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A Different World aired from September 1987 until July 1993 on NBC.
Fresh from her movie debut in the controversial film Angel Heat, 19 year old Lisa Bonet starred in this spin-off from the top rated Cosby Show. The Different World for Denise Huxtable ( Lisa Bonet), was college, where for the first time in her life, she was out from under the protective wing of her family and trying to make it on her own. As the series began she was a sophomore at Hillman College, a mostly black institution, which both her father and grandfather had attended. Dad ( Bill Cosby) and the family were only a phone call away but Denise was determined to show that she was all grown up and wasn't going to come running home for money and support at every crisis. That wasn't easy, since the crisis came every week, sit-com style. Denise's roommates were Jaleesa ( Dawnn Lewis), a 26 year old freshman who had already been married and divorced and who had a no-nonsense attitude toward life and Maggie ( Marisa Tomei),a flighty naiive terminally optomistic chatterbox ( and one of the few whites at Hillman).
Their were numerous cast changes early in the show's run with various professors passing through and dorm director Stevie ( Loretta Devine), being replaced by Lettie(Mary Alice)-a colorful woman who had left Hillman " to walk on the wild side" then returned to finish her education. Whitley( Jasmine Guy), an uppity southern belle; Supercool math major Dwayne ( Kadeem Hardison), and his best friend Ron (Darryl M. Bell), were among the most prominently featured students. Also featured was the school's coach walter Oakes( sinbad), who also ran a local community center.
During that first season, A Different World featured a catchy theme ( sung by Phoebe Snow), over a snappy title sequence but not much else. Had it not had the benefit of a great time slot ( in the hammock between The Cosby Show and Cheers), the trendy show would almost surely have been canceled. TV Guide noted in May 1988 that it was the worst sitcom in recent history to do so well in the ratings, finishing 2nd to The Cosby Show.
Fortunately the quality of the program improved in it's 2nd season as Debbie Allen took over as Producer/Director. Lisa Bonet ( who was pregnant), left the series and returned to The Cosby Show. Returning for the 1988-1989 season were characters Whitley, Jaleesa, Dwayne, Ron, Lettie, and Walter. Meanwhile 3 new members were added: Social activist Freddie Brooks (Cree Summer); pre-med student Kim Reese (Charnele Brown); and the no-nonsense math professor Col. Clayton Taylor ( Dr. War, played by Glynn Turman). The series theme was now sung by Aretha Franklin who was married to Glynn Turman. Mr. Gaines ( Lou Myers), ran the campus eatery and hangout, The Pit.
A Different World delt with several subjects that were relevent to young people; an episode in which Freddie was nearly the victim of date rape, apartheid, prejudice and politics ( The Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared in a 1989 episode).
Hillman proved such a rewarding place that several of the principals stayed around even after graduation. Jaleesa became a marketing executive, opened her own temporary employment agency, married Col. Taylor, and had a baby. Dwayne continued as a graduate student and Whitley ( whom dwayne eventually married), was for a time dorm director at Gilbert Hall. Meanwhile Freddie enrolled in law school and Kim in medical school, both deciding to stay at Hillman.
By the final season, Dwayne and Whitley had clearly become the main characters . They had gotten married ( and had honeymooned in LA during the 1992 LA Riots). The series delt with the struggles of the young married couple, both financially and emotionally. Diahann Carroll and Patti Labelle turned up from time to time as Whitley and Dwayne's mothers, Marion Gilbert and Adelle Wayne. Other minor characters got bigger roles including Streetwise Lena ( Jada Pinkett), and sassy Gina ( Ajai Sanders).
New students were added to the cast that last season including Charmaine ( Karen Malina- White), Pam's friend from The Cosby Show, Dorien ( Bumper Robinson) and his pal Tyrell ( Patrick Y. Malone) and a radical that Freddie liked named Shazza Zulu ( Gary Dourdan).
In the series finale, Dwayne designed a computer game and pitched it to Kinishewa, a Japanese owned company. They offered Dwayne a job but it was in Tokyo. His friendhip to Ron was put to the test when Ron accused Dwayne of stealing his idea for the computer game. Meanwhile Whitley discovered that she was pregnant and Kim accepted a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Spencer (Michael Ralph). As the series ended Dwayne and Ron made up and Dwayne asked Ron to be his child's Godfather which Ron accepted. Then Dwayne and Whitley left Hillman forever as they departed for Tokyo.
A Review from USA TODAY
TV PREVIEW/BY MONICA COLLINS
'Different World' looks like a lost Cos
In the year 1987, the Great Cos continued to rule the TV universe.
So NBC said to the Great Cos: Go forth, be fruitful and multiply. We will harvest ratings points more plentiful than your reported earnings. Thus the Great Cos begat A Different World. And diferent it was.
