“Black History Month” continues with a look back on a television program that was huge during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a show that spent the first seven seasons on NBC, and its final season on ABC. And, it's also a show that I briefly talked about in a previous Tuesday Timeline entry.
That entry was written on May 8, 2012, and it was about the passing of young starlet Dana Plato. It talked about her rise to stardom, her fall from grace, her police record, and her death from a drug overdose on May 8, 1999, at the age of 34. If you want to, you can read that piece by clicking HERE, but it's not necessary.
Anyway, in that entry, I spoke about the role that helped catapult Dana Plato to stardom. When she signed on to play the role of Kimberly Drummond for the pilot episode of a series called “Diff'rent Strokes”, I don't even think that she had any idea how big the show would get. Dana played the role of Kimberly throughout all eight seasons, though her appearances in the latter half of the series were sporadic due to a pregnancy as well as the constant media reports about her substance abuse.
But for this week, we're not going to talk about Dana Plato.
In this edition of the “TGIF” blog entry, we're going to talk about the show as a whole...we're going to talk about what made the show work, the guest stars who became superstars in their own right, and because we're doing a month-long feature on Black History Month, we're going to talk about just how groundbreaking this show was.
(And, in order to prove that point, I might have to talk about the “very special episodes” that Diff'rent Strokes became associated with. I hope you don't mind.)
“Diff'rent Strokes” debuted on November 3, 1978 on NBC. Aside from Dana Plato, the series initially starred Conrad Bain as Philip Drummond, Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson, Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson, and Charlotte Rae as the Drummond family housekeeper, Edna Garrett.
But did you know that the show was initially planned to go under a different title?
It was originally to be called “45 Minutes From Harlem”, and was designed as a joint vehicle for Bain (who had previously had a role in the Bea Arthur series, “Maude”) and Coleman, who had attracted the attention of producers after seeing him appear in a series of commercials. Todd Bridges and Dana Plato were added to the cast shortly after that, and before the show debuted in 1978, the name of the show was changed to “Diff'rent Strokes”...which ended up being a better title to describe the plot of the series.
TRIVIA: What is hysterical is what the show was called in other countries! Just take a gander at some of the alternate titles that the show title was translated to.
Spain – ARNOLD
France – ARNOLD ET WILLY
Venezuela – ARNOLD THE MISCHIEVIOUS ONE
Mexico – WHITE AND BLACK
Italy – MY FRIEND ARNOLD
Japan – LITTLE BOY ARNOLD IS POPULAR
Israel – ABOUT TASTE AND SMELL (?!?)
Taiwan – LITTLE RASCAL
Germany – ANY MORE QUESTIONS, ARNOLD?
Thailand – THE FUNNY MIDGET (?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?)
Can you tell who most of the countries believed was the star of the show? And, I'm still gobsmacked over the translations for Israel and Thailand!
When the pilot episode begins, we are automatically introduced to widower Philip Drummond and his teenage daughter, Kimberly. Philip is one of New York City's wealthiest citizens, living in a penthouse overlooking Manhattan, and he and Kimberly share their living space with their housekeeper, Edna.
But Edna was hardly the first housekeeper that the Drummond household had, and she was far from being the last. Before Edna came along, Mr. Drummond had hired Lucy Mae Jackson to serve as his housekeeper, and Lucy was the mother of two young boys, Willis and Arnold. Lucy lived with her boys in Harlem, New York, and the three of them were happy until Lucy got very sick. Before Lucy passed away, she talked with Philip on her deathbed and made him promise to look after her two boys in her place. Philip agreed, and approximately a few months after Lucy's death, Philip welcomed Arnold and Willis into his Park Avenue home.
But if you thought that the transition would be a smooth one...think again. When you combine two rich and privileged white Americans with a couple of tough African-American boys who grew up in Harlem, you know that there's going to some clashing.
And, sure enough, there is. Not so much with Arnold though. As long as he had his beloved pet fish, Abraham, along for the ride, he was content with wherever home was. Willis, on the other hand, was not excited about moving to Park Avenue at all, and he fully intended on moving back to Harlem the minute that he had the opportunity. Despite Philip and Kimberly's efforts to try and provide a happy home for Arnold and Willis (including planned family outings and trying to create a Family Fun Night), Willis is determined to go back to Harlem, and he plans on forcibly taking Arnold with him, which causes the normally calm Mr. Drummond to lash out at Willis, calling him selfish. This begins the bridge to communication between the Jackson boys and the Drummond family, and eventually Willis agrees to stay. The following year, Philip legally adopts Willis and Arnold as his own children (though they decide to keep the Jackson name).
The core cast would more or less remain the same over the next few years (aside from Plato's sporadic appearances in seasons seven and eight). Charlotte Rae left the series after the first season to star in the spin-off program “The Facts of Life”. She was replaced by Nedra Volz (who played Adelaide Brubaker), who in turn was replaced by Mary Jo Catlett (who played Pearl Gallagher). In addition, when Mr. Drummond fell in love with aerobics instructor, Maggie McKinley (Dixie Carter/Mary Ann Mobley), they tied the knot, and with that, Maggie and her son Sam (Danny Cooksey) joined the cast.
Now, the whole idea of doing a sitcom on a blended family was nothing new by the end of the 1970s. After all, “The Brady Bunch” started airing almost an entire decade before “Diff'rent Strokes” was even thought of. But what made “Diff'rent Strokes” different (and revolutionary) was the fact that the blended family involved people of two different races. And, here's the thing...there were no colour lines in the Drummond household. Philip loved Willis and Arnold just as much as he loved Kimberly (and later Sam). The family all had their share of great times, and they all experienced the problems that all families did. Of course, mind you, many of the problems that the Drummonds experienced were also quite unique.
