10 things you never knew about 'Diff'rent Strokes'

Willis knows what we're talking about. Do you?

Image: The Everett Collection

Diff'rent Strokes does not often get the credit it deserves. Most rightly and fondly remember it as the pioneer of the 1980s family sitcom, frothy and full of catchphrases and an even catchier theme song. But the series — which actually premiered in 1978 — broke new ground with a mixed-race family. The scripts were unafraid of weighty subject matter. After all, this is the show that put "the very special episode" on the map, tackling every danger and crossroad that might come to a kid growing up in the city.

Of course, it is impossible to bring up Diff'rent Strokes without dredging up the darkness behind the scenes. The young actors led troubled lives, especially after the spotlight faded away. We're going to focus on the show itself, which can still put a smile on your face. Though probably not with the dimples that Arnold had.

1. The show came about somewhat thanks to a failed 'Little Rascals' reboot.


Television pioneer Norman Lear crafted two pilots for an attempted Little Rascals reboot in 1977, "Rascal" and "Souper Nuts." Young newcomer Gary Coleman starred as Stymie. The series was not picked up, though one exec did take notice of Coleman, and became determined to find a vehicle for the precocious actor. The network soon pegged Coleman for the lead in Diff'rent Strokes.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. The original working title for the show was '45 Minutes from Harlem.'


Producers knew they wanted a vehicle for Coleman, who had also charmed in a string of TV commercials. Meanwhile, the network had promised to find a new show for Conrad Bain of Maude fame. The two were put together for a concept called 45 Minutes from Harlem. Coleman was to play Bain's adopted son, but there were significant differences. For starters, as the title implied, the setting was further away, north of the Big Apple in a suburban Hudson River setting. Secondly, there was no Willis. No Willis?! What would his catchphrase have been?

Image: The Everett Collection

3. Alan Thicke sang and co-wrote the theme song.


"It don't matter that you got not a lot, so what?" the soon-to-be Growing Pains dad sang over a funky rhythm. The catchy tune was just as crucial to Diff'rent Strokes as "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" Thick co-wrote the song with his wife, Gloria Loring. The two also collaborated on the theme song for the spin-off, The Facts of Life, with Loring handling the vocals.

Image: AP Photo / Nick Ut

4. The Drummonds paid about $3,500 per month in rent.


In the episode "Push Comes to Shove," Mr. Drummond frets that a new lease will cost him $28,000 more a year. The landlord explains that the apartment is now worth three times as much as his original lease. Doing the math, you can figure that the family was shelling out about $3,500 a month for its luxury pad in 1982. Seems like a steal by today's standards. That building, located at 900 Park Avenue on the Upper East Side, has similar units for rent in the five figures.

5. The title sort of comes from a quote by Muhammad Ali — who also guest starred on the show.


So, just where did Diff'rent Strokes come from? Well, Muhammad Ali is cited as the person to publicly popularize the term, when he was quoted in 1966 as saying, "Different strokes for different folks." A year later, Chicago soul singer and pioneer Syl Johnson recorded a hit called "Different Strokes," which became one of the most sampled songs in pop history. Ali would eventually guest star on Diff'rent Strokes, in the season two episode "Arnold's Hero."

6. Coleman had his fifth-grade homework shipped to him from Illinois.


Coleman was a bright kid, perhaps a child prodigy. He was reading at the age of three. The son of a pharmaceutical employee and a nurse, Coleman grew up north of Chicago in the city of Zion. In 1979, as the show was wrapping its breakthrough first season, People sat down with the child star. They noted, "Gary [worked] with a tutor on a curriculum shipped out from his fifth-grade teacher back in Zion."

Image: The Everett Collection

7. The sitcom featured Nancy Reagan's first acting performance since 1962.


Of all the guest stars, none were bigger than the FLOTUS. As Jet magazine reported in 1983, her appearance led to a 24% surge in viewers, as 32.5 million Americans tuned in to see the First Lady deliver her "Just Say No" message. Mrs. Reagan was certainly no rookie when it came to acting. The former Nancy Davis was a star in her own right, having appeared with her husband in Hellcats of the Navy (1957), just to name one of her films. In 1962, she appeared in an episode of Wagon Train, "The Sam Darland Story." It would be her last professional role, as she retired to focus on family.

Image: The Everett Collection

8. Arnold's best friends are named after two of the show's writers.


Arnold has two pals who pop up repeatedly, Dudley (Shavar Ross) and Robbie (Steven Mond), see here. Dudley's original last name was Johnson, before it was changed to Ramsey. Robbie's full name was Robbie Jason. Both were named after two of the shows' regular writers, Robert Jayson and A. Dudley Johnson, Jr.

9. Arnold appeared with June Cleaver in a Steven Spielberg show.


In one of the fantastical tales of Amazing Stories, the 1985–87 anthology series by Steven Spielberg, Coleman reprises his character of Arnold Drummond. In "Remote Control Man," there is a sort of Twilight Zone premise, where a TV-addict husband is given a magical remote that allows him to change his family into popular television characters. He zaps his wife and kids into June Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver, Face from The A-Team and Arnold. All the original actors turn up. Spielberg wrote the story, while Bob Clark of A Christmas Story directed.

Image: NBC Universal

10. Mr. Drummond and Arnold turn up in the series finale of 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.'


Amazing Stories was not the only time Coleman brought Arnold to another show. In 1996, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reached its series finale, "I, Done." In the second part, Arnold and Mr. Drummond descend down the Banks' staircase, as they consider buying the home. "You know, this looks like a great place, Arnold," Drummond says. Will tries to turn them off: "At night you hear the wailing of the dead." Naturally, Arnold retorts, "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Will?" Drummond sighs, noting, "You know Arnold, those things were a lot funnier when you were a little child."

Image: Warner Bros. Television

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