The Cosby Show stars the Great Cos. A Different World stars Lisa Bonet playing a college student who acts as if she'd never read a book.
Tonight's season premiere of The Cosby Show is not the warmest or the cutest. In fact there are definate hints that all is not right in the Huxtable family. Even so, A Different World doesn't even look like a distant relation.
Why not Theo's World" Or Rudy's World? The Cosby kids played by Malcolm- Jamal Warner and Keshia Knight Pulliam are much more genuine and lots funnier than Bonet's Denise. In the Cosby TV family, she worked well as the offbeat daughter whose flakiness provided some chemistry.
Off on her own-supposedly, she has left the nest to go to college-it's quite a different world, spinning helter-skelter.
In any first episode, appearances count. And our young collegian looks as if she cares not a whit about her appearance. Naturally, this is a college-age privilege. But Bonet reduces dorm casual to urchin ready-to-wear. She dresses in formless, floppy things, capped off in one scene by a mushed porkpie hat that looks like a chocolate Mallomars sitting on top of her unruly coif.
The sloppiness of her demeanor spills over into her acting. Bonet is flatter than a motarboard. She barely reacts to the world around her , expression hardly changes, and her voice is monotonal.
Her sominex style causes the rest of the cast members to look very peppy, in particular Dawnn Lewis as a woman-of-the-world roommate. Lewis has one of the best lines, telling Denise: " You're just a spoiled pushy rich kid with more clothes than brains." Even if those clothes look as though they came straight off D-block in a women's prison.
If The Cosby Show is about winners, A Different World spotlights a loser. Although each week Denise Huxtable will have another insight about herself ( this week's is " how to live down a first impression"), you don't want to follow her through three more years of college.
Meanwhile ,back at The Cosby ranch, the family is settling in for another run at record ratings. The premiere is not the funniest, although Cosby is up to his usual antics.
If Denise is slouching around at 8:30, the Huxtables-ruled by Papa-are going through their paces with precision. We are reintroduced to eldest daughter Sandra and her husband Elvin. When they decide not to go , respectively, to law school and medical school, Mom and Dad flip out.
The Cosby Show is snobbish about education. And there are references here to Princeton and Bennington. That elitism, along with the patriarch's absolutism about the need to be a professional, can become annoyingly preachy.
But this is still Cosby. And it looks like the Harvard of ha-ha compared to A Different World.
AN Article from The New York Times
Guiding No. 1: The Man Who Programs NBC
By PETER J. BOYER
Published: April 19, 1988
Just before the current television season came to a close, Brandon Tartikoff, the chief NBC programmer, was asked to assess the performance of the new shows that made their debut on his schedule last fall. ''I can't sit here and play politician,'' he said, ''and tell you that I was happy with the net results from the fall.''
It is the sort of statement that only the chief programmer of the No. 1-rated network could make. Mr. Tartikoff added only five new shows to the schedule last fall, and of those, two were the highest-rated among all new network programs. One of them, ''A Different World,'' was the second-highest rated of all shows (behind only ''The Cosby Show,'' the NBC series that spawned it) for the year; in contrast, ABC's highest-rated newcomer from last fall, ''Hooperman,'' didn't make the top 30.
But Mr. Tartikoff knows that he and NBC are judged by a higher standard, and that numbers alone somehow don't seem enough anymore at NBC, the network that has defined winning as a mix of quality and high ratings. ''A Different World,'' while hugely successful in the ratings, has been scorned by critics as being unimaginative, flat and triumphant only because of its position on the NBC Thursday-night schedule, playing directly behind ''Cosby.'' A Dearth of Praise
''I think we're graded harder than other people are,'' Mr. Tartikoff said in a recent interview in his Burbank office. NBC is expected to develop new shows that incite critics and viewers alike to laudatory exclamations; the network hasn't had one of those since it began ''L.A. Law'' two years ago.
On the other hand, Mr. Tartikoff seems to take it all in stride. He is only 39 years old, yet he has been the head programmer at NBC for nine years, longer by far than his peers at ABC and CBS - longer, indeed, than anyone else in network history. He was at NBC when the network was unutterably low, under former NBC president Fred Silverman, and he was there for its highs, under former NBC chairman Grant Tinker. High is better, he says, but the lows taught him valuable lessons.
