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What Happened Behind the Scenes of Diff’Rent Strokes

If you owned a TV between the years of 1978 and 1986, you no doubt noticed that NBC’s Different Strokes was something of a cultural phenomenon back in those days The series lead star, Gary Colemen portrayed Arnold, a precocious and lovable orphan boy who millionaire Mr. Drummond, played by Conrad Bain, adopted after Arnold’s mother – who happened to be Mr. Drummond’s housekeeper – passed away. Arnold’s brother Willis, played by Todd Bridges, also played a key role in the series.

The series ran for 189 episodes over 8 seasons and became well known for its very special episodes that tackled complex societal issues like racism, drug use, and child abuse. Different Strokes is also quite notable for the drama and controversy that surrounded its young actors during and after it’s run.

In this video, we’re going to discuss 13 behind-the-scenes facts that you might know about the series that coined the catchphrase “Watchu talkin’ ’bout Willis?”. Stick around to see how Gary Coleman played a part in coming up with that iconic quote.

Coleman Almost Starred in Little Rascals Instead

10-year-old Gary Coleman had already made quite the name for himself doing commercials before Fred Silverman president of NBC decided to cast him in a series but it would take him a minute to find the right fit. Coleman was so polished as an actor that at one point it was believed that he was a little person. Coleman had initially taken part in a pilot for a Little Rascals reboot in 1978 but the network decided to scrap it.

Silverman was still committed to finding the right project for the young actor whom he was particularly excited about, so he slotted him in a series about two brothers from Harlem who move in with an affluent businessman in Manhattan. While it’s pretty clear that Bain was the intended star of the show, Gary Goleman’s character Arnold never failed to entertain viewers and became the fan favorite.

The series was a success and never fell below the top 30 during its first several seasons.

White Supremacists Were Livid

Different Strokes never really went out of its way to deliver a particularly political message but some racist viewers were irate about the idea of a rich white man adopting two black kids. After the series debuted, Bain regularly received condemnatory and threatening letters from the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists grounds. Todd Bridges, who played Willis, also endured harassment by alleged Klan members.

The Title Was Probably Inspired By A Muhammad Ali Quote

The phrase ‘different strokes for different folks’ was popularized by famed boxer Muhammad Ali in a 1966 interview. Syl Johnson subsequently used the phrase in a 1968 pop song. The working title of the series before the producers settled on Diff’rent Strokes was ’45 Minutes from Harlem”. Ali would actually make a cameo appearance in the series in 1979.

Gary Coleman Was Initially Paid Peanuts

Even though he was one of the driving forces behind the series, Gary Coleman was paid relatively poorly when the show first debuted. $1,800 per episode is a downright shameful paycheck for any actor, let alone one that would become the main attraction of a series. His parents, who also happened to be his contract negotiators, were able to get him a raise to $30,000 per episode for season 2. In 1981, they made another request for higher payment but while the contract talks were still in the works, Coleman sat out of several episodes during the beginning of the fourth season. Eventually, they were able to agree upon a $70,000 per episode figure and Coleman once again rejoined the cast – at which point he became NBC’s highest-paid comedy actor at the time.

Coleman’s Catchphrase Was Somewhat Improvised

Ben Starr, one of the lead writers for the series, recalls that Arnold once had a line that was scripted as “What are you talking about, Willis?” but when Gary read it he reworded it as ‘Watchu Talkin’ ’bout, Willis?. It subsequently became one of the most popular and pervasive catchphrases of the 80s. The producers of the show tried their best not to overuse the phrase. They attempted to space its usage out for future episodes so it wouldn’t become worn too thin but that wasn’t completely successful. By the late 90s, Coleman completely refused to even say the line.

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And you’re going to want to keep watching to find out how Gary Coleman said goodbye to his Arnold character once and for all in the mid-90s.

The ‘Very Special Episode’ Became It’s Bread And Butter

It wasn’t altogether uncommon for sitcoms to take on serious themes and subject matter. Back in the 70s, you had Edith Bunker from All in the Family getting assaulted in one particularly controversial and memorable episode, but in the 1980s comedies routinely tackled controversial themes just to get a bump in ratings and a little bit of press coverage.

