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‘A Different World’: Cast Members and Crew Tell the Oral History

In 1987, one of television’s most influential shows was born. The stars, writers, and producers look back on their years at Hillman College.

Vanity Fair

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A collage of behind-the-scenes photos and stills from 'A Different World'

Clockwise from bottom left: Jasmine Guy--here with Darryl Bell and Kadeem Hardison--starred as Whitley Gilbert following Lisa Bonet’s departure; from left to right, Guy, Bell, and Debbie Allen in makeup; left to right, Bonet, Dawnn Lewis, and Marisa Tomei on set in the first season; Hardison, Guy, and Cree Summer behind the scenes; Bonet wraps Lewis in a hug. Clockwise from bottom left: Carsey-Werner Co/Everett Collection; Courtesy of Darryl Bell; Carsey-Werner Co./Everett Collection; Carsey-Werner Co./NBC/ Alamy; NBC/Everett Collection

Tuesday, August 4, 1987, writer and producer Yvette Lee Bowser pulled out her diary and started an entry:

It’s 2:52 AM. Today, I begin my first real job as an intern writer with a new NBC sitcom. I’m so excited I can’t sleep. Right now, I’m organizing myself for my big day. I can hardly believe that it’s really happening. I’m going to make something happen with this opportunity, I really am. God knows my heart and how determined I am to make change in this world. Not only in my life, but for others.

Bowser shares this over Zoom from her home office in Los Angeles as one of more than a dozen cast and crew talking about their days on A Different World. The seminal Cosby Show spinoff was developed by Bill Cosby—an indelible fact. But unlike his namesake show, Cosby wasn’t a key player on A Different World, and its orbit of the fictional Hillman College, an HBCU in Virginia, evades any shadow in memory, as enjoyable as ever in Amazon Prime syndication.

On September 24, 1987, A Different World aired its wildly popular pilot, whose ratings surpassed every other program except The Cosby Show. The sitcom originally starred Lisa Bonet, already known to the world as Denise Huxtable. A real-life plot twist occurred when Bonet left after the first season. Debbie Allen came on as director and executive producer, and stayed until its final episode in 1993.

“We changed the world with that show,” Allen says. “We did stories about racism, we did stories about the L.A. riots…we were one of the first shows to address AIDS.” Few sitcoms were tackling such issues at the time, including The Cosby Show, which largely omitted social and political themes from its story lines.

Fans remember the show as much for its cultural relevance as they do for its laugh-out-loud comedy and talented cast. Among them were the nerdy but confident Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison); silly playboy Ronald “Ron” Johnson (Darryl M. Bell); bougie Southern belle Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy); and free spirit Freddie Brooks (Cree Summer). Other characters, such as jocular dorm director Walter Oakes (Sinbad) and grumpy on-campus restaurant owner Vernon Gaines (Lou Myers), helped round out the picture of college life. Over the years audiences watched them struggle with schoolwork, form meaningful friendships, fall in and out of love, and grow from capricious teens to responsible young adults.

In the years since its debut, A Different World has become one of television’s most impactful shows, inspiring everything from dissertations and lectures to Halloween costumes and social media fan accounts—all while influencing countless young people to attend college, specifically HBCUs. Along with The Cosby Show, it laid the groundwork for shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, and Living Single—itself created by Bowser—and featured numerous Black actors long before they were famous, including Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Keenen Ivory Wayans. When actor and producer Lena Waithe first joined Instagram in 2011, her handle was @hillmangrad. Today, Hillman Grad is the name of her production company. That A Different World was never nominated for a Golden Globe and never won an Emmy is both unsettling and indicative of how Black shows rarely receive the praise they deserve.

30 years after that final episode, Bowser, Allen, Hardison, Guy, Bell, Summer, Sinbad, Susan Fales-Hill, Dawnn Lewis, and others recall the stories of A Different World in their own words.

Clockwise from bottom left: Although Bonet appeared for only one season, she left her mark; writers and producers Yvette Lee Bowser, Susan Fales-Hill, and Allen pose together; an off-screen friendship with Bonet was what initially brought Hardison onto the series; Hardison and Bell in a still from the season five “The Cat’s in the Cradle” episode. Clockwise from bottom left: NBC/Everett Collection; Courtesy of Yvette-Lee Bowser; NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images; Gene Trindl/NBC/ Everett Collection.

Fales-Hill, who had been a writer for The Cosby Show, was tapped to write for a spinoff, originally titled Stepping Up to Step Out. Shortly after, Bowser joined the team. The original premise was to chronicle the lives of Denise and her two roommates, Maggie and Jaleesa. Meg Ryan was initially cast as Maggie but decided to pursue her film career; Marisa Tomei took her place. Lewis, who was also pursuing a musical career, landed the role of Jaleesa. Loretta Devine played dorm director Stevie Rallen.

Yvette Lee Bowser (writer and producer): I didn’t have aspirations to write for television, but in watching The Cosby Show I felt like there was an opportunity for a voice like mine and a life experience like mine. I tracked down someone that I knew who introduced me to Dr. Cosby and he said, “Go to law school. I have nothing for you out here.” I showed him some stories that I’d written and he chuckled a little bit. Then he gave me an opportunity to be what he called an apprentice writer, which is essentially an intern. It was unpaid.

Dawnn Lewis (Jaleesa Vinson): I had just finished the tour of a Broadway show, The Tap Dance Kid, with Hinton Battle, Harold Nicholas, and Dulé Hill. The same people who casted the play were casting A Different World. I asked if I could audition and they told me no for about three months, saying, “We love what you’re doing in the Broadway show, just keep singing and dancing.” The tour ended and I had one more unemployment check left. Then, out of the blue, on a Wednesday, they called and said, “Are you still interested in the audition? Can you come in tomorrow? Great.” Within 10 days I had booked the costar spot and written the theme song. Neither the musical director nor the casting director knew that they hired the same person. I’ll never forget it. That was October of 1986. Unfortunately, once everyone realized I was the same person that had just been cast to be in the show, I was no longer allowed to sing the theme song. They were like, “That’s a little too much attention on you, and it’s not your show.”