For example, there is patience. Thinking of ''A Different World,'' Mr. Tartikoff was reminded of the time when, as a young programmer under Mr. Silverman, he ordered a spinoff series from the show ''Diff'rent Strokes.'' The first episodes of the new series were terrible, Mr. Tartikoff recalls, so awful that the show's producer, Norman Lear, at first declined the order. Mr. Tartikoff convinced Mr. Lear and his company to produce the show, but with Mr. Lear's name not associated with the program. 'MTV Cops' Becomes 'Miami Vice'
But with time, the show, called ''Facts of Life,'' caught on; it's now in its ninth season and a hit in syndication sales. ''Norman Lear, who didn't want his name on the show, probably netted out about $30 million in his personal bank account for not wanting that show to exist,'' Mr. Tartikoff said. ''And I see the same thing with 'A Different World.' ''
Mr. Tartikoff has assumed a unique place in Hollywood, a network executive who is accepted as a near-peer by the creative community. He is renowned for his instant creation of shows with one-liners, the most famous being ''Miami Vice,'' which had its birth in Mr. Tartikoff's scribbled note to a producer that said simply, ''MTV Cops.'' A new show coming to the NBC schedule had a similar genesis. Mr. Tartikoff and his wife, were leaving a movie theater after seeing the Swedish comedy, ''My Life as a Dog,'' and Mrs. Tartikoff was praising the film. ''Yes, it is great,'' Mr. Tartikoff replied, ''but essentially, it's a Swedish 'Mayberry.' It's taking a bunch of eccentric characters that exist in every town in America. Somebody else could go to another town and do the same show all over again.''
To prove his point, Mr. Tartikoff put into development a show that will be his version of ''My Life as a Dog,'' which will be called ''Down Delaware Road,'' and may be on the air next year. His Own Company
In fact, Mr. Tartikoff is the only network programmer who also runs his own production company. NBC Productions, which makes both theatrical movies and television projects, was essentially created by NBC in order to keep Mr. Tartikoff away from the beckoning gestures of the Hollywood studios 18 months ago. It was his chance to produce movies on a small scale with somebody else's (NBC's) money.
So far, the results have been mixed. His first film, ''Square Dance,'' with Jason Robards, Jane Alexander and Rob Lowe, received critical acclaim, but died at the box office. The company's second film, ''Satisfaction,'' with Justine Bateman (one of the stars of NBC's ''Family Ties''), also disappointed at the box office, but without the balm of critical admiration.
On the other hand, NBC won't lose money on the projects. ''Square Dance'' cost about $4 million to make; it brought in about $2 million. And on Sunday night, ''Square Dance,'' playing under a new title, ''Home Is Where the Heart Is,'' was broadcast as a world-premiere movie on the final night of the season for NBC. A made-for-television movie usually costs $2.8 million; by that reckoning, NBC came out ahead. Changes in the Future
In any event, Mr. Tartikoff has been getting experience in the field that most expect he will turn to after leaving NBC, probably when his current contract expires at the end of next year.
Mr. Tartikoff is already thinking about moving up into some new position during his remaining time at NBC.
''I see under me a staff of people who are really capable, and the last thing I want to do is lose them,'' Mr. Tartikoff said. ''So, I'm sort of looking at it, I think unselfishly, saying, maybe it's time for me to shift into a different mode here. I don't know if the title changes, but I might just give them more and more things to do, and I'll just focus more on the production side, and still do the scheduling.''
The scheduling is something Mr. Tartikoff would find it hard to live without. He still loves the ratings game, he loves putting the pieces of the puzzle together. And before he leaves NBC, he has some things yet to do. One of them is to have a better crop of new shows than he had this year.
''What I've got to do between now and next February is plant four or five shows that will in some shape or form make up for the natrual attrition that's going to happen on certain nights,'' he said. ''I've got to plan for the day when there won't be a 'Cheers,' when there won't be a 'Family Ties.' when 'Golden Girls' will be in its fifth season.''
Worse, he's got to plan for the possibility that next season may be the last for ''Cosby.'' ''What I've got to do is get the next generation going.'' And after that? Mr. Tartikoff says he will have to learn to live without his morning ratings fix. ''The first thing I'll do,'' he said, ''is go to the Betty Ford Center for a severe case of Nielsen withdrawal.''
An Article from The New York Times
Review/Television; Jesse Jackson Finds a Platform on a Sitcom
By JOHN J. O'CONNOR
Published: April 27, 1989
George Bush may be worried about how his first 100 days will be evaluated, but Jesse Jackson is already working on 1992. Tonight on ''A Different World'' - on NBC at 8:30 - Mr. Jackson is taking shrewd advantage of the sitcom as a valuable political showcase.
The notion is not new, having been cultivated by, among others, the former Speaker of the House, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., on ''Cheers'' and Nancy Reagan plugging her ''Just Say No'' anti-drug campaign on several shows. But Mr. Jackson is more of a natural superstar than most other political figures.
''A Different World'' is broadcast immediately following the blockbuster ''Cosby Show.'' That is crucial positioning. In fact, ''A Different World'' was created by Mr. Cosby, billed in the credits as William H. Cosby Jr., Ph.D. After some extensive revamping, the often silly but amiable series has settled into Top 10 security, helped considerably by the additions of such established actors as Glynn Turman and Mary Alice, and the overall direction of Debbie Allen. Periodically, issues of substance are worked into the fun-and-games-at-school format.
