With a precocious kid as the center of its stratosphere, Diff’rent Strokes debuted on NBC on this day 45 years ago. Audiences were introduced to Gary Coleman, who played Arnold Jackson. Todd Bridges played Arnold’s brother, Willis, while Conrad Bain played Mr. Drummond, and Dana Plato appeared as Kimberly.
The show’s storyline followed Arnold and Willis and their move from Harlem uptown. Drummond took the boys in as a favor to their mother, who previously worked for Drummond and died. Drummond himself is a widower, so he’s learning how to live with two more kids around. Charlotte Rae also stars as Mrs. Garrett, but she’s only around through part of the second season. She’ll go off and be on The Facts of Life.
Throughout the show’s run, Diff’rent Strokes would tackle some tough subjects at times. Among those are drug use, alcoholism, racism, child sexual abuse, and kidnapping. But it also was a sitcom with interactions between family members taking up space.
This show debuted on November 3, 1978, and stayed on NBC until May 4, 1985. After NBC had passed on another season of the show, ABC picked it up for a season. Ratings, though, and Coleman getting a little older played roles in seeing the show dropped for good in 1986.
Diff’rent Strokes found its spot among some of the hit 1980s shows that did have kids as stars. Yet this show managed to mix humor, compassion, empathy, and family in its storylines. Before reaching its final format, Norman Lear was looking at only having Bain and Coleman involved in a different type of show.
As an aside, Bain did have a say in how Diff’rent Strokes was formulated. He was just coming off an extensive run as Arthur on Maude. When the show reached its family format, storylines began to take shape, too.
‘Diff’rent Strokes’ Fans Waited For Arnold’s Line
Fans of the show usually waited to see if Coleman was going to bust out his catchphrase: “Wha’choo talkin’ about, Willis?” Yet the show definitely proved to be more than a one-trick, or one-line, pony. There was a litany of recurring cast members or guest stars on here. They included Janet Jackson, Dixie Carter, Mary Ann Mobley, and Jason Hervey.
While the on-screen work receives accolades, some people may connect off-screen drama to Diff’rent Strokes. Plato appeared, at times, in a steady role; other times, she was off of it. Substance abuse issues haunted the young woman and caused problems. They forced her off the show for a bit. After she cleaned up, Plato found her way back in the cast. Sadly, some years after the show ended, Plato was found dead from a possible drug overdose at 34.
Coleman also had his fair share of drama, too. There was a dispute over his salary, which kept him off the air for a little bit. He also had a number of health issues that affected him. Once the salary dispute was settled, Coleman was part of the cast until the show ended.
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