The theme song was sung by Phoebe Snow for season one, Aretha Franklin for seasons two through five, and Boyz II Men for season 6.

Loretta Devine (Stevie Rallen): I was in London doing The Colored Museum. It was my first time leaving the country, and I brought my mom because she had never traveled. It was her first time on a plane and everything. I got the callback for A Different World so I had to leave my mom in London; the cast took care of her. I got the show and had to figure out being in L.A., because I was in New York at the time.

The pilot was picked up and filming began in early 1987 with George Crosby as producer. During a brief hiatus, former Saturday Night Live writer and Square Pegs creator Anne Beatts replaced Crosby.

Kadeem Hardison (Dwayne Wayne): I had just finished filming School Daze [with Jasmine Guy and Darryl M. Bell], and I’d come to L.A. to visit some friends. Since I knew Lisa, I went and saw a taping of A Different World. It was just her, Dawnn, and Marisa, and I thought, This could use something.

Darryl M. Bell (Ron Johnson): Through School Daze, Kadeem and I got really close. He’s a big gamer now, but he had never played video games until we were filming in Atlanta, where I’d brought my Nintendo. He would be in my room every night playing video games.

Hardison: Two weeks after I went to the taping, I got a call that they were auditioning people for extra characters. I auditioned and then I got a call from Darryl. He was like, “You heard about this Cosby spinoff audition?” I was like, “Yeah, I just went in.” He was like, “I just went in.” I was like, “Oh, for who?” “Dwayne Wayne.” And I was like, “You went in for Dwayne Wayne? I went in for Dwayne Wayne.”

“I want to be something totally different. What do I have to lose? That’s when I came up with the accent for Whitley.”

Bell: I think there were three of us, maybe four, that went to network for the part of Dwayne Wayne. Kadeem went in first and you could hear the laughing outside in the hallway while the rest of us were waiting.

The audition took place in an office packed with writers, producers, and NBC executives. Hardison introduced himself to everyone in the room, one by one, then recited each person’s name back to them in reverse order.

Hardison: By the time I got to the middle of the room you could feel this swell, like “Is he going to make it? Is he going to make it?” I got all the way to the last one and hit it. And they just erupted applauding and applauding and applauding.

Bell: Kadeem got the job but he’s a New Yorker, so he [came] to L.A. and moved in with me. He didn’t have a driver’s license, so I would have to take him in to work every day—to the job I auditioned for and didn’t get.

After School Daze, Jasmine Guy, who had also appeared in Fame with Debbie Allen, was performing on and off Broadway. She had auditioned for the role of Jaleesa during the first round of casting and was called back when the show decided to add more characters.

Jasmine Guy (Whitley Gilbert): The second time I went in there, I said, “They have a certain perception of what I can do, so I want to be something totally different. What do I have to lose?” That’s when I came up with the accent for Whitley.

Susan Fales-Hill (writer and producer): I can’t even remember anyone else who auditioned because [Jasmine] just came in and owned it.

Hardison: Me, Dawnn, Marisa, and Lisa shot the credits one weekend, which were amazing, but there was no Whitley, and we didn’t even know there was going to be a Whitley. We got to work for the first table read on Monday, and Jasmine had just finished auditioning 20 minutes beforehand. They brought her right down and I was like, “Oh snap, that’s my homie.”

Sinbad (Walter Oakes): I heard they were looking for a stand-up comic to warm up the studio audience, so I met with the producers, and Bill Cosby was there. I lied so much. They asked me if I’d done stand-up for a studio audience before and I said, “Yes, for Magnum, P.I.” They said, “Magnum, P.I. didn’t have a studio audience.”

Cosby offered Sinbad the stand-up role anyway, and a guest spot on The Cosby Show. After that appearance, he was cast in A Different World.

Lewis: We kept parts of the episodes that we had already shot and then shot new scenes that had got melded in so that the whole cast would appear from the very first episode.

Hardison: I thought, This thing might run six or eight weeks, then they’ll cancel it and then I can go on to being a movie star, which is what I wanted to be. I thought of myself as a film actor.

Clockwise from left: Guy, Bell, and Allen in makeup; Hardison, Guy, and Summer behind the scenes; clockwise from left, Bell, Lou Myers, Summer, Glynn Turman, Charnele Brown, Lewis, Hardison, Sinbad, and Guy; Bonet wraps Lewis in a hug. Clockwise from left: Courtesy of Darryl Bell; Carsey-Werner Co./NBC/ Alamy; Everett Collection; NNC/Everett Collection.

Bowser: As an apprentice I did whatever was needed. I took notes, I took lunch orders, I ran errands, I babysat for people’s kids, I made posters; when Whitley ran for dorm monitor, that’s my handwriting on the posters. And it was like, yes, I have a degree from Stanford, but I’m here to do whatever it takes to be a part of the creative process, to see how it works, to pitch in. I pitched the idea for episode four, “Those Who Can’t…Tutor.” Dwayne is tutoring Denise and gets stuck in the dorm. He leaves through Whitley’s window and rumors start.

Bell appeared for the first time in the episode, as an unnamed student.

Bell: My character was talking to Whitley and he had to turn to her and say, “I knew it could be done.” When it came time for me to say it, I tried to stretch that line out as long as I could. They were like, “Okay, my man, do you want to shorten that up?”

Bowser: It wasn’t the best line reading, but we loved him and were like, “We’ve got to find something for Darryl to do.”

Soon after, Bell accepted an offer to be Keshia Knight Pulliam’s stand-in for an episode she was appearing in. (Because minors could only work a limited number of hours, she wasn’t allowed to attend all of the rehearsals.) In the episode, Rudy Huxtable visits Denise at Hillman and becomes enamored with Whitley.