Several characters have been adjusted. Playing Dwayne Wayne, for instance, Kadeem Hardison has been able to evolve the subsidiary character from a chronic goof to a basically serious and key young man with a sharp sense of humor. Tonight, Dwayne is running for president of the student council, urging fiscal responsibility against his opponent's promise to provide a ''slammin', jammin' homecoming.'' His top aide warns about campaigning on the issues: ''It's killing you, man.''
Dwayne decides to drop out of the race. Enter Mr. Jackson, visiting the college to deliver an assembly address. There are rumors about which Jackson is actually coming. Other possibilities include Michael and LaToya (''That woman has more plastic in her than a Tonka toy,'' says one envious student). But no one is disappointed when Jesse Jackson arrives, ready to praise his host's smothered pork chops and talk about standing up for what you believe in. Mr. Jackson has a wonderful time, showing he is not afraid to poke some fun at himself and waiting eagerly for the next cue.
His address is, of course, vintage Jesse Jackson. He talks about individuals who did make a difference, from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rosa Parks. He ticks off his handy slogans regarding the nation's young people and soon-to-be voters: to put hope in their brains, and not to open their veins; a diploma in one hand, and a voting card in the other; not aptitude, but attitude. The delivery is stirring. The students are thrilled. Mr. Jackson beams confidently, and his campaign is off and running. Mr. Cosby has served him well.
An Article from The New York Times
How Television Is Cultivating New Ways of Looking at Blacks
By ANDREA ADELSON, SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: February 7, 1991
On a recent episode of the NBC series "A Different World," Zelmer Collier, a brainy Ph.D. candidate and Army reservist whose unit has been called for duty in Saudi Arabia, stopped by his alma mater to say goodbye. In the course of the half-hour sitcom, he confronted his anger about having to put his aspirations on hold to honor a military oath.
The premise is an example of how far the series has come from its inception four years ago as a spinoff of "The Cosby Show." Then, its plot lines focused on sorority parties and dating. Now, say critics, television executives and educators, it is puncturing stereotypes and heightening interest in black colleges.
In a season offering a diversity of prime-time programming about blacks, "A Different World" is one of a few shows that stand out for depicting blacks within their own community. The shift is significant because "it shows blacks in a black context, without law enforcement or criminal activity or being ridiculed," said Felix Gutierrez, a vice president of the Gannett Foundation and a co-author of the book "Minorities in the Media." "It shouldn't be unusual," he continued, "but it is." Blacks Gain Power
The shows also reflect the influence of blacks in decision-making within the industry, executives and media critics said. Among the decision-makers is Bill Cosby, an executive producer of "A Different World." The ratings success of "The Cosby Show," which went on the air in 1984, is credited in the industry with being a proving ground for other shows about blacks. Those following in Mr. Cosby's footsteps include Keenen Ivory Wayans, executive producer of Fox's "In Living Color"; Quincy Jones, executive producer of NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," and Debbie Allen, producer of "A Different World."
"It's no mystery that the faces in front of the camera won't change until the faces behind the camera change," said Thomas Carter, a highly respected black television director, who has produced nine pilots that went on to become series, including "Miami Vice" and "St. Elsewhere," and is now executive producer of "Equal Justice." With blacks in positions of power in films and television, "African-American culture is being exposed in a non-cliched way," Mr. Carter said. "The Euro-Americans in positions of power have been affected by people like me who've said, 'Look at me as people, not as black.' " Even so, he said: "I'm not quick to become euphoric. The rules have to keep being broken; we have to keep re-proving it." More Than One Dimension
"A Different World," the top-rated black show after "Cosby," has gone through a major overhaul since Ms. Allen was hired after the first season. "I challenged the writing staff to make the show more believable," she said.
Particularly in the last two seasons, the show's plots have evolved from frivolity, as in an early episode where a student was made caretaker of an egg to learn responsibility, to more contemporary, adult themes. Among the changes was the addition of male characters with more than one-dimensional personalities. Weightier issues surfaced. One episode dealt with a student's dilemma over accepting a scholarship from a company with ties to South Africa. Another, on date rape, resulted in a slew of requests for videotapes of the show from schools and rape crisis centers, as well as individuals.
Ms. Allen said characters and situations developed more texture and authenticity when the show's seven writers began annual visits to Spelman and Morehouse Colleges in Atlanta. Writers occasionally bounce story ideas off school officials. Elements that ring truer today in the early episodes are the students' hair styles, clothing, verbal exchanges, physical gestures and dormitory furnishings. Officials at Howard University in Washington, Spelman and Morehouse said they credited "A Different World" with increasing the number of applications.
