Diff'rent Strokes is an American sitcom television series 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. Edna Garrett (who ultimately spun off into her own sitcom, The Facts of Life).
|Created by||Jeff Harris|
|Written by||Ben Starr|
|Directed by||Herbert Kenwith|
Mary Jo Catlett
Mary Ann Mobley
|Theme music composer||Alan Thicke|
|Opening theme||"It Takes Diff'rent Strokes"|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||8|
|No. of episodes||189 (list of episodes)|
|Executive producer(s)||Budd Grossman|
|Production location(s)||Metromedia Square|
Hollywood, California (1978–82)
Universal City Studios
Universal City, California (1982–85)
ABC Television Center
Hollywood, California (1985–86)
|Running time||24 mins.|
|Production company(s)||Tandem Productions|
|Original release||November 3, 1978 –|
March 7, 1986
|Related shows||The Facts of Life|
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, alcoholism, hitchhiking, kidnapping and child sexual abuse were dramatically explored. The lives of these stars were later plagued by legal troubles and drug addiction, with Plato and Coleman suffering early deaths.
The series was originally devised jointly to serve as a 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. An early rough outline for the series, featuring the characters created for Bain and Coleman, had the proposed title 45 Minutes from Harlem (even though Harlem is only ten or fifteen minutes away from the Drummond residence by subway or taxi). As the pitch was developed, Coleman's character gained an older brother, and the daughter of Bain's character and a housekeeper was added to the line-up. The title eventually became Diff'rent Strokes, inspired by the quote "Different strokes for different folks" popularized by boxer Muhammad Ali in 1966 (Ali makes a guest appearance in season 2).
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 sitcom'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. As the series progressed, although sticking to more light-hearted sit-com themes in many episodes, at times it focused on more serious topics including drug abuse, alcoholism, hitchhiking, child abuse, and crime, among other issues.
Seasons 1–4 (1978–1982)
The first season very much covered 'every day life' of this unusual family line-up. Dana Plato, although billed on the opening credits, did not appear in every episode as her character was often said to be away at her private school (the character would become more regular later in the first season and across the second season). During the first season, the unseen character of "The Gooch" is first mentioned - a supposedly mean, hulking (but not very bright) bully at Arnold's school. First 'featured' in the first-season episode The Fight, where he is said to be bullying Arnold at school, The Gooch went on to be the focus of several future episodes, and is mentioned in countless other right across the run of the series.
Charlotte Rae appeared in every first-season episode as Edna Garrett, and is present for most of the second season, but is absent in several episodes late on in the season, before leaving to star in her own spin-off, The Facts of Life, set at Kimberly's private school (Kimberly herself did not become a regular character in that series, although the two shows had a number of cross-overs). Following Rae's departure near the end of the second season, Nedra Volz took over as the housekeeper, the older and crankier Adelaide Brubaker. Although she was not added to the opening credits (instead always being credited with the guest cast on the closing credits), Volz appeared as a frequent semi-regular character.
Also first seen in the second season was Arnold's best friend Dudley (initially called Dudley Ramsay, later Dudley Johnson). The character went on to be featured in many episodes, both school-based and otherwise, throughout the show's run. During the fourth season, Dody Goodman was also introduced as Philip's dotty sister Sophia. Also appearing on a semi-regular basis, she effectively filled the same function as Adelaide as the older female character in many stories.
Seasons 5–6 (1982–1984)
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 (1984–1985)
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 a happily married man. 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 returned 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 (1985–1986)
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, 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", was considered for Maggie when the role was created, but she was not initially chosen in part due to age disparity between her and Conrad Bain.
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.