Bell: They got me some hockey pads so I could get on my knees and be Rudy’s size for the camera. And Rudy had adopted Whitley’s accent, so I spent the entire week playing an eight-year-old girl with a Southern accent, climbing into bed with Jasmine Guy and Lisa Bonet. Everyone thought it was so funny.

Soon after producers created the role of Ron Johnson but still made Bell audition through a chemistry read with Hardison.

Bell: After the chemistry read I was like, “What time are we heading home Kadeem? You can’t get there without me…let me know how long I need to hang out.”

Emil Wilbekin (journalist and founder of Native Son, a collective and empowerment platform for Black gay/queer men): A Different World launched when I was a sophomore at Hampton University. Hillman College was set in Virginia, so you couldn’t tell any of us that it wasn’t based on Hampton. There was a great affinity for the show. It was like seeing the experience that I was living and going through on television.

Lena Waithe (writer, producer, and actor): My earliest memory of A Different World is it being used as a punishment…that’s how serious it was. If I didn’t do well on a test or if I got in trouble at school, I remember my mom saying “You ain’t going to be able to watch A Different World if you keep acting up.”

Bonet (who did not respond to inquiries for this story) married musician Lenny Kravitz on her 20th birthday, November 16, 1987, and announced her pregnancy the following May. Though some advocated for the pregnancy to be written into the show—a scenario that many young women could relate to—it’s been widely reported that Cosby and others disagreed. Bonet subsequently left A Different World but rejoined The Cosby Show after the birth of her daughter, Zoë.

Bell: Lisa doesn’t get enough credit for A Different World. It was all because of her popularity that Mr. Cosby had the idea to do this spinoff. And I know it was a lot of pressure, particularly when she and Lenny started dating. The amount of press and paparazzi that hounded and followed them…they were 20-year-old kids. Anyone who has suggested that Lisa was unprofessional or difficult to work with, it’s just not true.

Guy: I felt like Lisa was diminished in her ability to look natural. Everybody said, “Well, that’s just her.” Do you know how hard it is to make your reality truth? In front of a camera?

Lewis: [The creators] wanted to go in a different direction culturally, which meant Marisa was also gone. She and Lisa are incredible women, and they were so much fun to work with. It was sad for me—because we had started this journey together—for them to not be there anymore.

Devine: One day I came to work and my whole apartment was gone. It was just a door. That was sort of a clue [that my character wasn’t coming back]. It was one of the tragedies of my career. I was devastated. I thought everything was just over.

Guy: [Kadeem and I] were like, “Are we coming back next season?” Because people were getting fired a lot. It was a very tumultuous time; we never knew who was going to leave or why.

While A Different World finished its first season rated number two behind The Cosby Show, the writers and cast believed that the story lines lacked the depth and relevance needed to accurately portray student life at an HBCU.

Debbie Allen (director and executive producer): My sister [Phylicia Rashad] was a guest on A Different World, and she observed some problems behind the scenes in terms of the storytelling. I think she had a conversation with Mr. Cosby, and then he had conversations with [producers] Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, and Caryn Mandabach. They decided they needed a voice that understood historically black colleges. I went to Howard University, and it was everything in my growth and my self-discovery from young teenager to woman.

Bowser: There was a real opportunity between seasons one and two to do the show that we knew A Different World needed to be.

Bowser, Fales-Hill, and fellow writer Thad Mumford went on an HBCU tour, visiting students at Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, and other HBCUs to talk to them about college life, the issues they were passionate about, and what they wanted to see from the show.

Bowser: We were on our grind, doing our due diligence to make sure that we could bring as many authentic elements to the show as possible going forward.

Allen: I had been asked to work on Family Ties, but then I got this call from Bill and he said, “You know we need you to come and get out your broom; clean it up and bring reality to it.” So that’s what I did. I made that choice.

Fales-Hill: It was in our second season with Debbie as our director and executive producer that we really started to find our own voice.

Cree Summer (Freddie Brooks): I had an amazing manager by the name of Larry Robins—he just recently died—and he took me under his wing. When we got the call for the audition, it was a huge deal. I had watched the show, and I remember being in North Richmond, California, in my grandmama’s living room with the plastic over the carpet, and [my grandmother] said, “Canada”—my mom’s family calls me Canada—“you should be on that show.”

Summer’s audition experience paralleled that of Hardison’s and Bell’s.

Summer: The girl that was my competition lived in England and Debbie asked if she could stay with me. So I had my competition sleeping on my couch, and the two of us drove to NBC together. I remember Kadeem walked by and I thought, Oh, God, he is so fucking fine.

Fales-Hill: We created Freddie’s character after a trip to Spelman and Morehouse. Several students asked us, “Why don’t we see anybody who’s from a mixed marriage on your show?” I’m from a mixed marriage myself, but I didn’t think people wanted to talk about that or see it. I was fascinated.

Glynn Turman (Colonel Taylor): I was on the road with a play called I’m Not Rappaport. We were crisscrossing the country, and during a break I met with Susan Fales and Debbie Allen. I went back on the road and got the news that they wanted me for the role.

Allen: One of the first things I did was take everybody’s fake nails and hair weaves off to make them a little more natural. And we had to put hot sauce on the tables. Administratively, a lot of barriers came down. This was a time when it was perceived that the writers were gods and the actors [should just] do what they’re told. But any show that works is a real collaboration.

Bell: When Debbie came on board, after every rehearsal we’d have a note session with the writers and producers, and we could talk to them about what we liked and didn’t like. Then they would make changes and come back to us. So it wasn’t us versus them, it was us together.

Hardison: All of a sudden [the show] got real, then it became amazing. The change was night and day.

Guy—here with Bell and Hardison—starred as Whitley Gilbert following Bonet’s departure. Carsey-Werner Co/Everett Collection

Under Allen’s leadership, A Different World remained comedic, but no topic was off-limits. Rape, racism, AIDS, and colorism were all among issues the show explored.