Ratings were never an issue for "A Different World." Following "Cosby" on Thursday nights, it has ranked among the top five shows since it began in the A. C. Nielsen ratings. "We were a coattail hit, but it was embarrassing," said Susan Fales, one of the executive producers. "It was loathed by critics. The show grew when it ceased to follow in Cosby's footsteps."
Ms. Allen said she tried for cutting-edge topicality. The episode about the reservist held the implicit message that minorities make up a large proportion of the country's armed forces and that potential black leaders are still too rare to lose, said Dr. Jannette L. Dates, an associate dean at Howard University and a co-author of "Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media," Other Themes, Other Styles
Other shows from a black perspective are also using contemporary themes and drawing sizable audiences, particularly ABC 's "Family Matters," a comedy about a mail carrier's family, which ranks No. 20 for the season. However, television analysts said that not all of these shows break new ground. There is some consensus that -- along with "Cosby" and "A Different World" -- "Family Matters," ABC's "Gabriel's Fire" and "Fresh Prince" are indeed unusual because they portray multi-dimensional black characters. "Gabriel's Fire" is about a district attorney's investigator, and "Fresh Prince" depicts an inner-city black teen-ager from Philadelphia living with affluent relatives in Los Angeles.
"In Living Color," a comedy and variety show that skewers black stereotypes, is among the more controversial shows. Dr. Dates said she found it truly innovative but offensive. Mr. Carter disagrees. The show's producers "have been unafraid to satirize the black community," he said. "We need everyone to be unafraid to look at the community in a constructive way. I think comedy has been more effective at it than drama."
Besides the growing presence of blacks behind the camera, another reason is cited for the proliferation of shows with black-dominated casts: networks are straying from tried programming formulas and taking risks because of increased competition for viewers from cable television. "Networks are stretching to find audiences in prime time," Mr. Gutierrez said.
For too long, Mr. Carter said, "they've assumed the public is narrow-minded in what it's able to absorb."
An Article from Entertainment Weekly
Published on APRIL 12, 1991
AS 'A DIFFERENT WORLD' TURNS
IT STARTED OUT AS A WIDELY PANNED 'COSBY' SPIN-OFF. BUT A NEW TEAM MADE THE NBC COMEDY A TOPICAL TALKED-ABOUT HIT.
By Mark Harris
Jasmine Guy veers across the set of NBC's A Different World like a car about to spin off a racetrack, and everyone else stands clear. Guy is having a monster tantrum, bellowing, ''I'm Big Sister Gorgeous One! I'm Big Sister Gorgeous One! I am Big Sister Gorgeous One!'' to every flinching colleague within earshot. ''Nice,'' says actor-director Glynn Turman. As the scene ends, Guy, a petite, gregarious whirlwind who can shrug out of her performance as steel magnolia Whitley Gilbert in a second, assumes her human-scale off-camera persona. Chuckles erupt from crew members, their bellies shaking over their tool belts. Guy wheels and she's suddenly transformed back into leather-lunged Whitley. ''Hey!'' she yells. ''Save your laughter for the show.'' She doesn't have to worry. Something funny has been happening on A Different World, which is more than anyone who remembers the show's resolutely laughless first season might have expected. Conceived as a spin-off from NBC's The Cosby Show, the new series was to take teenager Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) from Brooklyn to a new life at Hillman, a black college in the South. Despite that pedigree, World began its run in 1987 as an ugly duckling sheltered only by the wide wing of creator Bill Cosby. Though its post-Cosby time slot guaranteed high ratings (the show was No. 2 its first year), World's on-screen dreariness and backstage chaos were public embarrassments for NBC, Cosby, and executive producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner (The Cosby Show, Roseanne). Three years later, however, viewers are seeing a truly different World: an ensemble comedy about black college life that's brightly acted, politically and socially attuned, idiosyncratic, and yes, even funny. This season, the series has silenced those who claimed it was only a coattail ratings success by passing The Cosby Show in the Nielsens (broadcast at 8:30 Thursdays, World ranks fifth, while Cosby has dropped to seventh). And, in a development that's even more surprising, black artists behind and on-camera have assumed control of the series and helped it gain respect as well as viewers. But even on this Monday morning in late March, as the cast and crew gather on a Studio City soundstage to rehearse a spring episode, they admit that a long shadow is cast by that first season, which drew one of the most concentrated doses of critical vituperation ever to greet an instant ratings hit. ''A stiff,'' snapped one review. ''Bland and unfunny,'' said another. ''Awful.'' ''Calamitously drab.'' ''A big yawn.'' The verdict from those on the show was almost as harsh. ''We tried to follow the Cosby model: Pretend it's timeless. Make no references to current events. Make no references to race,'' says Susan Fales, a first-season staff writer who now serves as co-executive producer. ''And we were under orders from NBC to stay away from anything academic-they felt that was alienating. So we had a show about a black college that wasn't about college and couldn't be black.'' ''It was a nightmare,'' says Dawnn Lewis, the indestructible actress whose character, Hillman alumna Jaleesa Vinson, is the only one to have survived all of World's regimes since the pilot. ''I've never seen so many people come and go.'' The gaffes were innumerable. A white roommate for Denise appeared without explanation. The sets and costumes looked musty and anachronistic. And Bonet proved hollow as the center of a sitcom. (''She's taken a lot of blame,'' says Fales, ''but the character was far more at fault. Denise was not very interesting, and we were asked to make her into Mary Tyler Moore or Tinkerbell, always bringing everyone together. We couldn't.'') ''The show took a particularly long time to find its way,'' says