13 Things You Might Not Know About Diff'rent Strokes

iStock
iStock

If you were tuned in to a television anytime between 1978 and 1986, you were likely exposed to the phenomenon that was NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes. A star vehicle for precocious kid actor Gary Coleman, Strokes mined comedy from the odd coupling of millionaire Mr. Drummond (Conrad Bain) and his dead housekeeper’s orphaned children, Arnold (Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges).

The show ran for eight seasons and is likely as notable for the melodrama surrounding its young stars as it is for anything they did onscreen. Have a look at 13 facts Willis was, at some point or another, probably discussing.  

1. It Made the Schedule Because The Little Rascals Didn’t.

NBC President Fred Silverman knew he wanted to do something with Gary Coleman, the polished 10-year-old who had gotten attention for his commercial spots. (Coleman was so poised that at one point he was believed to be a little person.) The actor taped a pilot for a Little Rascals update in 1978, but the network declined to move forward. Still anxious to find a project, Silverman slotted him in a script about two brothers from Harlem who move into a posh Manhattan penthouse. While Bain was the ostensible star of the show, it was Coleman’s portrayal of Arnold that entertained audiences: The show never fell outside of the top 30 during its first three seasons.

2. White Supremacists Were Not Fans.

While Strokes was never a highly politicized series, some viewers were uncomfortable with the idea of a rich white millionaire adopting two black children. After the show premiered, Bain received letters from the Ku Klux Klan that were threatening in nature and sealed in wax by a Grand Dragon; Todd Bridges claimed he was also harassed by self-identified Klan members.  

3. The Title May Have Been Inspired by Muhammad Ali.

According to the Yale Book of Quotations, boxing great Ali (who made a cameo in a 1979 episode) was quoted by the Great Bend Daily Tribune in 1966 as saying, “Different strokes for different folks.” Musician Syl Johnson further popularized the phrase in a 1968 song. Prior to the stylized title, producers considered calling it 45 Minutes from Harlem.  

4. Gary Coleman Sat Out Episodes Over Money.

Despite being the main attraction of Strokes, Coleman was paid a fairly paltry $1,800 per episode when the show debuted. His parents—who also happened to be his managers—successfully argued for a raise to $30,000 per episode. By 1981, the promise of lucrative syndication money led to another request; this time the protracted contract negotiations had Coleman sitting on the sidelines for the first episodes of the fourth season. His salary was eventually increased to $70,000 per episode, making him NBC’s highest-paid comedic actor for a period of time.

5. Coleman Tweaked His Catchphrase.

According to series writer Ben Starr, the character of Arnold had a line that was scripted as, “What are you talking about, Willis?” When Coleman read it, he compressed it into what would become one of the most pervasive catchphrases of the 1980s: “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” The writers wanted to be careful to partition it out in future seasons so it wouldn’t wear out its welcome, but that wasn’t entirely successful: By the late 1990s, Coleman was so tired of the line he refused to say it.

6. It Cornered the Market on 'Very Special' Episodes.

Sitcoms tackled serious themes at least as far back as the 1970s, when Edith Bunker was assaulted in a particularly jarring episode of All in the Family. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that comedies regularly took movie-of-the-week themes and used them to garner press attention for a substantial bump in ratings. In 1983, Strokes aired a two-part episode about child molestation where Gordon Jump (later known as Maytag’s Lonely Repairman) attempts to seduce Arnold and his friend. The show was so successful that Very Special Episodes devoted to bulimia, epilepsy, alcoholism, and the dangers of hitchhiking followed; fittingly, Strokes' last-ever episode in 1986 was Very Special, featuring Arnold investigating a steroid scandal for the school newspaper.

7. Alan Thicke Co-Wrote the Theme Song.

Best known either for his role as affable dad Jason Seaver on Growing Pains or affable father of singer Robin Thicke, Alan spent time in the ‘80s composing a quantity of memorable television music. In addition to writing the theme song for The Facts of Life, Thicke sang on and co-wrote the music and lyrics to the Diff’rent Strokes theme. In 2012, an interviewer got Thicke's son to sing part of it.

