Series / Diff'rent Strokes
The humble beginnings...
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). As of the current time, Bridges is the last surviving child star from the series among the original threesome (Dan Cooksey joined later, and has avoided the fates of his older co-stars), but it's such stories that the Former Child Star trope is built upon. Coleman's is parodied in the musical Avenue Q.


  • An Aesop
  • Adult Fear: Used in several episodes, including:
    • "Arnold's Girlfriend": Your adopted son is terrified to have an appendectomy, and will only do so if his new friend shares a hospital room with him. The problem is, your son is black and the (white) friend's dad is a bigot. This causes the dad to pretty much manhandle the doctor in order to keep the kids from sharing a room. The kids then run away, leading to the real possibility your son's appendix will rupture and he will die.
    • "The Bicycle Man": Your son and his friend face sexual assault from a supposedly kind store owner.
    • "Sam's Missing": Not only does your (third) adopted son go missing, but the man who has him intends to raise him as his own. This man also threatens to kill you and your family if your little boy does not cooperate.
    • Some Kimberly-centric episodes crossed into this. Of note is the one in which she almost gets raped after hitchhiking, and the one in which she develops bulimia.
  • 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.
  • Big Eater: Arnold, apparently.
  • Big Fancy House: The posh penthouse where the Drummonds live.
  • "Blackmail" is Such an Ugly Word
  • Breakout Character: Arnold Jackson.
  • The Cast Show Off: Dana Plato was a trained figure skater, which the producers allowed her to demonstrate in "Family on Ice" (with Special Guest Dorothy Hamill).
    • Janet Jackson's singing was featured in the episode "The Music Man".
  • Catch Phrase: "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"
    • Willis' habitual "Saaaaaaaaaay what?" would qualify as well.
  • Child Hater: In "The New Landlord," the titular landlord decides to ban children from the building, meaning the Drummonds face eviction.
    Arnold: Weren't you a kid once?
    New Landlord: Nope. I went directly from birth to landlord.
    • In "The Woman," a woman who Mr. Drummond wants to marry plans to send the kids away.
  • Christmas Episode: Two of them; the first was also a Clip Show.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Aunt Sophia.
  • Corporal Punishment: One episode centered around Mr. Drummond saying he'd have to spank Arnold for some misdeed. Willis argued that he should spank Arnold, because he's "family". And he does.
  • The Couch
  • Cousin Oliver: Sam.
  • Crossover: Several crossovers have occurred 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 and, years after the show ended, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
  • Daddy's Girl: Kimberly.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Arnold. The other characters have their moments too.
  • Demoted to Extra:
    • Kimberly, in the last two seasons, due to personal problems that were starting to crop up in her life.
    • Willis in the last two seasons was dropped into the background since most of the storylines were focusing on Arnold and his new stepbrother Sam (Maggie's son). However, at least two Season 8 episodes are Sam-Willis episodes, with Willis giving advice to Sam.
  • Dom Com
  • Early Installment Weirdness: When Lisa was first introduced in season 5, she and Arnold and Dudley were very friendly toward each other (Arnold even tried to help Dudley ask Lisa out, which would NEVER have happened in later episodes). As time went on, she and Arnold were much more antagonistic, and she treated his friends with contempt.
  • The '80s
  • Enemy Eats Your Lunch: The two-parter "Crime Story" has two teenage bullies stealing the lunches and money of both Arnold and Dudley. They are not depicted as being harmless or goofy; they back up their words with physical force. The bullies even beat up Willis, who intervenes for Arnold and Dudley, so badly that he has to be hospitalized!
  • Follow the Leader: Webster.
  • Foster Kid: Averted with Arnold and Willis, which Willis points out to both Sam and a foster kid named Kurt in one of the final episodes of the series. Kurt had never had a stable family, always having to leave after a year, and was living in a group home at the time of the events of this episode. Willis explains that had Mr. Drummond not taken him and Arnold in and adopted them, this would have likely been their fate.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Did the writers not know that "gooch" is slang for the perineum, a flap of skin between the anus and the scrotum? Or was it just an inherently funny word in those halcyon days?
    • In the first crossover with Hello, Larry, Larry Alder tells visiting Mr. Drummond that he can stay in his daughter's room, and if he gets hungry, she "hides a salami in her nightstand". I doubt she was using that salami for eating.
  • The Ghost: The Gooch, a bully at Arnold's school.
  • Good Parents
  • Got Volunteered: In "Drafted", Arnold dreams that he's been drafted by the army. When the general (played by Mr. Drummond) asks for a volunteer to take one step forward, everyone but Arnold takes one step back.
  • Happily Adopted: The Jackson brothers (eventually). Also Arnold's friend Dudley.
  • Happily Married: Drummond and Maggie in the last two seasons.
  • High School Hustler: Season 8's "Arnold's Tangled Web" saw an adult version who exploited teenagers for his profit. The man, known as Spider, would – in exchange for a fee – forge report cards and pose as school officials to help them get out of scrapes. However, Spider made the mistake of crossing Mr. Drummond when he posed as a guidance counselor at Arnold's school, and Drummond set a trap to expose him to Arnold as a liar and scam artist. Drummond then warns Spider that he can expect the police to be called if he's ever known to be engaging in fraudulent activities again.
  • Incest Subtext / Flirty Stepsiblings: Kimberly and Willis had a few moments that could be construed as flirting.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Willis can qualify.
  • Jive Turkey: Though not too much.