Carsey. A couple of changes worked well: The now-integral characters of Whitley and Dwayne Wayne (Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison) were created after the pilot and frantically spliced into already-completed episodes. But misery ruled. ''There was an Alexander Haig complex,'' says Darryl M. Bell, who plays student and self-described ''campus tramp'' Ron Johnson. ''Everybody wanted to be the boss.'' ''Coming from Broadway certainly gave me no credibility,'' says Guy. ''The attitude was 'Well, you don't know sitcoms.' Even if we dared to suggest something wasn't funny or realistic, it was discounted. And people we worked with one week were gone the next. It was very tense and frightening.'' When Bonet became pregnant at the end of the first season, World faced another crisis. ''We'd never even written her a boyfriend,'' recalls Fales. Rather than contend with an unwanted plot twist, the producers wrote her out. After exhausting the talents of a series of sitcom fixers who came and went, Carsey and Werner knew the show needed a savior, and they found one. Bell glances at Guy and costar Charnele Brown (who plays premed student Kim Reese) as they sit around a table on the set of the Pit, the Hillman College cafeteria. ''You want to know why we're working?'' he says. ''We can say it together.'' The actors nod. ''Debbie Allen.''
Ahhhh-HEMPHHH," says Debbie Allen, striding across a Hollywood rehearsal hall where she has taken a week off from directing and producing A Different World to choreograph the Oscar telecast (including a number showing off Guy). Barely 5-foot-2, even in a Davy Crockett cap, Allen doesn't look the part of a commander-in-chief, but she's one of the few people who can bring 28 dancers to attention by clearing her throat. "Get in costume," she barks, whacking a jockstrap-clad dancer preparing to play a teddy bear in a Home Alone production number. "let's get moving!" "I'm aggressive," she admits, straddling a chair during a break. "I can move people around and make them do what they should be doing. See? We laugh, but we work." Allen had won a Tony nomination for acting in the 1980 revival of West Side Story and collected Emmys for choreographing TV's Fame, where she also directed 11 episodes, when she arrived on the set of A Different World in 1988. "I saw a show that had a lot of talent," she says, "but was mindless, and being run in a dictatorial way." Allen had more than leadership to offer; as a 1971 Howard University graduate, she had firsthand experience at a black college. "This show had waitresses in the school cafeteria," she moans, shaking her head. "I said, 'Honey, what is this waitress shit? At this school you stand in line and you clear your own place.'" Quickly, the writing staff was dispatched to Atlanta's predominantly black Spelman and Morehouse colleges. "She insisted we look out into the world," says Fales. "It's appalling that we were allowed to write about black colleges without having (done research). There's a spirit of family, intimacy, and mission that we didn't know about." Allen made her influence felt in every corner. She had the Pit set redesigned to look more realistic, making the kitchen and its workers more visible. She oversaw new costumes to replace the rah-rah cheerleader look. She instituted a daily morning workout for the cast. "I made them do some sit-ups and stretches. I put them through those paces because I wanted to make them an ensemble company, working together." Then she assembled the writers and actors. "She said, 'Now this is what's going to happen-we're going to have a read- through, and then we're going to talk,'" remembers Hardison. "We had spent a year doing what we were told, and now someone was listening to us." "Lines of communication opened," says Guy. "For the first time, we saw how far this show could go. Debbie never stopped. I remember her saying, 'This is a Southern school-I want to see some grits in the Pit.'" But Allen brought more than grits to A Different World: She brought grit. "Debbie broke the Cosby umbilical cord by saying, 'We've got to be topical,'" says Fales. And unlike most sitcoms, which falter in "issue" shows, World has thrived by diving into controversy. In recent months, the series has addressed date rape, apartheid (in an episode about corporate investment in South Africa), and religion (by exploring a student's decision to become a Muslim). This season, World has traced an interracial romance, and it's hard to imagine another TV comedy including a scene like the one in which Kim was belittled by a black friend for dating a white man. This month Whoopi Goldberg plays a professor in an AIDS episode. ("I fought for a year to get that done," Allen recounts, "and finally said, 'If we don't do this, one day we'll look up and The Simpsons will have done it.'") In January World became the first sitcom to address the Persian Gulf crisis, in a hard-edged episode about a black Army reservist (Blair Underwood) that was cowritten by Guy. When the soldier asked angrily if he was fighting for oil, the studio audience applauded. The show's supervisors insisted on a retake. "They said (the clapping) was too political," says Cree Summer, who plays unreconstructed flower child Freddie Brooks. "But we were so happy, so high from that." So were the ratings; more than 30 million viewers tuned in to give the show one of its biggest audiences of the season. "All I did was set those actors free," says Allen. "I gave them their show." Under Allen's guidance, A Different World has become steeped in black culture. It's evident in set details, from the "Support Black Colleges" poster in the Pit to an announcement taped to Whitley's refrigerator heralding the National Council of Negro Women's 1990 Black Family Reunion Celebration. Viewers can hear it as well in references to everyone from Aretha Franklin to Zina Garrison, made without elaboration. "We don't have to explain everything," Guy says. "If viewers don't understand something we say, they'll survive without having it spelled out. So what if we're not universal? All in the Family was about blue-collar WASPs in Queens. This show is about a specific culture too." Rarest of all, the show numbers more blacks (and, not incidentally, women) among its producers, directors, writers, and crew than does any other prime-time series.
