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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (except for a brief period of time where Carl is mistakenly blamed for a prank Arnold's "friends" pulled on Mr. Wallace by breaking the dishwasher).
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 She appeared in about half of the Season 8 episodes.
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''.
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 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.
Pædo Hunt: In live-action episodic television, "The Bicycle Man" was probably the trope codifier.
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.