  • Just Testing You: When Susie tells Arnold that she reads The Wall Street Journal, Arnold says he likes the comics in it. When she says there are no comics, Arnold says he is just testing her.
  • Malaproper: Arnold. An example comes from the season three episode "Drummond's Fair Lady":
    Arnold [intending to say "Magna Cum Laude"]: "Hi, I understand you graduated Magna Cum Lousy."
  • Mouthy Kid: Arnold. And to some extent, Willis.
    "You're a lily-livered weak sister with no guts!"
  • Local Hangout: The Hamburger Hangar, during the final season. The short-order restaurant is owned by Mr. Wallace, who is often a Jerk Ass; and Arnold's mentally challenged friend, Carl, is employed there as a dishwasher note .
  • May–December Romance: The impression the producers initially wanted to avoid when hiring an actress to play Maggie McKinney, the woman that Mr. Drummond would eventually marry. (Conrad Bain was born in 1923, seven years prior to his character, Philip Drummond; the initial leading contender to play Maggie, Mary Ann Mobley, was born in 1939.) However, the first Maggie – Dixie Carter – was also born in 1939, and when she was let go at the end of the 1984-1985 season, Mobley was given a second look and eventually hired. note 
    • Mrs. Garrett dates a younger man in the second season episode "Mrs. Garrett's Romance".
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: A young man whose mother knew Phillip during the Korean War shows up on the Drummonds' doorstep.
  • Missing Mom and Disappeared Dad: The whole background for the series. Henry Jackson died in 1975 and Lucy Jackson passed away in 1977, one and three years, respectively, before the series begins.
  • New Parent Nomenclature Problem: When Willis and Arnold start living with the man who eventually adopts them, they call him Mr. Drummond. They eventually ask his permission to call him Dad, which he gives (even before he officially adopts them). The explicitly do not call him Papa, which was their name for their biological father.
    • With Sam, who – unlike most stepchildren who refer to their step-parents by their first name – he continues to refer to Mr. Drummond as "Mr. D." Arnold and Willis continue to refer to Maggie by her first name; the only one that ever gets a variant of mom is Lucy Jackson ("Mama").
  • 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''.
  • Offscreen Karma: Not shown or even discussed but implied in the second part of "Crime Story". Arnold gets audio evidence of the two bullies stealing his lunch and Dudley's lunch, then gives it to Detective Simpson. While the episode ends there, it's implied that this is more than enough evidence to arrest and prosecute the lunch stealing bullies.
  • Oh Crap!: The climax of "The Bicycle Man," when Mr. Horton realizes that he's been found out by the police. When Drummond and a detective start to head for Horton's apartment, Horton says, "Wait a minute … you can't go in there!" but is restrained by the other officer.
  • Out-of-Context Eavesdropping: In an early episode, Willis and Arnold (black) plan to move in with another family because they overhear Mr. Drummond (white) saying that black children should be put with black families, thinking that he didn't want them; but he didn't believe in that, he was telling Mrs. Garrett what a buttinski social worker said to him after she met the boys.
  • Pædo Hunt: In live-action episodic television, "The Bicycle Man" was probably the trope codifier.
  • Parent Ex Machina
  • 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 ... .
  • Pie in the Face: "Hooray For Hollywood"
  • Poorly Disguised Pilot: "The Girls' School", which bore The Facts of Life.
    • "Almost American", which revolved around an immigration and naturalization class.
  • 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.
  • Prenup Blowup: Drummond and Maggie.
    • Happened when Dixie Carter joined the cast. The prenup was discarded and they married anyway.
  • Promotion to Opening Titles: Pearl in season 6, and Maggie and Sam in season 7.
  • 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.
  • Recurring Character: Many. The most frequent is Dudley.
  • 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!"
  • Sending Stuff to Save the Show: In-universe, Arnold and Sam start a letter-writing campaign to save The Sandy Squirrel Show from getting taken off the air in "Arnold Saves the Squirrel".
  • 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).
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Adelaide Brubaker for Edna Garrett, then Pearl Gallagher for Adelaide.
  • Thematic Theme Tune: Flirting with Expository Theme Tune in the lines "A man is born, he's a man of means / Then along come two, they got nothing but their jeans..."
  • The Talk: Drummond has already educated Arnold about "The Birds And The Bees", but he needs to give a new version when the kids come home early from a camping trip and catch him and his current girlfriend together—it's early in the morning and she's only wearing a nightgown, making it very obvious, even to the young Arnold, what's transpired.
  • Too Smart for Strangers: One of the more infamous examples.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Conrad Bain plays Mr. Drummond and his female cousin Anna, while Dana Plato plays Kimberly and her male cousin Hans, in "The Van Drummonds".
  • Unexpected Positive: In one episode, Mr. Drummond purchased a device that measured stress on his doctor's advice. Sure enough, his rating was high, but when the kids goofed around with it, Willis' was off the chart (he was coping with schoolwork, extracurricular activities, running for class office, etc).
  • Very Special Episode: Numerous examples. Most famously "The Bicycle Man" 2-parter.
  • Wedding Day
  • Whole Plot Reference: The "Rashomon"-Style episode "Rashomon II", where Mr. Drummond, Willis, and Arnold all have different versions of how they stopped a robber. Only Pearl knows the truth.
  • With Friends Like These... : In certain episodes, it seems like Arnold's friends, even 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.
    Arnold: What's that?
    Willis: Janet.
    • Coincidentally, Charlene was played during that season by a Janet: Janet Jackson.

Alternative Title(s): Different Strokes, Diffrent Strokes