Fales-Hill: I was able to share something that a lot of people didn’t know, which is that there were Black people in America who owned slaves, particularly in Louisiana. That was an episode that dealt with colorism, and I remember after our first table reading we had a two-hour conversation because everyone had their own story of being otherized because of the color of their skin, whether it was considered too light or too dark or whatever. It was one of those moments where we knew we really hit the mother lode, because it ran so deep.

Allen: If there’s an episode that was remarkable, it was the AIDS episode. It’s remarkable that it even got on the air. We were under a microscope. I don’t think the network wanted us to do it, and advertisers pulled out, but it was just the time. I got Whoopi Goldberg to play a teacher—[and] I knew she was going to win the Academy Award that year for Ghost—and she was amazing. Tisha Campbell played the young girl who had been infected with AIDS, which was also the first role on the show Jada Pinkett auditioned for.

Hardison: The number one episode for me is easily “Cat’s in the Cradle,” when Dwayne and Ron go to a football game and these white dudes spray-painted the N-word on Ron’s car. Then they got into a fight with them and they all got thrown into jail together. It was so well written, and it was all about listening to each other.

Waithe: An episode that I don’t think gets talked about enough is when [Jada Pinkett Smith’s character] Lena’s father comes back into her life. She’s in a writing class and she writes a story about her dad that isn’t true. He shows up and he’s not the guy that she wrote about. [It examines] the relationship between Black fathers and their daughters, and how sometimes Black fathers have demons that unfortunately, their children have to deal with. My name being Lena, and me having a father that was sort of in and out of my life and had demons himself, it was such a reflection.

Summer: I loved the date rape episode. Debbie was always so ahead of her time. Date rape had just been defined in the culture; we had just named it. And it had been happening all over campuses. I remember feeling very empowered that we were going to be brave enough to talk about it. And I love that episode so much because of the healthy, platonic relationship between Dwayne and Freddie. And that was a wonderful thing about A Different World—a lot of the platonic friendships were so healthy. That little moment at the very end where Freddie says to Dwayne, “Thank you for being my friend”—something about that just fucking tears me up.

Fales-Hill: [After the date rape episode] we got a call from the attorney general of Pennsylvania. There was a little girl who had been raped by her neighbor while selling Girl Scout cookies. She was seven years old and she didn’t tell her parents. Six months later she saw the episode and it gave her the language to understand what had happened to her. They brought the case to the prosecutor. When you’re writing for TV, there are a lot of moments where you say, “What am I doing with my life? There are so many problems in the world and I’m not solving them.” But moments like that made you realize there’s something that you can do. You’re there to entertain, but you can also heal.

Wilbekin: In many ways, A Different World helped a lot of us who were in college or just out of college process what was going on in the world. It was a safe space for us, and in some ways created a form of therapy. We were seeing ourselves portrayed in a positive way, but also in a very thoughtful human way, and dealing with a lot of trauma that we were dealing with in our real lives.

Waithe: There’s definitely talk about “We only want to see happy Black people” or “We don’t want to see trauma in our entertainment,” but the truth is I got both with A Different World, and I think I turned out okay.

Hardison: I didn’t watch the show when it was on air. Something about it being on at 8:30 p.m. and everybody in the world watching, it messed with my stomach. So I would go to the movies on Thursday night; I’d just be anywhere where I couldn’t be reached. So I didn’t see any of the episodes for a decade or so, [until] they started streaming and I was like, “Let me check these out.”

As the story lines developed, so did the characters, which the cast and audience grew to love.

Hardison: I loved that Dwyane was smart and I love that he was from Brooklyn. And I liked that math was his thing because it was my thing until they put letters in it. He was easy to love. He was a good guy. He had a good heart.

Guy: I couldn’t do a lot of things I did on that show without Charlie [Charnele Brown, who played Kimberly Reese], Cree, Kadeem, and Mary Alice [Lettie Bostic]. Because of them as actors, I was able to do and say all the things that I, as a person, totally disbelieve. But I understood Whitley, and I understood why she became what she was and the journey that she had to go on.

Wilbekin: Dwayne Wayne really reminded me of so many of my friends at Hampton. He’s really cool, but he’s really corny; he’s so confident, but he’s really insecure. You can’t tell him he’s not going to win, but there’s a vulnerability to him as well. Whitley reminded me of a lot of the women that I grew up with in Cincinnati and in Jack and Jill, and women who attended Hampton. There were a lot of women who came from privilege, who were light skin, and who felt high and mighty. But there was also the struggle for Whitley to find her voice as a woman, and I thought that that was very powerful.

Summer: As time went on, like any new character, Freddie just started to develop and evolve. She really found that activism voice, which was something that was very reflective of my personal life. The writers knew my name was Cree Summer, that I had a baby brother named Rainbow Sun, and that I once lived on a school bus. The more we got to know each other, the more the bohemian aspects of my upbringing started to show up more and more in the character. I had so many women and young girls come up to me saying, “I’m just like Freddie. That’s me too.”

Allen: We had to evolve Freddie—she couldn’t stay the flower child. We made her a lawyer and [Cree] hated it. She didn’t want to put on a suit, she didn’t want to comb her hair. But if a show goes on for a period of time, characters need to evolve.

Turman: Here’s how influential Colonel Taylor was. I was driving down the street one day—in the hood, so to speak—and I saw two young men, teenagers, in a brawl. Something told me to stop and go over, so I did. I stood there and said, “Look at me. You stop this. Both of you. Stop this.” They looked and they said, “My God, it’s Colonel Taylor.” And they stopped.

Romantic relationships abounded on the show, to mixed reactions from the actors who were involved.

Lewis: Sinbad and I have this really great friendship and chemistry. We bounce well off of each other, so when the writers saw that, they started putting it into the script. And then slowly but surely, we were having less fun and more dates, and all the great story lines were going to the other characters. We had to look at each other one day and say, “Wait a minute, what is happening here?” We did everything we could to sabotage it.

Walter and Jaleesa were supposed to get married, but the two decided against it at the altar.

Lewis: When they wrote the episode of us not getting married, we were like, “Whew, we dodged a bullet.” But then they had me marry Colonel Taylor. I said, “Wait. Stop. Stop. Stop it right now. What is happening?”

