie Jason (Steven Mond) and snobby Lisa Hayes (Nikki Swasey), who initially was sweet on Arnold, but later came to despise him, leading to hatred between the pair and many squabbles. Miss Chung (Rosalind Chao) was Arnold's teacher. In the fall of 1985, when the series moved to ABC, Arnold, Dudley and Lisa entered high school, where they gained a new friend in Charlie (Jason Hervey).
An oft-mentioned character, spanning the entire show's run, was "The Gooch", a notorious bully at Arnold's school. First mentioned in the first-season episode "The Fight", which revolves around his bullying of Arnold, his name is mentioned in numerous episodes (and his bullying of Arnold returned as the center of several plots), with Arnold's frequent descriptions of him to be of a burly, troublesome brute, forever looking for trouble but not very intelligent, but the character actually never appeared on screen.
Very special episodes
Diff'rent Strokes was also known for its many "very special episodes", most notably an anti-drug episode ("The Reporter", in Season 5) that featured First Lady Nancy Reagan, who promoted her "Just Say No" campaign, and "The Bicycle Man", a two-part episode that guest starred Gordon Jump as a pedophile who lures Arnold and Dudley into his bicycle shop and attempts to molest them.
Another episode involved a con artist (played by Whitman Mayo) posing as a relative of Arnold and Willis in an attempt to get access to the inheritance they were left by a former neighbor. Another episode involved Kimberly's new boyfriend Roger not allowing his sister to go to their school's costume ball with Willis because he is African-American.
In an episode on the dangers of hitchhiking, Kimberly and Arnold (who were out in the cold weather and didn't have money for cab or bus fare) were abducted by a serial kidnapper-rapist (played by Woody Eney), who initially acted as a good Samaritan by giving the two of them a ride, and inviting them to his apartment. After the man's true nature became known, Arnold escaped to look for help and the man nearly raped Kimberly before the police arrived to arrest him. At the end of the episode, Conrad Bain (in an out of character PSA) spoke about what to do if real life situations as the one portrayed on the show were to occur.
In the final season (when the show moved from NBC to ABC), the one-hour season opener revolved around Sam being kidnapped by a bereaved father (played by Royce D. Applegate) hoping to replace his own dead son.
In other notable episodes, the family discovered that Kimberly was suffering from bulimia. In another episode, Arnold and Sam met Karen, a street performer. After a performance, she has an epileptic seizure, and Sam is scared thinking she's dying. The boys then feel uncomfortable around her, and when they begin making jokes about her seizures, they find out that housekeeper Pearl herself has epilepsy, but unlike Karen controls her seizures by taking medication.
Spin-off and crossovers
The Facts of Life (1979–88) is a spin-off of Diff'rent Strokes featuring Drummond's former maid Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae), who had accepted a job as the house-mother for a dormitory at an all-girls private school that Kimberly was attending. In a late first-season episode of Strokes (which served as the "backdoor pilot" of Facts), Mrs. Garrett took Kimberly to the school with the intent of helping her sew costumes for a school play. While there, Mrs. Garrett met Kimberly's classmates and was offered the job as "dorm mother". She declines in this episode, but come fall, clearly had a change of heart. The Diff'rent Strokes cast appeared in the first episode of The Facts of Life (at one point, Drummond asks Mrs. Garrett "Are you sure we can't change your mind to come back to us?"). The success of the spinoff led to several Strokes/Facts crossovers in the ensuing years.
While not a spin-off, Hello, Larry (1979–80) had a connection to Strokes as it was established in a crossover episode that Philip Drummond and Larry Alder (McLean Stevenson) were old army buddies, and Mr. Drummond had bought the company that owned the radio station Larry worked at as a talk show host.
Additionally, Arnold appeared on the Silver Spoons episode "The Great Computer Caper" and the Amazing Stories episode "Remote Control Man".
Later appearances as the characters
In 1994, Coleman appeared in an episode of Married... with Children, playing a building code inspector whom Al Bundy called to report an illegal driveway. When Kelly recognizes him, he denies any connection to Arnold Jackson, but utters his catchphrase to Al, "What'chu talkin' about, Bundy?". Also, in 1996, Coleman and Bain reprised their roles for the series finale of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air entitled "I, Done Part 2". In their scene, they reference Willis by name before meeting Will Smith's character, leading to Coleman uttering a variation of his catchphrase, "What'chu talkin' about, Willis?".
