You were probably exposed to the phenomenon that was NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes if you were tuned in to a television at any time between 1978 and 1986. A star vehicle for precocious child actor Gary Coleman, Strokes mined comedy from the strange coupling of Mr. Drummond (Conrad Bain) and the orphaned kids of his deceased housekeeper, Arnold (Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges).
The show has been running for eight seasons and is probably as remarkable for the melodrama that surrounds its youthful stars as it is for anything they have done on-screen. Looking at 13 facts, Willis was probably discussing at some point or another.
1. It made the schedule because there was no Little Rascals.
NBC President Fred Silverman knew that he wanted to do something with Gary Coleman, the polished 10-year-old who had taken care of his commercial spots. (Coleman was so upset that he was thought to be a little person at one stage.) The actor filmed a pilot for the 1978 Little Rascals update, but the network refused to move forward. In a script about two Harlem siblings moving into a posh Manhattan penthouse, Silverman was still keen to discover a project. While Bain was the show’s ostensible star, it was Arnold’s depiction by Coleman that entertained viewers: during his first three seasons, the show never dropped outside the top 30.
2. White Supremacists were not fans.
While Strokes was never a extremely politized series, the concept of a wealthy white millionaire adopting two black children was uneasy with some spectators. Bain received letters from the Ku Klux Klan after the show premiered that were in nature threatening and sealed by a Grand Dragon in wax; Todd Bridges claimed he was also harassed by members of the self-identified Klan.
3. Muhammad Ali may have inspired the title
In 1966, the Great Bend Daily Tribune cited boxing great Ali (who made a cameo in an episode in 1979) as stating, “Different strokes for distinct folks,” according to the Yale Book of Quotations. Musician Syl Johnson further popularized the sentence in a 1968 song. Producer considered calling it 45 Minutes from Harlem before the stylized title.
4. Gary Coleman Sat Out Over Money episodes.
Although Strokes ‘ primary attraction, when the show started, Coleman was paid a relatively paltry $1,800 per episode. His parents— who were also his managers— were successfully arguing for an episode raise of $30,000. By 1981, the promise of profitable syndication cash led to another request; this time, Coleman was sitting on the sidelines for the fourth season’s first episodes in the protracted contract negotiations. His salary eventually increased to $70,000 per episode, making him for a period of time the highest-paid comedic actor of NBC.
5. Coleman’s catch phrase was tweaked.
According to series writer Ben Starr, Arnold’s character had a line scripted as, “What do you mean, Willis?”When Coleman read it, he compressed it into what would become one of the 1980s ‘ most omnipresent catchphrases: “Whatchoo talkin bout, Willis?”The writers wanted to be careful about partitioning it out in future seasons so that it wouldn’t wear out its welcome, but that wasn’t completely effective: Coleman was so tired of the line he refused to mention it by the late 1990s.
6. It cornered the market on Special Episodes
Sitcoms addressed serious issues at least as far back as the 1970s, when Edith Bunker was assaulted in an episode of All in the Family that was particularly jarring. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that comedies took movie-of – the-week topics on a regular basis and used them to attract attention for a significant increase in ratings. Strokes aired a two-part episode on child molestation in 1983 in which Gordon Jump (later known as the Lonely Repairman of Maytag) tries to seduce Arnold and his friend. The show was so effective that Very Special Episodes dedicated to bulimia, epilepsy, alcoholism, and the hazards of hitchhiking followed; fittingly, the last episode of Strokes in 1986 was Very Special, featuring Arnold researching the school newspaper’s steroid scandal.
7. Co-wrote the theme song by Alan Thicke.
Renowned for his role as affable father Jason Seaver on Growing Pains or affable father of singer Robin Thicke, Alan spent time composing a memorable amount of television music in the 1980s. Besides composing the theme song for The Facts of Life, Thicke sang and co-wrote the music and lyrics for the theme of the Diff’rent Strokes. An interviewer received the son of Thicke to sing portion of it in 2012.
8. During his run, Coleman had a kidney transplant.
The short stature of Coleman was the consequence of drugs provided to the youngster to deal with a genetic birth defect: he was born with one atrophied kidney and the other failed already. He got his first kidney transplant by the age of five. Coleman opted instead for dialysis four times a day after having a second one in 1984 and facing another procedure in 1986. The drugs given to manage his condition through it all resulted in a phase of suppressed growth. Coleman knew he wasn’t going to develop beyond four feet eight inches by the age of 14. One episode of the series was even dedicated to gripping his personality with the same affliction.
9. Arnold Appeared on Other Shows.
With NBC executives eager to have Coleman use his magic on the rest of their schedule, Arnold was jettisoned to Silver Spoons, Strokes spinoff The Facts of Life, and even on the wholly-unrelated Steven Spielberg-produced anthology series Amazing Stories. In “Remote Control Man,” a henpecked husband is able to transform his domestic existence into something out of a sitcom, running into Arnold along the way.
10. Coleman Lobbied to Be Less of a Kid.
As he neared adulthood, a teenaged Coleman began to grow very weary of playing an adolescent Arnold. For the last season, he successfully petitioned the writers to place Arnold in high school in order to feed more mature plots like dating and driving, with less jumping into Mr. Drummond’s lap. He also convinced NBC to give him a dramatic role in 1985 as the lead in a TV movie, Playing with Fire, about a child arsonist who wants to set the family dog ablaze. Like his Very Special Episodes, it ends with a strong message for would-be firebugs: “Get therapy.”
11. Todd Bridges Played a Guy Who Sold Drugs to a Younger Todd Bridges.
Life after Strokes was not kind to its juvenile performers. Dana Plato, who portrayed Kimberly Drummond, struggled with substance abuse and once robbed a convenience store before dying of a drug overdose in 1999. A near-unemployable Coleman died in 2010 of complications owing to a fall, and Bridges was involved in a series of drug-related incidents before settling down. For a 2000 Fox docudrama about the making of the show, Bridges plays a drug dealer who sells drugs to an actor playing his younger self. In a 2006 TV movie, his real-life sister, Verda, portrays his mother.
12. Willis Won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes.
A 2013 ad campaign for wish-fulfillment Publishers Clearing House used archival footage from old sitcoms to portray characters answering the door and seeing the “Prize Patrol.” In a spot fashioned out of Diff’rent Strokes footage, Arnold is chagrined to find out Willis has won the million-dollar prize.
13. Coleman Said Goodbye to Arnold on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Despite being vocal about wanting to move on from the show, Coleman agreed to reprise the character of Arnold for the 1996 series finale of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. After the Banks clan decides to separate to pursue separate opportunities, Will (Will Smith) shows their home to prospective buyers, including Arnold and Mr. Drummond, who provides some meta commentary after Arnold deploys his catchphrase. “You know, Arnold,” he says, “those things were a lot funnier when you were still a little child.”