A Different World premiered on NBC on September 24, 1987, as a showcase for The Cosby Show’s most popular daughter, Denise (Lisa Bonet). The show followed her day-to-day life at Hillman College. Bonet's departure at the end of the first season had no real negative impact on the show or its viewers; the ratings held steady, and some critics who had previously panned the show as “bland” or “uninspired” were now praising it as relevant and daring. Here are 14 things you might not know about the Emmy-nominated series, which ran for six seasons.
1. THE ORIGINAL PREMISE WAS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
In the very, very beginning, A Different World was envisioned as a show about a white girl’s experiences while attending a historically black college. Meg Ryan was originally cast in the lead as Maggie Lauten, but before the pilot she decided to step away from television and concentrate on films. So the setup changed and the series became about Denise adjusting to life away from her family, and the character of Maggie (now played by Marisa Tomei) had a smaller role as Denise’s roommate.
2. THE ORIGINAL PILOT WAS SCRAPPED AT THE LAST MINUTE.
After four episodes were filmed, neither the show's producers nor the network were pleased with the results. So they brought former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts on board as producer. Beatts, who had also created the short-lived high school sitcom Square Pegs, was charged with creating an entirely different pilot episode just six weeks before it was scheduled to air. The ratings for Season One were strong, but that was mainly due to A Different World’s plum time slot—sandwiched between The Cosby Show and Cheers. The reviews, on the other hand, were scathing, with “bland and unfunny,” “awful,” “calamitously drab,” and “a big yawn” among the ways in which it was described by critics.
3. LISA BONET'S PREGNANCY WAS SERENDIPITOUS.
Fate intervened before a decision had to be made about whether to axe Lisa Bonet when the newly married Mrs. Lenny Kravitz announced her pregnancy just after Season One wrapped, and the actress left the show. Bonet’s exit was followed by the departure of both Beatts and Tomei when Debbie Allen took over as producer.
4. LISA BONET AND MARISA TOMEI REMAIN CLOSE FRIENDS.
Despite the relatively short time they worked together, it was long enough for Lisa Bonet and Marisa Tomei to form a close friendship. Tomei is godmother to all three of Bonet’s children, and was present at the birth of two of them.
5. DEBBIE ALLEN AIMED FOR AUTHENTICITY.
Debbie Allen was a graduate of Howard University and aimed to make A Different World more realistically reflect the historically black college experience. Throughout her tenure on the show, Allen took the writing staff on an annual “field trip” to Spelman and Morehouse Colleges in Atlanta. There they not only saw the latest in dorm furnishings and college fashions, they also chatted with students and administrators to find out what issues were hot topics that could be used in future episodes.
6. A DAVID BOWIE CONCERT INSPIRED DWAYNE WAYNE'S GLASSES.
Anne Beatts is the person to thank for Kadeem Hardison’s trademark flip-top sunglasses. She was looking for some sort of wardrobe accessory that would give math whiz Dwayne Wayne a slightly nerdy look to make him stand out from the other male characters. Inspiration struck when she went to see David Bowie in concert and spotted guitarist Carlos Alomar wearing a pair of what are now known as “Dwayne Wayne glasses.”
7. JASMINE GUY BORROWED HER THIRD GRADE TEACHER'S ACCENT FOR WHITLEY.
Jasmine Guy originally auditioned for the role of Jaleesa, which ultimately went to Dawnn Lewis. When Guy returned and tried out for Whitley, she wasn’t sure what a “Southern belle” was, so she used something that always got her laughs when she was a kid—she imitated the exaggerated accent of her third grade teacher, Mrs. Pinkard.
8. WHITLEY GILBERT WAS BASED ON THE SHOW'S HEAD WRITER.
The character of the rich and spoiled (and often clueless) Whitley Gilbert was based on the real-life experiences of head writer Susan Fales-Hill. The daughter of a glamorous Haitian actress and wealthy Italian businessman, she had a privileged childhood full of household servants and private schools. In her memoir, Always Wear Joy, Fales-Hill recounted how, when she began her freshman year at Harvard, she struggled to fit in and was often shunned by other black students for “acting white.”
9. THE SERIES HAD CONNECTIONS TO SPIKE LEE'S SCHOOL DAZE.
Three of the series’ principals—Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, and Darryl M. Bell—had previously worked together in the Spike Lee film School Daze. Years after A Different World had established itself as the seminal series about historically black college life, Lee expressed regret in a 2008 Vibe interview that he hadn’t thought of pitching the School Daze premise as a TV series. “I fell asleep on that one.”
10. ROSEANNE BARR MADE AN IMPORTANT CAMEO.
Roseanne Barr and her then-husband Tom Arnold made an unusual uncredited cameo in A Different World, appearing as a pair of looters helping themselves to freebies at a high-end boutique during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It was Debbie Allen’s idea to have the Roseanne stars, along with the handful of white suburban soccer moms, gleefully savage the merchandise racks. She wanted to show her audience what CNN didn’t: that people of all races participated in the post-Rodney King melee.
11. CREE SUMMER'S VOICE IS FAMILIAR.
Cree Summer (“Freddie Brooks”) did voiceover work before, during, and after her time on A Different World. She’s been the voice of the Green M&M for the past 20 years, and has also been a regular on dozens of animated series including Inspector Gadget, The Care Bears, As Told by Ginger, and Rugrats. In 1991 she had the opportunity to “morph” in Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video.
12. AN INTERRACIAL RELATIONSHIP SPARKED BACKLASH.
Charnele Brown was in her early 30s when she played 20-something pre-med student Kim Reese. According to an interview the actress gave to Sac Cultural Hub in 2014, she received a lot of angry mail after her character dated a Caucasian student. “The majority of the backlash came from men in prison,” she stated. “They wanted to know why NBC would pair ‘the only black girl on the show’ with a white boy.” Brown struggled with rejection for many years when auditioning for various television roles; she was continually told that her skin “type” (i.e. dark complexioned) was not in style.
13. COLONEL TAYLOR WAS MARRIED TO ARETHA FRANKLIN.
Dawnn Lewis not only played Jaleesa Vinson, she also co-wrote the series’ theme song. Jaleesa eloped with math professor Colonel Taylor and disappeared from the series with no explanation after Season Five. In reality, Lewis had accepted a starring role (and a hefty salary increase) on Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. Speaking of the A Different World theme song: it was performed by Aretha Franklin from Season Two through Season Five. The Queen of Soul happened to be the ex-wife of Glynn Turman, who played Colonel Bradford Taylor.
14. TEMPESTT BLEDSOE FOUND LOVE ON A DIFFERENT WORLD.
Tempestt Bledsoe made a guest appearance as Vanessa Huxtable on A Different World in 1989. Sparks didn’t fly immediately, but five years later she and Darryl M. Bell (who played Ron Johnson) started dating. They are still together today (“happily unmarried”).