Despite the curious mid-word contraction, Diff’rent Strokes certainly made its mark in sitcom history, appealing to a wide audience during its original run in the late 70s-early 80s and during syndication later on. Thanks to a cherubic young star, and aided by an incredibly catchy theme song, the series was immensely popular and still resonates in pop culture today.
Diff’rent Strokes revolved around Arnold and Willis, two black orphans from a poor Harlem neighborhood, who are adopted by wealthy white millionaire Phillip Drummond and move into his Park Avenue penthouse. Mr. Drummond (or Mr. D. as the boys call him) promised his ailing housekeeper that he would take care of her sons after her death and the series opens with him and his teenage daughter Kimberly anxiously awaiting their arrival. Many early episodes dealt with Willis and Arnold’s period of adjustment to their new environment and Willis’s difficulty in accepting Mr. Drummond as a father figure. Arnold was a precocious 8-year old who often found his loyalties divided between his brother and his new guardian.
The show relied on the culture clash between the boys and the Drummonds and on Arnold’s adorable wisecracking. His signature line, “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” became a catchphrase to end all catchphrases and is still referred to today by anyone who can remember the 80s. Another character that appeared frequently in the first two seasons was Edna Garrett, the Drummonds’ housekeeper, who left the show for the spin-off The Facts of Life, featuring Kimberly’s private school, Eastland. The spin-off enjoyed as much success as Diff’rent Strokes with an equally catchy song of its own.
As the 80s wore on, Diff’rent Strokes faced declining ratings and new characters were introduced to halt the downward slide. There were also some notable guest stars, including Janet Jackson playing Willis’s long time girlfriend, and First Lady Nancy Reagan, who appeared as part of an anti-drug campaign. In later seasons, episodes tended to have more serious subject matters, like child molestation, bulimia and kidnapping. These ‘very special episodes’ shifted the show’s focus from comedy to some uncomfortable topics and the viewers weren’t impressed. The show was cancelled in 1986 after moving from NBC to ABC for its final season.
All of the young actors in Diff’rent Strokes eventually gained notoriety because of their troubled private lives which were wrought with drug use, brushes with the law and financial problems. Dana Plato, who played Kimberly Drummond, died at a young age after a drug overdose, while Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman saw the inside of a courthouse numerous times. Despite the cloud of misfortunes cast over the series because of these events, fans adored the show and its attempt at portraying an atypical American family that thrived in each other’s love and support. After all, it takes diff’rent strokes to move the world.
If you have fond memories of watching Diff’rent Strokes in your youth, we welcome your thoughts in our comments section, as we tip our hats to one of the best-remembered sitcoms of the era, here at Retroland.