A Thursday night time slot between The Cosby Show and Cheers was a delectable time slot indeed, and A Different World grew to deserve it. Created by Bill Cosby himself, this Cosby Show spin-off followed the second-oldest Huxtable child, Denise, to the fictional and mostly all-black Hillman College, alma mater of her dad and grandfather. It was the first show to spotlight African American kids away at college, and it showcased the talents of African American actors, writers, producers and directors—plenty of talent that would go on to work in other TV and big screen endeavors.
Denise had two roommates: Jaleesa, who at a ripe old twenty-six had been married and divorced already; and the loquacious Maggie, one of the college’s few white students, played by future Oscar winner Marisa Tomei. Clotheshorse and Southern belle Whitley pranced around and warded off (with less and less success) the passes of fast-talking, quick-witted Dwayne Wayne. The dorm director was Warren Oates, who was played by comedian Sinbad, who had been hired to warm up the show’s live studio audiences but impressed the producers so much he was cast as a regular.
When actress Lisa Bonet, who played Denise, got pregnant in real life, she left the show and would occasionally re-appear on The Cosby Show over the next few years. Actress and choreographer Debbie Allen came aboard as a producer and director after the first season, and as a graduate of the historically African-American Howard University, she brought many of her old college experiences with her. Aretha Franklin sang the show’s new opening vocals, and the plot focus shifted from Denise to Whitley and Dwayne. Each new season, a new batch of freshman students streamed in, and new dorm directors sprouted up as well.
In its second and third seasons, the show finished third and fourth in overall ratings. It dealt with social and political issues like date rape, unplanned pregnancy, racism, AIDS and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. African American youth culture had never had this kind of representation before—its history, its music, its dance and its fashion—and A Different World took a look at all of it. It was a very different world from typical prime time television, and the fact that it became such a long-running success is a testament to the talent behind it.
USA / NBC / x25 minute episodes / Broadcast 24 September 1987 – 9 July 1993
Jasmine Guy as Whitley Marion Gilbert Wayne
Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Cleophus Wayne
Darryl M. Bell as Ron Johnson
Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson Taylor (1987-92)
Sinbad as Coach Walter Oakes (1987-91)
Lisa Bonet as Denise Huxtable (1987-88)
Marisa Tomei as Maggie Lauten (1987-88)
Marie-Alise Recasner as Millie (1987-88)
Loretta Devine as Stevie Rallen (1987-88)
Amir Williams as J.T. Rallen (1987-88)
Bee-Be Smith as Gloria (1987-88)
Kim Wayans as Allison (1987-88)
Glynn Turman as Col. Bradford Taylor (1988-93)
Cree Summer as Winifred “Freddie” Brooks (1988-93)
Charnele Brown as Kim Reese (1988-93)
Lou Myers as Vernon Gaines (1988-93)
Mary Alice as Lettie Bostic (1988-89)
Dominic Hoffman as Julian (1988-91)
Reuben Grundy as Ernest (1989-90)
Patti LaBelle as Adele Wayne (1990-92)
Andrew Lowery as Matthew (1990-91)
Jada Pinkett as Lena James (1991-93)
Ajai Sanders as Gina Devereaux (1991-92)
Gary Dourdan as Shazza Zulu (1991-93)
Alisa Gyse Dickens as Kinu (1991-92)
Karen Malina White as Charmaine Brown (1992-93)
Michael Ralph as Spencer Boyer (1992-93)
Joe Morton as Byron Douglas III (1992)