Alan Thicke was right when he proclaimed in his song that it takes “diff’rent strokes to move the world.” In the case of the hit 1978-86 series, Diff’rent Strokes referred to the ever-changing landscape of America and, more specifically, to the mixed-race family at the center of this show.
The premise was that white widowed millionaire Phillip Drummond fulfilled a promise he had made to his black housekeeper before she died to take in her two children. Moving from Harlem to a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue proved to be quite a shock for eight-year-old Arnold and twelve-year-old Willis. Not only had they lost their mother, but now they had to assimilate themselves into a different kind of life.
The early episodes explored the difficult adjustment for the kids, especially Willis, who wished to be adopted by a black family. Arnold took an immediate liking to Mr. Drummond and often felt torn between him and Willis. As time went on, though, the kids learned to trust Mr. D (as they called him) and his teenage daughter Kimberly. But the family, including housekeeper Mrs. Garrett and Phillip’s daffy sister Sophia, were a tight-knit group who went through all the ups and downs of any family.
After the second season, Mrs. Garrett left to work at Kimberly’s prep school, Eastland, and to a new series called The Facts of Life). Her job was filled by Adelaide Brubaker, a grumpy, older woman who, in turn, was replaced by the kindly Pearl Gallagher.
As was typical of the era’s sitcoms, Diff’rent Strokes had several “special” episodes, dealing with such issues as kidnapping and child molestation. In 1983, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan even made a guest appearance on an anti-drug episode. She wasn’t the only famous guest star, however—Arnold once shaved his hair into a Mohawk in honor of his idol du jour, Mr. T.
But Diff’rent Strokes had a built-in problem. The show, which had actually been created by Norman Lear’s company for Gary Coleman (who had done a guest appearance on Lear’s Good Times) generally revolved around the adorable, wise-cracking Arnold, who, when confronted with some unlikely news, often retorted, “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” But as Arnold got older, the wisecracking cute kid thing got harder to pull off. This was compounded by the fact that the audience knew Coleman was older than the role he was playing and that his youthful appearance was due to a congenital kidney disease.
In situations like these, family sitcoms tend to add new characters, and Diff’rent Strokes was no exception. In 1984, Dad (as the boys came to call him) met and eventually married Maggie McKinney. More importantly, Maggie happened to have an incredibly precocious young son named Sam. The new tyke not only had red hair and a Southern accent but could play the guitar and sing as well. But not even a kid arguably more adorable than Arnold could keep NBC from dropping the seven-year-old show. The series ran on ABC for the last season, during which the Maggie role went from Dixie Carter to Mary Ann Mobley.
Much has been said of the turmoil of the three young stars’ lives following the series’ cancellation, but none of it can take away from the fact that Diff’rent Strokes was a legitimate hit and, at its best, a genuinely funny and endearing series. Darn it all, Arnold really was cute, and that’s one thing in this crazy, mixed-up world that everybody can agree on.
“Now the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum,
What might be right for you, may not be right for some…”
USA / ABC – NBC – – Norman Lear – Tandem / 189×25 minute episode / Broadcast 11 March 1978 – 31 August 1985 (NBC) and 27 September 1985 – 30 August 1986
Creators: Jeff Harris, Bernie Kukoff / Executive Producers: Norman Lear, Budd Grossman, Howard Leeds
Conrad Bain as Mr. Drummond
Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson/Drummond
Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson/Drummond
Dana Plato as Kimberly Drummond
Mary Jo Catlett as Pearl Gallagher (1982-86)
Rosalind Chao as Miss Chung (1982-83)
Dody Goodman as Aunt Sophia (1981-82)
Janet Jackson as Charlene DuPrey (1981-82)
Mary Ann Mobley as Maggie McKinney (1985-86)
Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett (1978-79)
Nedra Volz as Adelaide Brubaker (1980-82)
Dixie Carter as Maggie McKinney (1984-85)
Danny Cooksey as Sam McKinney (1984-86)
Jason Hervey as Charlie (1985-86)