8. Coleman Had A Kidney Transplant During Its Run.

Coleman’s short stature was the result of drugs given to the youngster to address a genetic birth defect: he was born with one atrophied kidney and the other already failing. By age five, he had received his first kidney transplant. After getting a second one in 1984 and facing another operation in 1986, Coleman opted for dialysis four times daily instead. Through it all, the drugs given to manage his condition resulted in a suppressed growth phase. By age 14, Coleman knew he wouldn’t grow beyond four feet eight inches. One episode of the series was even devoted to his character coming to grips with the same affliction.

9. Arnold Appeared on Other Shows.

With NBC executives eager to have Coleman use his magic on the rest of their schedule, Arnold was jettisoned to Silver Spoons, Strokes spinoff The Facts of Life, and even on the wholly-unrelated Steven Spielberg-produced anthology series Amazing Stories. In “Remote Control Man,” a henpecked husband is able to transform his domestic existence into something out of a sitcom, running into Arnold along the way.

10. Coleman Lobbied to Be Less of a Kid.

As he neared adulthood, a teenaged Coleman began to grow very weary of playing an adolescent Arnold. For the last season, he successfully petitioned the writers to place Arnold in high school in order to feed more mature plots like dating and driving, with less jumping into Mr. Drummond’s lap. He also convinced NBC to give him a dramatic role in 1985 as the lead in a TV movie, Playing with Fire, about a child arsonist who wants to set the family dog ablaze. Like his Very Special Episodes, it ends with a strong message for would-be firebugs: “Get therapy.” 

11. Todd Bridges Played a Guy Who Sold Drugs to a Younger Todd Bridges.

Life after Strokes was not kind to its juvenile performers. Dana Plato, who portrayed Kimberly Drummond, struggled with substance abuse and once robbed a convenience store before dying of a drug overdose in 1999. A near-unemployable Coleman died in 2010 of complications owing to a fall, and Bridges was involved in a series of drug-related incidents before settling down. For a 2000 Fox docudrama about the making of the show, Bridges plays a drug dealer who sells drugs to an actor playing his younger self. In a 2006 TV movie, his real-life sister, Verda, portrays his mother.    

12. Willis Won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes.

A 2013 ad campaign for wish-fulfillment Publishers Clearing House used archival footage from old sitcoms to portray characters answering the door and seeing the “Prize Patrol.” In a spot fashioned out of Diff’rent Strokes footage, Arnold is chagrined to find out Willis has won the million-dollar prize.  

13. Coleman Said Goodbye to Arnold on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Despite being vocal about wanting to move on from the show, Coleman agreed to reprise the character of Arnold for the 1996 series finale of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. After the Banks clan decides to separate to pursue separate opportunities, Will (Will Smith) shows their home to prospective buyers, including Arnold and Mr. Drummond, who provides some meta commentary after Arnold deploys his catchphrase. “You know, Arnold,” he says, “those things were a lot funnier when you were still a little child.”  

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

9 Outdoor Accessories for the Perfect Backyard Party

Amazon/OtterBox
Amazon/OtterBox

Hosting the perfect party in the great outdoors doesn't have to involve you moving any further than your own backyard. Whether you’re looking for games to play with friends, chairs to keep you comfortable, or tents to turn your yard into your own personal campsite, check out some of these essential products that will transform your own patch of nature into a true outdoor oasis.

1. Wine Tumbler; $20

Tumblers from Otterbox
OtterBox

These wine tumblers from Otterbox will make your backyard the toast of the summer. Made from 100 percent stainless steel and lined with copper, these 10-ounce cups will keep your wine at the perfect temperature until the last s’more is eaten and the fire is put out. Each tumbler holds two standard wine pours and has a sweat-resistant design so you can leave your coasters inside. And each tumbler is fitted with a press-in lid, keeping your drink secure whether you’re taking a walk or playing a game with friends.

