A proper white man adopts two street-wise black boys. Hilarity Ensues.Diff'rent Strokes (1978-86) made a star of Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson, the younger of the two boys. Todd Bridges was his older brother Willis and Conrad Bain was the proper white man, Mr. Drummond. As one of NBC's few late-'70s hits, it quickly launched a spinoff in The Facts of Life the following year. First Lady Nancy Reagan made a guest appearance in a Very Special Episode about drug abuse, and ABC's Webster was a Follow the Leader rival. Ironically, Diff'rent Strokes itself actually moved to ABC when it got canceled by NBC. The theme was co-written and performed by Alan Thicke.Unfortunately, this show is best remembered now both for its special episodes and the unhappy fates of its three leading kid actors (Coleman, Bridges, and Dana Plato, who played Mr. Drummond's daughter); it's such stories that the Former Child Star trope is built upon. Coleman's is parodied in the musical Avenue Q.
All Gays Are Pedophiles: Referenced and debunked in "The Bicycle Man" episode. In the Very Special Episode's final scene — one where the police detective basically answers common questions, as posed by the Drummonds — Willis remarks that Mr. Horton (the seemingly genial bicycle shop owner with the sinister secret — must be a homosexual, which the detective refutes quickly.
Attempted Rape: In a later season episode, Arnold and Kimberly accept a ride in a car from a stranger. He takes them back to his apartment and locks Arnold in another room while he takes Kimberly to his darkroom; their father and the police arrive Just in Time.
And then there was the child molester who ran the bike shop, and convinced Arnold and his friend to come back into his house for ice cream and shirtless wrestling.
Cross Over: Several crossovers have ocurred during the series' run. Including three that involved the McLean Stevenson sitcom Hello, Larry and a handful involving spinoff The Facts of Life. Characters from Diff'rent Strokes have also crossed over onto Silver Spoons.
Not Allowed to Grow Up: Arnold aged much slower than the rest of the cast. Coleman's kidney disorder meant that the actor never grew above 4' 8''.
Out-of-Context Eavesdropping: In an early episode Willis and Arnold (black) plan to run away because they overhear their adopted father (white) saying that black boys should be put with black families, thinking that he didn't want them; but he didn't believe in that, he was telling someone else what a black buttinski said to him before he threw him out.
Picnic Episode: Darkly portrayed in Season 6's "The Hitchhikers" (the episode where Kimberly and Arnold accept a ride from a stranger named Bill). While the two are held hostage, Bill – possibly having had problems with trying to pursue relationships with women in the past, as alluded to in the episode's closing scene – tries to get Kimberly to be his girlfriend, and to set the mood brings out a picnic basket and blanket and says that's what they're going to do ... .
Post Robbery Trauma: A 1985 episode saw Arnold robbed at knifepoint, and tries (successfully, for awhile) to supress his deep trauma ... but Mr. Drummond senses otherwise and arranges for a schoolroom exercise to get Arnold's true feelings out in the open.
Precision F-Strike : On a show that aired early during prime time, with no swearing or vulgar language whatsoever, hearing Mr. Drummond say "Willis, where the HELL have you been?" was jarring.
Put on a Bus: Mrs. Garrett, then Adelaide. They both came back for the Drummond and Maggie wedding episode.
Kimberly, via Real Life Writes the Plot. Dana Plato, who was pregnant at the time, was not part of the regular cast in the last two seasons, only making occasional guest appearances.
Rearrange the Song: In addition to the producers having to recast the role of Maggie McKinney after moving to ABC, Alan Thicke also had to record a new version of the show's theme song, because NBC owned the copyrights to the original.
Replacement Goldfish: Literally. Arnold's beloved goldfish Abraham dies, so the family tries to hide it from him until they can get a replacement. When Arnold becomes suspicious, and happens to notice Mr. Drummond's will, he jumps to the wrong conclusion and thinks that Mr. Drummond is dying. Arnold notices that the new goldfish "isn't Abraham!"
Smoking Is Cool: In "The Girls' School" episode, the character Blair (the snobby rich girl, played by Lisa Welchel) can be seen puffing on a cigarette; this character trait would be dropped (Welchel is a non-smoker) by the time The Facts of Life made it to series.
Twisted around in a 1984 episode, where Arnold and his buddy, Dudley, experiment with smoking cigarettes. They get a graphic lesson when Dudley's father reveals he is a chronic smoker and needs a lung operation; the fade-to-black scene showed the man lighting up in the hallway, just after leaving the Drummonds' apartment.
Spin-Off: The Facts of Life. The spinoff outlasted its parent show by two years, and had a year-longer run (nine seasons, vs. Strokes' eight).
With Friends Like These... : In certain episodes, it seems like Arnold's friends, even to Dudley, will turn on him in a heartbeat, and on a dime.
Wrong Name Outburst: In the season four episode "Double Date", Phillip suggests that Willis accompany Arnold on his first date, since Arnold is too young to date by himself. Before Willis exhausts all options in finding a date, leading to Phillip's suggestion that he take Kimberly out instead, Willis tells Arnold the reason why he's looking for a date with another girl is because he called his girlfriend Charlene the wrong name.
Willis: She's not talking to me on account of the name I called her.