Summer: I still don’t like Freddie going with Ron. I just thought, with all the brothers on campus, with all the fish in the sea, she didn’t have to sleep with Kim’s man. I just can’t personally imagine making a choice like that. But it was all for good TV, and there was a sweetness about them, I suppose.

Hardison: When I found out that they were going to put Dwayne and Whitley together, I was shocked…but I liked it because I knew what a beast [Jasmine] was at work. I was in awe of her most of the time.

From left: Photo by Don Cadette/mptvimages.com; Everett Collection; Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images.

Dwayne and Whitley would eventually become one of television’s most iconic couples. But the onscreen chemistry between Hardison and Guy was hard-fought—initially hampered by “a little crush” Hardison says he had on Guy, and a fear of coming off too aggressive. During one scene in particular, he was struggling.

Guy: I think I was walking into The Pit, and he just kept eating his ice cream. I was like, “When I walk into the room, you better look at me.” We had to build this up to a reality. I said, “Do you know the term sexual tension?” And he didn’t.

Hardison: She was like, “Let’s flip it. I’ll be you, and you be me.…” And then it clicked. It was never the same after that. You felt like they were in love.

Bowser: I love watching [Dwayne and Whitley] go from being awkward teenagers to more mature Black people in love. We just hadn’t seen that. Yes, we saw Cliff and Clair Huxtable, a [married] couple with kids, but to go from watching Dwayne relentlessly pursuing Denise to becoming this articulate, genuine, compassionate, caring guy who vies for Whitley’s heart…and to see Whitley also mature past being this dilettante into someone who could actually allow herself to be loved by her soul mate, Dwayne, it just felt so real.

Among the most memorable episodes were two consecutive shows that culminated with Whitley and Dwayne getting married, during what was initially Whitley’s wedding to Byron Douglas III, played by Joe Morton. Neither Hardison or Guy thought the Graduate*–esque story was a good idea.*

Fales-Hill: Originally, we had written it in a much more staid way, and everyone had a civilized, polite conversation about Whitley and Byron not working out. And then, I think it was Debbie and Joe who said, “This needs to be The Graduate. This needs to be… Dwayne shows up. It’s all in the middle of the wedding. It’s not deep, it’s messy and crazy.”

Hardison: I was not a fan of that whole idea. I just thought we had done so much stuff that was grounded in reality, and this was a complete leap. [And] it felt like such a snake-in-the-grass thing to do to some other guy who you were friendly with. I 100 percent didn’t buy it. Up until the last day before we shot it, I was asking the writers to please fix it.

Guy: After we did the reading, I said, “Are y’all going to do that? That is whack. That is so corny.”

A compromise was made and the writers added a scene where Dwayne tries to talk Whitley out of the marriage the night before. His grand gesture of interrupting the wedding stayed in the script, though.

Guy: Some of the writers and producers were coming up to me and going, “Are you nervous?” I was like, “No more nervous than any other time.” I wanted to tell people, “I’m not her, I’m not really getting married.” I think it’s disappointing to people that I wasn’t as invested, but I would definitely be crazy if I thought I was the characters that I’ve portrayed.

Hardison: I was doing the vows and I messed up and I panicked. I just said, “Baby, please.” That wasn’t [Jasmine’s] cue, and I know what a boss she is, what a pro she is. She was going to wait for her cue, but I wasn’t going to get to it. I was like, “Baby, please!” The second please was a please for her—say your line, say your line, because I’m out right now, and this is just going to get worse and worse if we have to do more takes. And she said, “I do! I will!” We kept going with the scene and Debbie said, “Got it. Moving on.” One take.

Having initially bonded over a love of motorcycles, Hardison and Summer dated throughout much of the series.

Hardison: We were friends at first. We liked to ride motorcycles, [and] one day she pulled over and was like, “I love you. I think I’m in love with you.” And I was like, “What? No. What do you mean?” And then I thought about it and I was like, “Well, I’m not messing with nobody [and] she’s my bestie, why not?” And then it just went on and on.

“I remember Kadeem [Hardison] walked by and I thought, Oh, God, he is so fucking fine.”

Summer: Kadeem was such a great boyfriend. Honestly, when I look back, if a girl’s got to have a first love, he was the blueprint. So kind, so generous, so thoughtful and funny as hell.

Hardison: It was tough at the end. You’re not together anymore [but] you still have to go to work and be on set. But it was a joy to get to know her and work with her—to see her grow and help her with weird cartoon auditions. We would do all of that stuff.

In the show’s second season, Ceci was tapped as the lead costume designer. She would go on to create some of the show’s most recognizable looks, from Freddie’s texture-heavy boho ensembles to Whitley’s polished suits.

Ceci: I remember standing in my living room watching A Different World and saying, “I’m going to do that show.” Not even a week later the show’s tailor contacted a mutual friend who was a costumer and said, “Girl, they’re looking for a new costume designer on A Different World.” I interviewed with Debbie and got the job.

Summer: I fucking live for wardrobe [and] Ceci was heaven on earth. Wardrobe was my room. Freddie was wearing oxblood Doc Martens laced up to the knee…Fishbone T-shirts, Frank Zappa T-shirts. I remember wearing moccasins that I brought from home. Because I had a character that didn’t give a fuck about what other people thought, I really got to explore. I look back at some of Freddie’s clothes and I think, Wow, I’d wear that still today.

Guy: [Ceci] had Whitley down. When you’re a costume designer, when you’re doing makeup and hair, you’re part of creating this character. You’ve read the scripts, you understand the character dynamics. I felt like we had top-notch people in that regime. There were some things that were really beautiful that Whitley wore. And I purchased them from the show, but I never wore them because they weren’t me.

Ceci: Everybody thinks that I was shopping on Rodeo Drive, but I didn’t have that kind of budget. Shows, and particularly Black shows, didn’t really have an enormous budget, so I always had to be creative with Whitley to make her wardrobe look opulent. It wasn’t like she was wearing YSL or Gucci.