Buy it: Otterbox

2. Wood-Burning Fire Pit; $300

Wood-burning fire pit from Wayfair.
Martha Stewart/Wayfair

This steel wood-burning fire pit is exactly what you need to create a little ambiance once the moon is out and friends and family are ready to unwind with some roasted marshmallows. The pit itself is only a few feet across, so you'll be able to build a cozy fire for a handful of people, and the mesh screen that secures over it will keep the sparks away from you and your party. 

Buy it: Wayfair

3. Kabob Grilling Baskets; $17

Kebob grilling baskets on UncommonGoods.
UncommonGoods

No backyard adventure is complete without a tasty meal, and these kabob grilling baskets will help you spend less time on the grill and more time enjoying the beauty of nature. These baskets can be packed with all the ingredients you could ever want for kabobs, and without wooden skewers involved, you’ll avoid any unwanted splinters in your meal. With the ability to customize each basket, you’ll have the flexibility to create the perfect portable dinner for guests (or just for yourself).

Buy it: UncommonGoods

4. Beer Caddy; $25

A beer caddy on Amazon.
LEGACY/Amazon

Beer lovers won’t have to worry about foregoing a cold one while spending some time outside. This soft cotton canvas caddy can hold up to six bottles or cans, and it comes with a removable inner divider, so you have the flexibility of mixing and matching different-sized beverages. Its attached bottle opener—which is hooked to the caddy via a retractable cord— can be stowed in a side pocket for quick access, allowing you to open your drinks with ease.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Outdoor Jenga; $119

A large outdoor Jenga game
Jenga/Amazon

Mix up the usual ghost stories and campfire singalongs with this giant game of outdoor Jenga. Fifteen times larger than the size of a standard Jenga game, these extra-large Jenga blocks can stack up to over 5 feet high and are the perfect size for a deck or beach towel. This set comes with a portable bag for all the blocks so you can easily transport the game from one spot in the backyard to another.

Buy it: Amazon

6. and 7. Camping Chair; $30 and Loveseat Camping Chair; $73

A Colman outdoor chair on Amazon.
Coleman/Amazon

If you’re not a fan of sitting on wet grass or getting bugs on your clothes, this camping chair from Coleman will help you kick back in style. The chair has a cushioned seat and back for maximum outdoor comfort, and it also has a built-in four-can cooler pouch to keep cold beverages handy. It even comes with a nifty side pocket for books, magazines, and newspapers.

An outdoor loveseat that's available on Amazon.
Goplus/Amazon

For anyone who hates toting multiple chairs outside, check out this loveseat-style camping chair! Its ergonomic design seats two people with ease, and it’s supported by a rust-resistant steel frame and weather-resistant fabric for withstanding the elements (or just a shower from a nearby sprinkler). Even though it can hold up to 400 pounds of weight, the chair itself weighs only 11 pounds, making it an ideal choice for anyone who wants to avoid making extra trips to the garage for gear.

Buy itAmazon (camping chair); Amazon (loveseat)

8. Camping Hammock; $29-$40

A hammock that's available on Amazon.
Wise Owl Outfitters/Amazon

If you're one to go a bit horizontal toward the end of a party, take a look at this hammock from Wise Owl Outfitters. Made from heavy-duty parachute nylon, this hammock is incredibly durable and can be secured to trees with a simple set of straps. The hammock comes in two different sizes, a twin and a full, so you can choose the size that's right for you. And best of all? The largest one weighs only 26 ounces, making it easy to take comfort on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Magnetic Door House Tent; $172

A magnetic door house tent on Wayfair.
Wayfair

Mosquitos, flies, and other outdoor pests don’t stand a chance against this portable screened-in porch from Wayfair. This outdoor sanctuary is big enough to fit a picnic table (and all of your friends) inside, and it features two magnetic-close front and back doors. This tent even comes with a 10-year warranty, so you can rest easy knowing that it will provide you with backyard adventures—and zero bug bites—for years to come.

Buy it: Wayfair

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.