Carsey-Werner Productions
Carsey-Werner Productions

14 Facts About A Different World

Carsey-Werner Productions
Carsey-Werner Productions

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.


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.


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.


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. 


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. 


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. 


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.”


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. 


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.” 


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.” 


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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”).

Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]

When The Day After Terrorized 100 Million Viewers With a Vision of Nuclear War

Before Nicholas Meyer's made-for-television film The Day After had its official airing on November 20, 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan and his Joint Chiefs of Staff were given screening copies. In his diary, Reagan recorded his reaction to seeing Meyer's graphic depiction of a nuclear holocaust that devastates a small Kansas town, writing:

"It's very effective and left me greatly depressed. So far they [ABC] haven't sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled and I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the 'anti-nukes' or not, I can't say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war."

Just a few days later, the rest of America would see what had shaken their president. Preempting Hardcastle and McCormick on ABC, the 8 p.m. telefilm drew a staggering 100 million viewers, an audience that at the time was second only in non-sports programming to the series finale of M*A*S*H. According to Nielsen, 62 percent of all televisions in use that night were tuned in.

What they watched didn't really qualify as entertainment; Meyer stated he had no desire to make a "good" movie with stirring performances or rousing music, but a deeply affecting public service announcement on the horrors of a nuclear fallout. He succeeded … perhaps a little too well.


The idea for The Day After came from ABC executive Brandon Stoddard, who had helped popularize the miniseries format with Roots. After seeing The China Syndrome, a film about a nuclear accident starring Jane Fonda, Stoddard began pursuing an "event" series about what would happen to a small town in middle America if tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated to catastrophic levels. Films like Dr. Strangelove had depicted moments between politicians debating whether to use powerful weapons of mass destruction, but few had examined what the consequences would be for the everyday population.


Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union "the evil empire" in 1982, so the time seemed right to bring such a project to TV viewers. Stoddard hired Barnaby Jones writer Edward Hume to craft a script: Hume drew from research conducted into the effects of nuclear war and radiation fallout, including a 1978 government report, The Effects of Nuclear War, that contained a fictionalized examination of how a strike would play out in a densely populated area. Stoddard also enlisted Meyer, who had proven his directorial chops with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but considered the assignment a "civic responsibility" more than a creative endeavor.

Meyer and the film's producers selected Lawrence, Kansas (pop. 50,000) as the setting for the movie and got permission from city officials to turn their town into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Throughout the summer of 1982, tons of ash, dirt, and rubble were trucked in and spread over the ground; food coloring blackened farming crops. Thousands of locals were enlisted to portray victims of a nuclear attack, agreeing to roll in dirt and have their hair shaved off to simulate a miserable death via radiation poisoning.

Meyer believed that setting the film in a small town would make it more impactful and relatable to audiences. "Other movies that had attempted to deal with the subject of nuclear holocaust had always been set in big cities," he recalled in 2003. "But a great number of people in the United States do not live in big cities, so they were witnessing an event that seemed to bear scant relation to them."

That pursuit of realism wasn't always to the network's benefit. ABC originally planned a four-hour film to run on two consecutive nights, but filling up that much commercial time proved to be a challenge. Fearing a graphic and partisan display of anti-nuclear propaganda, many loyal advertisers refused to let their spots air during The Day After. (Meyer later joked that all the "generals" pulled out, including General Mills and General Foods.) They were ultimately able to sell a little over 10 minutes of commercial time, which prompted executives to condense the movie to a two-hour presentation. Meyer, who thought the script was padded to begin with, agreed with the decision.

ABC sensed that the film would be provocative and took unprecedented steps to handle the inevitable viewer response. A 1-800 number was set up to field calls from people concerned about an actual nuclear disaster; the network also issued pamphlets that acted as viewing guides, with fact sheets on nuclear weapons. Psychologists warned audiences would experience "feelings of depression and helplessness." Meyer was, in effect, making a disaster movie with the characters being offered no help of rescue. The film had been openly endorsed by anti-nuclear organizations as being a $7 million advertisement for their stance, and some TV industry observers wondered whether ABC would even air it at all.


Prior to The Day After's November 20 debut, actor John Cullum appeared onscreen and delivered a warning. Calling the film "unusually disturbing," he advised young children to be led away from the television and for parents to be prepared to field questions older kids might have.

A still from 'The Day After' (1983)

With that, The Day After commenced. It was every bit as terrifying as viewers had been told it would be. For the first 50 minutes or so, actors like Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and Steve Guttenberg established their characters in Lawrence, largely oblivious to an incident on the border of East Germany that triggered an armed response from both Russia and the U.S. As missiles fell, a mushroom cloud vaporized the community; those who survived were doomed to brief and miserable lives as radiation destroyed their bodies.

Dramatizing what had previously been a sterile discussion about nuclear defenses had its intended effect. Viewers shuffled away from their televisions in a daze, struck by the bleak consequences of an attack. The people of Lawrence, who had a private screening, were particularly affected—it was their town that appeared destroyed. Residents exited the theater crying.

What ABC lacked in ad revenue it more than made up for in ratings. The mammoth audience was comparable to Super Bowl viewership; the network even presented a post-"game" show of sorts, with Ted Koppel hosting a roundtable discussion of the nuclear threat featuring Carl Sagan and William F. Buckley. Sagan is believed to have coined the term "nuclear winter" on the program, while Secretary of State George Shultz argued the necessity of harboring nuclear weapons to make sure the nation could protect itself.

The experience stuck with Reagan, who signed a nuclear arms treaty—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty—with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, leading to longstanding speculation that The Day After may have helped sober political attitudes toward mutually assured destruction.


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