Few shows in television history have gotten off to as slow a start as “A Different World,” that ran on NBC from 1987 to 1993. Well, “slow” in terms of finding its groove, not in the ratings because, after all, it came on immediately after NBC’s megahit, “The Cosby Show” and was, in fact, a spin-off from that history-making sitcom.
“A Different World” focused on Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) and her friends at Hillman College, a fictional historically black college in Virginia. The problem was that the show lacked the “feel” of a black college, and considering the setting, Denise having a white roommate and best girlfriend seemed improbable.
High expectations notwithstanding, the first season of “A Different World” was rather dull. The situation prompted Sinbad, who portrayed Coach Walter Oakes, to say, “I’ve never seen a black college like this.”
INDEED, the Hillman campus was fully integrated even though the school was “historically black.”
What the show needed was a change of direction — an overhaul, as it were. That need was expressed to the producers and writers of the show as well as to Bill Cosby himself.
Famed dancer, choreographer, actress, director and producer Debbie Allen was hired and given the green light to do whatever she felt was necessary to give “A Different World” new life and a lot more relevance.
Allen was the perfect person for the job. In addition her many skills, she had attended a historically black college, Howard University, in Washington, D.C.
Oddly enough, Lisa Bonet ended up leaving the show that had been created with her in mind. Bonet, married in real life to singer-musician Lenny Kravitz, was expecting, but Allen thought that a pregnant Denise Huxtable would bring an interesting dynamic to the restyled
“A Different World.”
HOWEVER, Cosby insisted that the public would never accept Denise Huxtable as an unwed mother, so the idea was nixed.
Kadeem Hardison was already popular as the brainy Dwayne Wayne, as was Jasmine Guy as the “prissy” Whitley Gilbert, the quintessential “southern belle.”
Allen added Cree Summer as the slightly spacy “earth child” Winifred (“Freddie”) Brooks, and Charnele Brown as another brainy student and the levelheaded best friend of Whitley.
Darryl M Bell’s role as Ron Johnson, Dwayne’s best buddy, was increased to the principal cast. Same for Sinbad.
Also added to the cast were Lou Myers as the feisty, advice-giving restaurant owner Vernon Gaines and veteran actor Glynn Turman as Col. Bradford Taylor who developed a relationship with an older Hillman student, Jaleesa Vinson (portrayed by Dawnn Lewis) that led to marriage.
Viewers loved these characters and looked forward to seeing them every week.
Jada Pinkett was later added as the street-smart Lena James.
TWO OF the most popular recurring guest stars were the iconic songstress Patti LaBelle (seven episodes) as Dwayne Wayne’s soulful, down-to-earth mother, Adele Wayne, and the legendary Diahann Carroll (seven episodes) as Marion Gilbert, the ultra-classy, somewhat snooty mother of Whitley Gilbert.
Adele Wayne and Marion Gilbert clashed often, and when they did, it was hilarious.
Among the other big names that appeared on “A Different World” were Halle Berry, David Alan Grier, Richard Roundtree, Whoopi Goldberg, Heavy D, Raven-Symoné, Blair Underwood, Lena Horne, Billy Dee Williams, Jesse Jackson, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Tisha Campbell-Martin.
Also, it was not uncommon for stars of “The Cosby Show” to make appearances on “A Different World,” including Phylicia Rashad, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Bill Cosby, Tempestt Bledsoe, Keshia Knight Pulliam and Earle Hyman, who was Russell Huxtable, father of Heathcliff Huxtable.
Tempestt Bledsoe and Darryl M. Bell have been a real-life couple for over two decades, and during the show’s run, Kadeem Hardison and Cree Summer dated.
As stated previously, Hillman College was fictional, and when campus scenes were needed, they were shot at Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University, both black colleges and both located in Atlanta. Keisha Knight Pulliam is an alumna of Spelman.
When Jasmine Guy was asked by BET why “A Different World” remains popular after the passage of so many years she said, “It answers a time in our life that is very transformative, those four to five college years. It’s a turning point. We had very different characters on the show — medical students, free spirits — so at some point someone is saying something for you.
“So many people still come up to me today and say they went to college because of ‘A Different World.’ I knew we were funny, but I didn’t know that what we were doing was important. I couldn’t see that at the time.”