In 1983, an episode ran that depicted Arnold and his friend as being preyed upon by a child molester played by WKRP in Cincinnati’s Gordon Jump. The episode was so successful that the Different Strokes ran with the formula and began to routinely pump out dozens of Very Special Episodes addressing issues like eating disorders, alcohol abuse, hitchhiking, and drug use to name a few. The series finale in 1986 was also a ‘Very Special’ episode that featured Arnold investigating a steroid scandal for his local school paper.

Alan Thicke Helped Write The Theme Song

He played Jason Seaver, the lovable patriarch on Growing Pains, and he also fathered pop singer Robin Thicke. It would seem that he too had a great deal of musical talent. In the 80s he composed quite a few highly memorable television theme songs. Not only did he write the theme music for The Facts of Life, but he also co-wrote the music and lyrics to the Different Strokes theme song. Humorously, in 2012 an interviewer for got Robin Thicke to sing the Different Strokes theme song on camera.

Coleman’s Kidney Problems

Contrary to popular misconception, Gary wasn’t a little person, rather his short stature was the result of a rare genetic birth defect that resulted in a particularly troubling form of kidney disease. He was born with one already crippled kidney and the other one was failing already by the time he could walk. At the age of five, he received his very first kidney transplant. He had to get a second one in 1984 and underwent another life-saving operation in 1986.

The drugs that he had to take to help manage his illness greatly suppressed his growth and development. When he was 14, he learned that he would never grow taller than four feet eight. There was even an episode of the show that was dedicated to Arnold coming to terms with the same ailment.

Arnold Cameod On Other Shows

Looking to capitalize on Coleman’s massive popularity, NBC execs were super eager to feature Arnold on several of their other series. Coleman made appearances on shows like Silver Spoons, Simon and Simon, The Facts Of Life, and made one particularly offbeat guest-spot on Steven Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories. In an episode entitled “Remote Control Man’, a downtrodden husband is somehow able to transform his mundane life into something straight out of some kind of sitcom. In the process he runs into Arnold of course.

Coleman Hated Playing A Kid

As Gary grew older and approached adulthood, he increasingly became tired of playing a child. For the final season, he was able to successfully convince the writers and network to put Arnold in High School so he could take on more mature plotlines like dating and driving. He also somehow managed to convince NBC to give him a role in a drama in the 1985 made-for-TV film Playing With Fire. In the movie, he plays an adolescent arsonist who intends on setting the family dog aflame. Just like all of the Very Special Episodes of Diff’rent Strokes, the film finished with an in-your-face moral message and encouraged any aspiring pyromaniacs to go seek therapy.

The Cast Had Major Problems

The Diff’rent Strokes young cast members had their fair share of struggles. Dana Plato, who played Kimberly Drummond, wrestled with drug addiction for many years. At one point she even robbed a video store to support her habit. Unfortunately, she died of an overdose in 1999.

Coleman died in 2010 after suffering from complications related to a fall and Bridges got caught up in a number of drug-related incidents before finding a straight and narrow path. In 2000, he appeared in a documentary produced by Fox about the making of the TV show that he grew up on. For the film, Bridges played a drug dealer that ends up selling drugs to an actor that played his younger self. In 2006, Bridges actual sister, Verda, played his mom.

Coleman Reprised His Role For The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Gary was pretty vocal about his desire to move on from the series. But in 1996, he agreed to play Arnold one final time for a guest-spot on the series finale of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air After the Banks family decides to go their separate ways, Will Smith starts showing their home to various potential buyers. One such interested individual was Mr. Drummond accompanied by Arnold. After Arnold whips out his signature catchphrase Mr. Drummond informs him that that line was a lot funnier when he was still a kid.

The Drummond’s Were Paying $3,500 In Rent

In an episode entitled ‘Push Comes To Shove’, Mr. Drummond complains that a new lease on his luxury apartment will cost him $28,,000 more a year. His landlord further explains that the property is now worth three times as much as it did when he originally leased it. Doing a bit of quick mental math you can determine that thee Drummonds were paying about $3,500 a month for their luxury accommodations. That same property located at 900 Park Avenue has units for rent ranging from $17,000 to $20,000 today.

Well, here we are once again at the end of another facts-packed video. Every time we do a video like this it makes me feel grateful that I wasn’t a child actor. What about you? Would you have wanted to grow up on television or in the movies or are you also content with your low-key upbringing? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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