While Hardison wasn’t a fan of Dwayne’s colorful style, early on the wardrobe department gave him free rein to order sneakers from Nike, and he didn’t push back on how they styled him from the ankle up. When Ceci arrived, however, he asked if he could retire Dwayne’s signature flip-up glasses.

Ceci: I didn’t like them either, quite frankly. I thought that they were very corny. It was a battle that I had to wage and ultimately we won. The network thought that was part of his image and they were very reluctant to change it. But I thought that he could evolve into something else, and he did. He became more sophisticated throughout the years, and his look needed to reflect that.

When the show wrapped, Hardison was given one of the two pairs of Dwayne’s glasses from the set. In a move he now regrets—and one he admits was influenced by wanting to be known not just as Dwayne Wayne but as an actor—he donated them to a charity auction; what charity, he can’t recall.

Hardison: That was stupid. But Joanne Curley Kerner, she was one of our producers, and she has the other pair. She said I can have them, because I want to send them to the National Museum of African American History in D.C. That’s where they should be.

Not long after the show first aired, a litany of guest stars began appearing—some of whom were already established, and others who were relatively unknown at the time and have since become famous actors and musicians.

Lewis: The supporting actors that came through our show were just insane. Patti LaBelle…Gladys Knight…Ron O’Neal…Blair Underwood. I mean, the list just went on and on and on…. My absolute favorite episode of my five and a half years with that show was the Gladys Knight episode where I got to be a Pip. That was phenomenal.

Fales-Hill: There were a lot of Black performers, especially of a certain generation, who wanted to be on the show because they loved what it was saying and what it was doing.

Diahann Carroll was my mother’s best friend. She was like my second mom. So when we decided we wanted to meet Whitley’s mother and we knew we wanted Diahann [to play her], I literally drove up to her house in Beverly Hills and said, “You need to come do this show.” And Lena Horne, similarly, I’d known her all my life.

Allen: Patti LaBelle and I are friends from my early dance days in New York. She was singing, I was dancing. She was a big fan of A Different World, and she said, “Debbie, you gotta put me on the show, I want to be on the show.” I was like, “Patti, it’s done.” I think it was Susan who said we’re going to make her Dwayne Wayne’s mama. That was everything, because we already had Diahann Carroll. Pitting them against one another, you don’t have to do much. Just point the camera.

Fales-Hill: The first time Diahann came to do the show, she gathered everybody, and she said that when she had started on a soundstage in Los Angeles, there was absolutely no one of color except for her. She said, “You guys are driving onto this lot and walking around like you own the place. Look around—your director is Black, your writers are Black. This didn’t exist before. You need to really honor that.”

Guy: When Diahann Carroll, Patti LaBelle, Richard Roundtree—when they came on set I was thrilled. I mean, I was fan kind of thrilled.

Hardison: Patti and I were close because she played my mom. [She] taught you so much because she wasn’t really a trained actress. If something [unexpected] happened, she would just go with it. It frees you up as an actor when someone is that loose with it. You don’t know what’s happening, so it just makes you a better actor because your job is to react.

Fales-Hill: When Halle Berry did the show, she was not yet a star, she hadn’t done any of her big movies. We cast her as somebody’s girlfriend and it was a one-shot deal. Then she became the Halle Berry we know now.

Allen: We birthed Jenifer Lewis on A Different World. She was someone that I had known from New York. [The writers] were talking about me playing a dean and I was like, “You know what? I know somebody that would be better.”

The Cosby Show’s Tempestt Bledsoe guest starred in an episode during season two. Though she and Bell would become a couple four years later—and they remain together today—there were no sparks during her guest spot.

Bell: I met Tempestt four or five times before she ever remembered meeting me once. There’s an age gap between the two of us, so she was younger than me. She was not on my radar, and clearly, I was not going to her radar at the time. When she came to do the guest episode, it was Liz Narvaez, the actress who played Vanessa’s best friend, she was the one that I felt was really cute. I remember that week, I spent all my time with Liz. It wasn’t until years later when we did a play together [that] she and I had spent any time together.

With the success of the show came a level of fame that, while moderate in comparison to the visibility of young actors in today’s more diverse, social media–fueled industry, was an adjustment for the cast.

Costume department polaroids of cast members Cree Summer, Darryl Bell, and costume designer Ceci. Courtesy of Ceci.

Bell: Lisa was on The Cosby Show, so she was accustomed to being in the atmosphere of a juggernaut. The rest of us, we were not. To have that kind of attention on you at 20-something years of age, it was different.

Guy: My sister and I were out in Atlanta having beignets, and she said, “I don’t know why this girl keeps staring at me, but I’m about to cuss her out.” Then we realized that I was being recognized. Then it happened over and over. It’s an adjustment, and one that I wasn’t really seeking.

Hardison: Towards the end of the first season, I was driving home and I saw about two dozen kids on my lawn. I kept going and I had the car phone at the time, so I called Glynn Turman’s wife, who’s a Realtor. I was like, “Jo-An. I got to find a new house.” I moved out to Burbank, but that was crazy because I was the Black guy with the sports car and the cops would follow me home and people would complain about my music when I didn’t even have shit plugged in. Then Cree was like, “I know where you need to live,” and she brought me up to Topanga Canyon. I’ve been here ever since.

Summer: It wasn’t really like the Beatles or anything. I wish that people got as excited about Black television as they did for Cheers, which was right down the road from us, but I don’t think we ever felt a real overwhelming sense of celebrity.

Guy: I remember backstage on the lot there was an alley that [led] to the sidewalk. Patrick Cassidy would always be there signing autographs and talking to people, and I was like, “Ooh, I’m so glad that’s not me.” It did become me, over the years since A Different World, but I was mostly concerned with the work.