In many cases, the Drummond/Jackson family unit had to deal with the subject of racism and prejudice, as a result of Willis and Arnold moving in with them...but what was interesting about the way that all of the situations were handled was the fact that each of the members of the family stood together for what was right, and the creative solutions that they came up with to fight against bigotry were to be applauded (even though the situations and characters were fictional).
Take the third episode of the first season, for example. The episode was called “Mother's Last Visit”, and originally aired in November 1978. Philip's mother drops by for a visit so that she can meet her new adopted grandsons. But her excitement soon fades when she realizes that Arnold and Willis are black. Initially, Philip tries his best to get his mother to look past that fact, but when her prejudices are made even more clear, he tells it as it is, and ends up gaining Willis and Arnold's respect in the process.
In September 1979, a two-part episode aired when Arnold is forced to get his appendix taken out, and Arnold ends up meeting a little girl named Alice, who is having her tonsils removed. The two kids become quick friends, and want to be put in the same hospital room together, but there's a problem with Alice's father. Alice happens to be Caucasian, and Alice's father (who is played by special guest star Dabney Coleman), is against the idea of his daughter sharing a hospital room with a boy who was black. So, Arnold and Alice take off from the hospital in protest, and it leaves both families to search for the kids before Arnold's appendix bursts. Don't worry though. Everything worked fine in the end. In fact, you can click HERE and HERE to watch the conclusion if you like. It's quite spectacular!
Perhaps one of my favourite Diff'rent Strokes episodes of all time was the one entitled “Skin Deep or True Blue”, which aired in February 1980. The episode featured a young Melora Hardin as the sister of Kimberly's new love interest, Roger. She happens to become interested in Willis, who teaches her some dance moves, and Willis decides to ask her out on a date. Now, she's all excited to be going to a dance with Willis...but Roger is against the idea. It turns out that Roger is prejudiced against black people...and he is especially against the idea of interracial dating (which admittedly was a huge hot-button issue in the 1980s). Of course, Arnold and Willis figured it out right away after Arnold records a conversation between Roger and his sister on his tape recorder...and when Kimberly discovers the truth, she decides that she needs to teach him a lesson. Just click HERE to see what I mean. It's something that you simply have to see.
And, of course, who could forget the December 1981 episode in which Mr. Drummond is given a very special honour at the health club that he has been a member of for many years? But Mr. Drummond is so blinded by the prestige and honour that he fails to notice that the very club he belongs to refuses to let African-American members inside, after Arnold and Willis are turned away at the door. This sets the stage for a confrontation at the banquet, where Willis' admission causes Philip to take a stand once and for all. Watch it HERE.
I should also note that the show has dealt with other serious issues during its eight year run, dealing with subjects such as bulimia, environmental issues, drugs and alcohol, epilepsy, kidnapping, and child molestation. In fact, I'd just like to single out the last two subjects in particular as being two of the most sobering episodes of Diff'rent Strokes ever. In the former, we see WKRP in Cincinnati star Gordon Jump as you've never seen him before, and in the latter, you see Sam being kidnapped by a grieving man who can't deal with the loss of his son. It's very gripping stuff, and very unlike the other episodes of the series, which were mainly light-hearted and fun.
That's why I think Diff'rent Strokes stood out from the other sitcoms. It wasn't afraid of hot button issues. Not only did the show showcase storylines that other sitcoms were afraid to, but they did it in such a way that we ended up cheering for the Drummond/Jackson family. It was brilliant the way that the episodes were written, and I can see why it was so popular.
Why, if then First Lady Nancy Reagan could appear on an episode of “Diff'rent Strokes”, then you know that the show was a hit, right?
The show also featured some actors who grew up to be humongous stars and starlets. Did you know that when Willis ended up getting a girlfriend on the show, she was played by future recording artist Janet Jackson?
(Though to be fair, Janet Jackson had been acting years prior to appearing on Diff'rent Strokes).
The show also featured guest appearances by Meadowlark Lemon, Elinor Donahue, Muhammad Ali, Greg Mullavey, Lisa Whelchel, Mindy Cohn, Kim Fields, Molly Ringwald, Audrey Meadows, McLean Stevenson, Joey Lawrence, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Andrew Dice Clay, Dorothy Hamill, David Hasselhoff, John Astin, Ray Bolger, Hoyt Axton, Lance Parrish, Forest Whitaker, Clarence Clemons and Royce D. Applegate.
Sadly, the show was also the source of a supposed curse that affected most of the child actors...but we won't go into that any further.
What is shocking is that of all the cast members of Diff'rent Strokes, only half are still living today. Conrad Bain was the most recent star to pass away, dying at the age of 89 on January 14, 2013. Gary Coleman lost his life following a fall down a flight of stairs, resulting in a fatal head injury on May 28, 2010. He was just 42. You already know about Dana Plato's death on May 8, 1999. Dixie Carter, who played the first Maggie Drummond, passed away on April 10, 2010, at the age of 70. And, Nedra Volz lived to the ripe old age of 94 when she died on January 20, 2003.
They may be gone...but with reruns still airing in various parts of the world, and the first few seasons available on DVD, the show will never really be forgotten. Nor should it. It showed that it was possible to have a happy family life with strong bonds no matter what the colour of people's skin was. It really opened up doors within the prime time television industry, and I for one am happy to have gotten the chance to watch it.