This week, Allen is missed on the set. "We moan and groan about the workout," says Guy, "but we love it." So it's a less limber cast that prepares to rehearse a recent episode, in which a power-crazed Whitley becomes an ogress to her sorority pledges. In a corner of the Pit, actor Glynn Turman (Colonel Taylor, the campus ROTC commander), who's taking a turn as director, confers with Guy. Then she sits down to read her line. "How refreshingly plump of you," Whitley says to Kim. Guy looks at her script and covers her mouth, mortified. "How refreshingly prompt of you." The actors howl. "We dog each other," says comedian Sinbad, 34, who plays counselor Walter Oakes. "We look for anything. Don't say something stupid, don't blow your lines, don't wear your clothes too tight, because we'll wear you out." Guy laughs. "I hate doing scenes with Darryl and Kadeem, because if I forget a line, they know all my tricks. They twist their hands, which means, 'Whitley's going through her Rolodex of lines,' and I lose it." She doesn't lose it often; since her debut, Guy has become a breakout star, complete with a burgeoning recording career and growing demands for her talent. "We needed a bitch," Fales recalls of the decision to create Whitley as a haughty prima donna. "But after the first season, we had to humanize her- nobody's an asshole for no reason and without interruption." But viewers didn't mind; they loved her. With an accent and intonation borrowed from her third-grade Atlanta schoolteacher, Mrs. Pinkard, Guy made Whitley into a quick crowd pleaser. "I found a walk, too," she says of her character's prim yet sashaying gait. "For some reason, I knew her physically. I just stepped into her." "She exploded," says Bell. "She was a mushroom cloud. She could take a line as simple as 'That's what you think!' and make it funny." And when snobby Whitley fell in love last season with Hardison's nerd-turned-hero Dwayne, he of the distinctive flip-top eyeglasses, the couple ignited one of TV's most popular will-they-or-won't-they romances. The next morning, as the two rehearse, story editor Glenn Berenbeim watches from behind a camera. "I love them together," whispers the writer, who will draft a season-ending cliff-hanger involving the couple. "They work so smoothly." "We get constant letters about Dwayne and Whitley," Fales says. "The audience really roots for them." And at World's tapings, it's not just an audience-it's an awwwwwdience, an oooooohdience, and an uh-oh!dience that's relentlessly vocal. "It's hard to do those mushy Dwayne-Whitley love scenes-you know, 'Dwayne, ah luuuve you!'" says Guy. "They go crazy! I can't take it! I have to make a serious face at Kadeem until they calm down. The last show we did, there were just too many ooohs." "Those are real people making those sounds," adds Hardison. "Can you believe it? I look at her and crack up." Sometimes, though, the laughter stops. Scratch the actors, and they bleed resentment at an industry that they feel still views the show as a malformed appendage of Cosby-and sees its appeal to a black audience as a limitation. A Different World has never been nominated for a major Emmy (although, tellingly, it sweeps NAACP's Image Awards), and the actors are blunt about what they see as show-biz disenfranchisement. "(After Family Ties) Michael J. Fox got a movie deal!" Sinbad roars, as his costars nod silently. "(After Magnum P.I.) Tom Selleck got a movie deal! We're in the top five, and eight years from now, where are we gonna be? On the cover of Jet magazine in 'Whatever Happened to Them?'" But others emphasize the reward of working on a show that's evolved from embarrassment to barrier breaker. "The week Diahann Carroll was on, she called the cast together," Bell says. "She told us how special we were-in all her years in the business, she had never worked with an all-black ensemble or been directed by a black woman. She said she was proud of us." Summer says the actors also thrive on public response. "Do you know how many black people, not to say white people, had never heard of black colleges?" she asks. "I got one letter that said, 'I want to go to Hillman College.' I had to write the poor brother back and say, 'There are places you can go, but you can't come to Hillman unless you audition.'" As World reaches year five, it's about to face another turning point: The show's mainstays are reaching graduation age. "There are several ways of keeping them on or near campus," says Carsey, who notes that Dwayne is headed for graduate school. Adds Werner: "I think we