- Conrad Bain as Phillip Drummond
- Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson
- Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson
- Dana Plato as Kimberly Drummond (1978–84, 1985–86 recurring)
- Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett (1978–79)
- Nedra Volz as Adelaide Brubaker (1980–84)
- Janet Jackson as Charlene DuPrey (1980–84 recurring)
- Dody Goodman as Sophia Drummond (1981–84 recurring)
- Shavar Ross as Dudley Johnson (1980–86 recurring)
- Le Tari as Ted Ramsey (1980–84 recurring)
- Mary Jo Catlett as Pearl Gallagher (1982–86)
- Rosalind Chao as Miss Chung (1981–83 recurring)
- Steven Mond as Robbie Jason (1980–85 recurring)
- Dixie Carter as Maggie McKinney Drummond #1 (1984–85)
- Mary Ann Mobley as Maggie McKinney Drummond #2 (1985–86) and as Ms. Osbourne
- Danny Cooksey as Sam McKinney (1984–86)
- Jason Hervey as Charlie (1985–86 recurring)
- Nikki Swasey as Lisa Hayes (1982–86 recurring)
Phillip Drummond is the only character to appear in every episode of the series. Arnold Jackson missed five episodes, two from the fourth season in 1981-82 (“First Day Blues" and "The Team") and three from the seventh season in 1984–85 ("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.
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 as a burly, troublesome brute, forever looking for trouble but not very intelligent, but the character never actually appeared on screen. In season 7, after years of harassing Arnold (and later Sam), the Gooch was finally defeated by Arnold's neighbor and nemesis Carmella.
|Season||Episodes||Originally aired||Rank||Rating||Tied with|
|First aired||Last aired||Network|
|1||24||November 3, 1978||May 4, 1979||NBC||27||19.9||N/A|
|2||26||September 21, 1979||March 26, 1980||26||20.3||N/A|
|3||22||November 12, 1980||May 13, 1981||17||20.7||Fantasy Island|
Trapper John, M.D.
|4||26||October 29, 1981||May 20, 1982||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|5||24||October 2, 1982||May 14, 1983||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|6||24||October 1, 1983||May 12, 1984||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|7||24||September 29, 1984||May 4, 1985||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|8||19||September 27, 1985||March 7, 1986||ABC||N/A||N/A||N/A|
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. A less serious episode had Kimberly's hair turning green from acid rain.
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.
Two notable episodes dealt with the consequences of alcoholism. In season 5, Willis moves out of the penthouse to live with a friend who abuses alcohol. In season 7, Arnold must deal with a classmate whom he catches drinking a thermos of alcohol in the school bathroom.
In the final season (when the sitcom 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 spin-off 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 where Larry worked as a talk show host.
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, Will?".
Additional catchphrase references and appearances in popular culture
In 2004, Gary Coleman appeared on the second season of The Surreal Life and was 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. He also appeared on an episode of Married...With Children called How Green Was My Apple in which during a verbal confrontation with Al, he quipped, Whatchu talkin' bout Bundy?
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 age 42.
During Season 6, Dana Plato became pregnant and her character was written out of the series (though she 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 1998, she appeared in a softcore pornographic film entitled Different Strokes: The Story of Jack and 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.
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.
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.
With Plato's death in 1999 and Coleman's death in 2010, Bridges became the sole survivor of the show's original child actors. Bridges became the show's last surviving original cast member after the death of Charlotte Rae in 2018.
Two unofficial docudramas were produced about the show:
- In 2000, Fox broadcast a one-hour television movie, After Diff'rent Strokes: When the Laughter Stopped. This film, which starred unknown actors, focused on Dana Plato's life after the show, leading to her death. Todd Bridges guest starred in this film as a drug dealer who sold drugs—to a younger Todd Bridges.
- On September 4, 2006, NBC aired a television drama titled Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Diff'rent Strokes. The film, which chronicles the rise and decline of the sitcom's child stars, also features recent interview clips with Coleman and Bridges. The two also star in the movie as themselves (briefly) in the final scene, standing by Plato's grave.
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 was released on April 4, 2017. Season 6 was released on July 25, 2017. Season 7 was released on February 27, 2018. Season 8 was released on May 29, 2018.
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.
|DVD name||No. of
|Region 1||Region 4|
|The Complete First Season||24||September 14, 2004
July 15, 2014 (re-release)
|November 22, 2006|
|The Complete Second Season||26||January 31, 2006
July 15, 2014 (re-release)
|November 4, 2008|
|The Complete Third Season||22||July 17, 2012||N/A|
|The Complete Fourth Season||26||November 20, 2012||N/A|
|The Complete Fifth Season||24||April 4, 2017||N/A|
|The Complete Sixth Season||23||July 25, 2017||N/A|
|The Complete Seventh Season||24||February 27, 2018||N/A|
|The Complete Eighth Season||19||May 29, 2018||N/A|
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