Additional catchphrase references and appearances in pop culture
In 2004, Gary Coleman appeared on the second season of The Surreal Life and is pressured to quote his famous catchphrase by Vanilla Ice. He also guest-starred as himself on The Wayans Bros., The Ben Stiller Show, Drake & Josh, The Jamie Foxx Show, The Parkers, Robot Chicken, and The Simpsons.
After Diff'rent Strokes ended
Following the cancellation of Diff'rent Strokes, Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, and Dana Plato encountered difficulty in obtaining acting jobs. All three experienced various legal problems while Bridges and Plato also struggled with drug addictions, all of which were documented in the press. The press and fans of the series blamed the cast's personal problems and faltering careers on what was eventually dubbed the "curse of Diff'rent Strokes" by various tabloids.
Three years after the series ended, Gary Coleman sued his parents and his former manager over misappropriation of his trust fund. Although he was awarded over $1,000,000 in the decision, he filed for bankruptcy in 1999.
In 1998, Coleman was charged with assault after he punched a woman while working as a security guard at a shopping mall. In 2001, Coleman (still working as a security guard) was videotaped trying to stop a vehicle from entering the mall. The driver ridiculed him, and released the tape to be broadcast on numerous television shows. In 2007, Coleman was cited for disorderly conduct in Provo, Utah, for having a "heated discussion" with a woman.
On May 26, 2010, Coleman, who had battled health problems since childhood caused by congenital kidney disease, was admitted to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo after falling and hitting his head after suffering a seizure. Coleman was then placed on life support after suffering an intracranial hemorrhage, and died on May 28, 2010, from complications of his injury at the age of 42.
During Season 6, Dana Plato became pregnant and her character was written out of the series (Plato would go on to make guest appearances for the final two seasons). In 1984 she married the father of her child, musician Lanny Lambert, but the couple divorced in 1990. Due to financial difficulties and her growing addiction to drugs and alcohol, Plato relinquished custody of her son, Tyler, to her ex-husband.
In an attempt to boost her faltering career, Plato posed for Playboy in June 1989 but her appearance in the magazine did not help her land acting jobs. By 1990, Plato was living in Las Vegas. Despite having made $25,000 an episode while on the series, she was often broke and was working as a cashier at a dry cleaning store.
In February 1991, she was arrested after robbing a Las Vegas video store armed with a pellet gun. She was arrested the following year for forging prescriptions for Valium. In 1997, she appeared in a softcore pornographic film entitled Different Strokes: The Story of Jack & Jill... and Jill, which was intended to capitalize on her Diff'rent Strokes fame. After her arrests, Plato publicly admitted that she struggled with an addiction to drugs and alcohol.
She died of a drug overdose in 1999 at the age of 34. Her death was ruled a suicide. Her son, Tyler Lambert would later commit suicide as well.
After the series ended, Todd Bridges developed an addiction to cocaine. In February 1988, he was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of a drug dealer at a crack house in South Central Los Angeles. He was acquitted in November 1989. Bridges was also arrested on a concealed weapon charge and possession of cocaine. In 1994, he was arrested after allegedly ramming someone's car after an argument.
After years of battling his drug addiction, Bridges became sober in the early 1990s. He now travels across the United States, touring schools and discussing the dangers of drug use.
Bridges has continued acting in films and television. His more high-profile role was as Monk, a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, conspiracy theorist, and nephew of Chris' boss Doc on the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris.
Two unofficial docudramas were produced about the show:
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released Seasons 1 and 2 of Diff'rent Strokes on DVD in Region 1 & 4. Season 1 was also released in Regions 2 & 5 on October 6, 2008. On September 29, 2009, a "Fan Favorites" DVD was released. This is a one disc compilation consisting of eight episodes from Season 2.
On April 6, 2012, it was announced that Shout! Factory had acquired the rights to the series; they subsequently released the third season on DVD on July 17, 2012. Season 4 was released on November 20, 2012. Season 5 is scheduled to be released on April 4, 2017.
On August 27, 2013, it was announced that Mill Creek Entertainment had acquired the rights to various television series from the Sony Pictures library, including Diff'rent Strokes. They subsequently re-released the first and second seasons on DVD on July 15, 2014.