need to find a couple of talented actors who could play freshmen or sophomores. With the right people, this show could last a long time." "I have to keep a big foot in A Different World no matter what I'm doing," says Allen, who will star in her own NBC comedy next year. "I'm the mama. It belongs to me now. None of us has a contract yet, but I'm already thinking, 'Where do I take the character of Whitley?'" And the actors have ideas about one big topic: Dwayne and Whitley must consummate their relationship. "We'll handle it carefully because it's such a big deal now," Guy says of the show that will mark her character's first sexual experience. "Yes, her first. I don't know when this virgin thing started," she grumbles cheerfully. "In my audition, Whitley was hot. Then suddenly her sexuality went out the window. If you see it, slam it up against the wall and bring it back here." "Dwayne is so upstanding," says Hardison disbelievingly. "I try to loosen him up a little bit, but I don't think it's gonna happen." "He's a wimp," says Summer, poking Hardison in the ribs. After rehearsal, the cast breaks for lunch. Hardison strolls up to the buffet and slings his arm around Turman. "How's the directing going, champ?" he says. "You're doin' great, stompin' the shit out of it." Talk shifts to South Africa, to summer vacation, to Mike Tyson. And Debbie Allen turns out to be on the set after all, though only in spirit. In a corner of the cast's pantry, on a black drop cloth, someone has tacked up her picture. Around it are photos and clippings that testify to World's increasing respectability and to the cast's other pursuits and ambitions. And above it is a slogan that has been there long enough to be yellowing now: "You reap what you sow." With that marching order, the cast goes back to work.
JASMINE GUY WHITLEY GILBERT *Age: 26 *Birthplace: Boston (but she grew up in Atlanta) % *Previous occupation: Broadway actress (Leader of the Pack, The Wiz) *Extra credits: Her first album, Jasmine Guy, was released last fall; she had a showy role in Eddie Murphy's Harlem Nights. *On her singing/acting career: Darryl M. Bell: "She has a twin. There's two Jasmines. It'll be announced soon." Guy: "And she's prettier than I am, so when I get tired, I send her out." Bell: "One of them is the intellectual, and the other is the performer." Guy: "Yeah. She can sing her ass off, but is she stupid!"
KADEEM HARDISON DWAYNE WAYNE *Age: 25 *Birthplace: Brooklyn *Previous occupation: Bicycle messenger in New York City *Extra credits: School Daze, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Go Tell It on the Mountain for PBS, and frequent visits to The Arsenio Hall Show
*On his character, Dwayne: "He started out a little nerdy, but he's become a (groans) fine, upstanding young man everybody loves because his morals are so good. Next season, maybe he'll start doing cocaine and playing with prostitutes-no, no, no. I mean, I know he's important. Sometimes it shocks me. Grandmothers come up to me on the street and tell me how much they love him."
DEBBIE ALLEN DIRECTOR *Age: 41 *Birthplace: Houston *Previous occupation: Played a teacher on the syndicated series Fame *Extra credits: Choreographing (the Oscars), directing pilots (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), acting (in next season's NBC sitcom Sunday in Paris), cooking pasta (for the World cast), mothering (she and ex-basketball star Norm Nixon are the parents of Vivian, 6, and Norman Jr., 3) *Cosby connection: She's the sister of Phylicia Rashad, matriarch of The Cosby Show's Huxtable clan. *On her actors: "Not just because dance is my background, I believe that the best actors are physical-people who come to work warmed up, ready to go, not just eating a doughnut and drinking coffee. I don't know where they were the night before and I don't care. The work is the work."
To watch some clips from A Different World go to http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=different+world+tv+show&aq=0
For a look at A Different World's relationship to the Cosby Show go to http://poobala.com/cosbyanddifferent.html
To read an article on the history of black colleges go to http://www.collegeview.com/articles/article/the-history-of-historically-black-colleges-and-universities
For 2 great reviews of A Different World go to www.museum.tv/archives/etv/D/htmlD/differentwor/differentwor.htm and http://www.commonsensemedia.org/tv-reviews/Different-World.html
· Date: Sat January 21, 2006 · Filesize: 22.3kb · Dimensions: 250 x 170 ·
Keywords: Different World: Cast Photo