Diff’rent Strokes is a well-loved American sitcom of the ‘80s that aired on NBC from 1978 to 1985, and on ABC from 1985 to 1986. It was the pioneer of the 1980s family sitcom, and even broke new grounds as it featured a mixed-race family. The scripts were also bold and unafraid of weighty subject matters, like racism, illegal drug use, alcoholism, kidnapping, hitchhiking, and child sexual abuse. It was also the show that put “the very special episode” on the map of the TV world. The show ran for 8 seasons and is full of catchphrases and even a catchier theme song.
A star vehicle for the charming and precocious then-child actor Gary Coleman, Diff’rent Strokes was a show that featured the misfortunes of a wealthy white Park Avenue businessman named Phillip Drummond (played by Conrad Bain) and his daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato), as Mr. Drummond adopts two black children named Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis Jackson (Todd Bridges). The series followed the situations – most of which are funny – that then ensued.
If you were updated with Hollywood buzz, perhaps you’ve heard that the young actors led troubled lives after the series. Coleman, Plato and Bridges have experienced legal problems, drug addiction, difficulty landing acting jobs, financial problems and run-ins with the law after the series had ended. It was dubbed as the “curse of Diff’rent Strokes” by tabloids. But we’re going to focus on the facts about the show itself.
Here are some behind-the-scene information that you probably didn’t know about Diff’rent Strokes:
1. The show started out thanks to a failed reboot of the Little Rascals
NBC initially wanted to create a reboot for Little Rascals. The then 10-year-old Gary Coleman was cast as Stymie, and he was so poised that at one point he was believed to be a little man. The taped pilot for the supposed reboot was not picked up, but NBC President Fred Silverman did take notice of Coleman, and became determined to do something to expose the talent of the young boy. That was how Diff’rent Strokes came to be. Silverman slotted him in a script about two brothers from Harlem who moves in a Manhattan penthouse. While Conrad Bain was the main character of the show, it was obvious that Coleman’s portrayal of Arnold that amused its audiences.
2. The title was sort of inspired by Muhammad Ali
Allegedly, the title of the show was inspired by a quote from the late boxing legend, Muhammad Ali. He was cited as the person who popularized the saying, “Different strokes for different folks.” The phrase “Different Strokes” was further popularized by Chicago soul singer and musician Syl Johnson through a hit with the same title. That song became the most sampled songs in pop history. Ali would eventually guest star on the show in an episode from season two.
3. The show could have been named as “45 Minutes from Harlem”
The producers knew they wanted the show to be a vehicle for Coleman, who was also charming in a string of TV commercials. Also, it was their way of finding a new show for Conrad Bain. The two were put together in a show that was conceptualized as “45 Minutes from Harlem.”
4. Gary Coleman tweaked his catchphrase
The catchphrase that is synonymous with Diff’rent Strokes and the character Arnold Jackson was, “Whatchoo talkin’ bout, Willis?” That line was originally written as, “What are you talking about, Willis?” When Coleman read the script, he compressed the words to make it smoother, and it became an instant hit with the staff as well as the audiences. It was voted as one of top 20 catchphrases from TV in TV Guide’s August 2005 issue.
But during the run of the show, Gary Coleman became sick of the catchphrase he started, and asked the producers to drop it from the show.
5. Gary Coleman protested over money
When the show debuted, Coleman was paid $1,800 per episode, despite being the main attraction of the show. His parents, who were acting as his managers, successfully negotiated an increase on his pay to $30,000 per episode. By 1991, Coleman wanted even more money because the show became a success, but this NBC wouldn’t give in. He decided to sit out in the first few episodes on the fourth season until NBC paid up to increase his salary to $70,000 per episode. By that time, he was NBC’s highest-paid comedic actor for many years.
6. Nancy Reagan made a guest appearance on the show
Of all of the show’s guest stars, none were bigger than the former First Lady Nancy Reagan. She was present in one very special episode to promote her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. Well, she was no rookie when it came to acting, as she was the former Nancy Davis who appeared in the Hellcats of the Navy (1957). Before her appearance on the sitcom, her last stint before retiring from acting was in 1962 for an episode of Wagon Train.
7. Dana Plato had to be dismissed because she became pregnant
Playing as the wholesome Kimberly Drummond, Dana Plato had to be dismissed after season 6 because she became pregnant. The producers did not feel that her pregnancy should be written into the show as it would not fit her character’s image. She was then written off because of it. However, she did make several cameo appearances on the seventh and eight seasons, after she gave birth.
8. Coleman and Dixie Carter didn’t get along
While filming the show, Dixie Carter reportedly did not get along with her co-star Coleman, who was her step son on the show. They would often clash on the set and there was too much animosity. She left the show after one season to star on Designing Women. Mary Ann Mobley would later replace her on Diff’rent Strokes. Whenever Dixie was interviewed about the show after she left, she refused to comment and avoided the subject completely if she could.
9. Coleman had a kidney transplant during the run of the series
Coleman was born with a genetic defect called nephritis, a congenital kidney disease in which he had one atrophied kidney and the other is already failing. He already underwent two unsuccessful kidney transplants, and instead of undergoing another operation, he opted instead for a dialysis for four times daily. Because of the drugs given to manage his condition, his growth was stunted. By the age 14, Coleman accepted that he wouldn’t grow beyond 4’8”. Despite his health problems, he worked long hours on the set, which reportedly made him miserable. This condition also caused him to separate himself from the rest of the cast.
10. The show tried and failed to tackle child sexual abuse
There was an episode in the show entitled “The Bicycle Man,” wherein Arnold and his friend Dudley came into contact with a seemingly nice gentleman named Mr. Horton. It turns out that Mr. Horton was a pedophile and befriended the two boys. After gaining their trust, he tries to seduce the children with comic books and ice cream. In the final shocking minutes of the episode, Dudley was rescued from Mr. Horton’s attempt to sexually abuse him and the man gets arrested. In the end, the two kids learned a valuable lesson about trusting strangers. But the public had big issues over its showing, saying it was too disturbing for TV.
11. Coleman wanted to be treated less of a kid
As stated earlier, Coleman was naturally short in stature due to his kidney disease, but because he never grew, his role as a child who would constantly sit on Mr. Drummond’s lap was consistent season after season. Coleman became tired of it and petitioned the writers and producers to bring his character to high school so he can have more mature actions and storylines like driving and dating. The producers gave in during the last season.
12. Coleman and Bain reprised their role in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
After the show ended, Coleman was always vocal about how he wanted to leave his Arnold Jackson character in the past (including his catchphrase). But he agreed to reprise the role of Arnold for the series finale of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1996. In the episode Will (will Smith) shows their home to the prospective buyers, where he – together with Mr. Drummond – were looking at the house. Arnold and Mr. Drummond would later descend to the staircase of the Banks, as they consider buying the home. Mr. Drummond says, “You know, this looks like a great place, Arnold.” Then Will tries to turn them off by saying “At night you hear the wailing of the dead.” Naturally, Arnold replies, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Will?” This was the one of the rare times when he said that catchphrase again. Drummond reacted, “You know Arnold, those things were a lot funnier when you were a little child.”