Turman: I know what comes with being young and famous and rich. It’s a recipe for self-destruction; it’s a recipe for taking things for granted. The show was so important, and I didn’t want to see things go the way they do with many shows and casts. Young people who gain fame, they [can] get carried away. So [the older cast members] took it upon ourselves to [say] buy a house, invest…we tried to plant those kinds of seeds. I felt a responsibility to do that. A lot of the kids, they took that advice.

Fales-Hill: We were really a family, with all that that implies. Sometimes you’re getting along really well and sometimes you’re not, but you always love each other.

Bell: I can’t tell you how many parties Debbie hosted with all of us there. She was so effusive and welcoming.

Summer: I met Lilakoi Moon, formerly known as Lisa Bonet, and we became soul sisters and I became the godmother of Zoë. A Different World really altered the molecules in my soul and my destiny…. Jasmine and I, oh, my God—when I think of the first time I met Jasmine, love at first sight.

Guy: We had so much fun off-camera that I only remember episodes based on what was going on in our lives during that time. And what people never saw was how funny everybody was. Of course Sinbad, but Glynn Turman, Lou Myers…just a witty, savvy group of people.

Bell: One of my favorite nights was the night that Magic Johnson broke the all-time assist record. There’s a picture of myself, Kadeem, Eddie Murphy, and Magic Johnson at a party that was in People magazine. That was emblematic. That to me encapsulates the best of that time.

Bowser: The cast, they were our peers. We worked together, we hung out together, we talked about life together. We all grew up together. We were writing these characters in their formative years who were growing up and maturing and becoming the young adults they were going to be. And we were doing that while we were writing the show. I think that was a real benefit—to be able to emotionally infuse the characters with what we were going through together.

Bell: [Debbie Allen’s husband] Norm Nixon was playing for the Clippers during our second season. Debbie would go to games and Kadeem and I would join. The Clippers were awful, so we could just walk right down and sit in the front row. Then Kadeem and I bought courtside seats. So for all the time that we were on A Different World, we were like the Jack Nicholson of the Clippers.

Allen: I used to cook for [the cast and crew] to keep that family feel. We were having a read-through at my home when it was announced that Magic Johnson had HIV. I had never seen grown men weep like that. We were devastated.

Juggling an increasingly demanding stand-up and hosting career and also looking to get into film, Sinbad left in season four. Lewis and Bowser both left in season five. While they didn’t plan it, the two both landed at Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.

Sinbad: I was doing a tour with Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, I was hosting Showtime at the Apollo, and I was doing A Different World. I was always on a plane going somewhere, or driving somewhere. It was my decision [to leave] because I was working so much, doing too many things. I said, “I can’t cheat them.” I wanted to do movies. I wanted to try and put my own show together.

Lewis: It was my request to be let go. Originally, the show was about three women. By the time season five came, I think there were 14 people that were considered principals.

At first they said no. They said, “You’re one of the central characters on this show. You can’t go.” I was like, “Yeah, but I really want to make this move.” There were two weeks left in pilot season and they said, “If you come back with another contract, we’ll let you go.” I don’t think they expected me to actually come back with a contract, because again, there were only two weeks left of pilot season. But I came back in a few days with Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper. They honored their word, but they weren’t too happy about it.

Bowser: I didn’t leave the show to go to Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, but having been there from the very beginning, I just felt like emotionally and creatively, it was time for me to go. Sometimes, when you grow up in a certain place, you have to leave the nest to truly soar. Little did I know how truly tough and oppressive the world would be outside. The little insulated group at Carsey-Werner and A Different World was such a female-friendly and Black-friendly environment, and the world outside was racist and misogynist to say the least. I’m not really one to suffer fools, so I became more determined to create my own work environment. That’s what set me on the path to create Living Single.

By season six, Freddie, Dwayne, Kimberly, Ron, and Whitley had all graduated from Hillman, and a new group of students joined the cast in main and recurring roles. Among those actors were Patrick Malone, Pinkett Smith, Bumper Robinson, Ajai Sanders, and Karen Malina White.

Allen: Jada Pinkett auditioned for the young girl with AIDS in season 4. When she walked in that audition room she said, “I’m the next Debbie Allen.” I was like, “Damn right!” I said, “We’ve got to put her on the show. Where did she come from? She’s amazing!”

Fales-Hill: We didn’t have a character who was from the hood, and wanted to address that experience. [Jada] was brand-new to Hollywood and she was just magnificent and magical, and had an extraordinary story herself.

Bumper Robinson (Dorian Heywood): I was graduating high school at the time, so I was actually a legit freshman coming into college. I had just finished working on The Jacksons: An American Dream, playing the role of Jackie, and was incredibly excited about the opportunity for A Different World. I’d been accepted to UCLA, and I was like, “If I get this, I’m not going to be able to go to college full-time.” I was kind of torn between [going to school full-time or] having to go part-time and work on A Different World.

Allen assured Robinson that she’d make sure he could do both, and he assumed the role of Dorian, an abstinent basketball star who dates Pinkett Smith’s character, Lena James.

Robinson: My experience in the real world was hilarious, because some folks who can’t separate art from real life were like, “Bruh, seriously, you don’t want to be with Jada?” There was a lot of that.

Kris Kross, En Vogue, and Josephine Premice (Fales-Hill’s mother) all guest starred in season six, along with Pinkett Smith’s real-life friend, Tupac Shakur.

Robinson: I remember the Tupac episode in particular, because he was super cool and had street cred and everything, and my character was the church boy. I was like, “Damn, how can I be cool in this episode too?” But I realized then how important my character was to show those sides, those layers of us, as Black people.

Lewis, Summer, Hardison, Guy, and Brown gather in a Radford Studios parking lot. Courtesy of Darryl Bell.

Despite consistently high ratings—often landing at number two behind The Cosby Show *and sometimes surpassing it for number one—*A Different World was never nominated for a Golden Globe. The show garnered just three Emmy nominations (Carroll and Goldberg, both for outstanding guest actress, and outstanding technical direction) and took home none.

Fales-Hill: I’m not somebody who beats her chest about oppression, but when you see the way certain white shows at the same time frame were assessed versus the way we were assessed, it had everything to do with color.

