Saturday, January 19, 2013

Classic TV: Diff'rent Strokes (1978)

Norman Lear & Bud Yorkin needed something new to replace Sanford & Son on NBC. The end result would outlast Sanford, even if it did finish its run on another network.

Diff'rent Strokes spent 8 seasons in total, debuting in 1978 on NBC, and finishing in 1986 on ABC, which was sort of ironic in that a few years earlier, NBC had been home for the final season of another iconic series from the same period, Taxi.

The basic plotline was rather simple. New York City millionaire Phil Drummond (Conrad Bain, ex-Maude) adopted a pair of African-American brothers, Willis & Arnold Jackson (Todd Bridges, ex-Fish, & Gary Coleman), to go along with his own daughter, Kimberly (Dana Plato). Lear & Yorkin were keenly aware of the growing trend of mixed families in American society, and, to an extent, copied the "movin' on up" aspect of CBS' The Jeffersons, with Willis & Arnold moving into the big city.

Gary Coleman, of course, was the breakout star, and, with Strokes still on the air, landed his own self-titled animated series, also on NBC, based on a TV-movie he made for the network, "The Kid With The Broken Halo". Unfortunately, The Gary Coleman Show was a bust, as viewers perhaps were hoping against hope that Coleman's character in the series and movie was more like Arnold, but wasn't.

For a time, Strokes was also home to pop music royalty. Future pop superstar Janet Jackson moved over from Good Times to play Willis' girlfriend, Charlene, and released her debut album while on the show. Over the course of 8 seasons, Drummond ended up employing three housekeepers. The first, Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae, ex-The Rich Little Show), was spun off into her own series, the equally successful Facts Of Life. Subsequently, Nedra Volz (ex-The Dukes of Hazzard) & Mary Jo Catlett tried to fill the void. Toward the end of the series, widower Drummond remarried, as Dixie Carter, later of Designing Women, joined the show.

Tragedy, however, has befallen the series since its cancellation. Earlier this week, Conrad Bain had passed away, and was pre-deceased by Coleman & Plato. Todd Bridges was last seen trying his luck as, of all things, a wrestler, under the tutelage of Hulk Hogan on a CMT series a few years ago.

Following is a video spolighting Ms. Jackson as Charlene.

During the course of the series, boxing icon Muhammad Ali, First Lady Nancy Reagan, and Mr. T were among the guest stars making special appearances. Stuff like that just doesn't happen anymore.

Rating: A-.


magicdog said...

My family used to love watching this show back in the day but like many other long running sitcoms, it wore out its welcome. Once Danny Cooksey was added to be the new "Cousin Oliver" of sorts because Gary Coleman was supposed to be more mature, we knew it was over.

Sure was a lot of talent on the show.

I found it funny when Janet Jackson became big after her time on DS. We used to say, "that's Willis' girlfriend!"

It's a shame how many castmembers are gone now - or how much grief they had in their lives after it ended.

IIRC, When Delta Burke left the show, she was replaced by (I think), Mary Ann Mobley. Danny Cooksey ("Sam") managed to carve out a new career as a voice actor.

Celebrity stunts still hold, although they're more likely to be on either talk shows, or cable tween shows. First Lady Michelle Obama has been making the rounds as well. She turned up on an ep of Nick's "iCarly" not too long ago.

hobbyfan said...

Janet had a gig on Fame before the "Control" CD became her big break on the charts.

I'm of course aware of Michelle Obama being on iCarly, but nowadays such stunts are fewer & further between. Nice to know some cablers have a sense of history....