Guy: I remember doing The Dennis Miller Show and he asked, “How does it feel being between the number one show and the number three show, Cosby and Cheers?” And I kind of, not stuttered, but I was trying to regroup. And he said, “That’s a messed up question to ask you.” I said, “Yeah, it is. But I’m still good.” I don’t look for those accolades. I know that the show never won an Emmy, but it never felt like we were part of that party anyway.

Bell: There were a lot of people who wanted to say, “Yeah, you’re just [successful] because you’re in the time slot behind The Cosby Show.” They didn’t want to give us credit for being as good as we were.

Bowser: If I allow myself to feel slighted by the lack of recognition, it would be a very sad life. I wouldn’t have been able to move forward, quite frankly. A Different World definitely should have been more lauded and acknowledged for its popularity and its contribution to society, but we were making a show for the people, not for the accolades.

While filming season six, NBC announced to the cast and crew that A Different World wouldn’t be renewed for a seventh season.

Guy: That year NBC changed our time slot and put us up against Martin. I felt a plantation mentality dictating to us for the first time, because there was no reason for that, other than we had a Black show and [Fox] had a Black show. It was easy to let go of that relationship, let me just say that.

Robinson: We actually had a spinoff in place. There was an episode where the youngsters moved into a spot where Billy Dee Williams was our landlord, and that was serving as an in-season pilot, which I thought would have been a really, really dope show. That didn’t pan out, though.

Allen: There were a lot of politics going on behind the scenes, and none of us will ever truly know all of it. [Though] I have to say, I witnessed a great deal of resentment towards Bill Cosby’s power, and Marcy and Tom. Six years is a nice, good run [but] I didn’t like how it ended. It went off the air unceremoniously. It was not nice. And it was very hurtful to my entire company—the cast, the writers, the producers, the cameramen. We had worked to a fault and we had become kind of like a new search engine of what was possible. For us to go off the air so unceremoniously, I don’t know. I’ll let the powers that be…they’ll live with that.

Bell: Our show came on the air under Brandon Tartikoff [who left NBC in 1991]. And then after Brandon, it was Warren Littlefield. If you’re running a network, you don’t get credit for the shows you didn’t develop. So there’s no upside to propping up A Different World to continue to be successful, when you have to to point to the value of your stewardship of the network, with the new shows that you brought to bear.

Summer: I don’t think the network really gave a shit about A Different World. [You know when] you just don’t feel the love. If you’re driving down the street, are there any posters for our show? Why aren’t we on the cover of anything? Where’s the PR? Where’s the love?

Bell: Think of all the other shows when they’re ending, it’s like they have all of these countdowns to the final episode. We had nothing like that. And the network decided that every time they wanted to have a new show, they were going to test it in our time slot. So in that sixth year, we weren’t even on every week. From one week to the next, our fans didn’t even know if we were going to be on television.

Fales-Hill: It was bittersweet. I think we felt like we had more stories in us to tell. On the other hand, it was nice to go out on a high and not feel like you’re a poor imitation of what you once were. But the saddest part was getting letters from teachers and principals from public schools in underserved communities who were saying, “Without you on the air, I can’t tell my kids that they can aspire to anything and go to college.”

Bell: If you watched the last episode, when Whitley and Dwayne are getting ready to walk out of frame, Debbie ends the shot on my face. You can see Ron breaking down in tears. That was Darrell coming unglued, because that was the last shot of the night, and it was over. That was it.

A Different World’s enduring impact far outweighs the disappointment.

Bowser: Applications to college, and HBCUs in particular, spiked exponentially as the result of the show. That’s a huge reward. Who needs more validation than that?

Hardison: I live for the moments at the gas station when a grandmother tells me her baby wanted to be an engineer because of me.

Bell: [The cast] was in Detroit on our way to do an interview at a radio station, and this woman saw us in the street and lost it. She started crying and shaking and we were like, “All right, honey, don’t die on us.” But she was like, “You just don’t understand—I’m a doctor now, I’m married to a lawyer. None of this was possible for me before I watched A Different World. I just didn’t know it was a thing.” It’s remarkable to know that you can still have that kind of effect on someone 30-plus years after the fact.

Waithe: When I first joined Instagram, I didn’t really want to use my name. I thought @HillmanGrad was cool and a lot of people dug it. And there were a few people that didn’t know what it meant, which was kind of cool, you know? Because it was like, if you knew what it meant, then you were part of the cool kids. Eventually I became more known and my stuff’s turned to my actual name. [When] I decided to have a production company, it just felt right.

Falles-Hill: No one had ever seen a Black college depicted, no one had seen that range of Black people—of every walk, of every socioeconomic background, of every complexion. We’re always being told what we are and what we’re allowed to be, and on A Different World, we just were.

Waithe: The people that walked on that set have touched or impacted or lifted up others in a way that a lot of people don’t even get to see. Regina Hicks was a PA on A Different World. She was my first boss on Girlfriends; she was showrunning. Susan Fales-Hill hired Yvette Lee Bowser, who would then go on to create Living Single. Yvette Lee Bowser met Gina Prince-Bythewood and brought her in to become an [apprentice]. Prince-Bythewood would then go on to become…a staff writer. Living Single is also where she met Reggie Rock Bythewood. They got married and she would go make Love & Basketball and he would go make Dancing in September and Biker Boyz. Then I would come to be Gina Prince-Bythewood’s assistant when she worked on The Secret Life of Bees. Fast-forward to when I needed a showrunner for Twenties, it’s Susan Fales-Hill. Yvette Lee Bowser went on to show run Dear White People, the series, which was the first movie I’d ever produced.

Bowser: Sometimes when I get interviewed people ask me, “Well, how do you write or create such iconic shows or iconic characters?” And the truth is, you don’t create iconic shows or iconic television or iconic characters. The audience decides what really lives with them, what really sticks with them.”

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This post originally appeared on Vanity Fair and was published May 25, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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