13 Things You Might Not Know About Diff'rent Strokes

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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.”  

16 Biting Facts About Fright Night

William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Charley Brewster is your typical teen: he’s got a doting mom, a girlfriend whom he loves, a wacky best friend … and an enigmatic vampire living next door.

For more than 30 years, Tom Holland’s critically acclaimed directorial debut has been a staple of Halloween movie marathons everywhere. To celebrate the season, we dug through the coffins of the horror classic in order to discover some things you might not have known about Fright Night.

1. Fright Night was based on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

Or, in this case, "The Boy Who Cried Vampire." “I started to kick around the idea about how hilarious it would be if a horror movie fan thought that a vampire was living next door to him,” Holland told TVStoreOnline of the film’s genesis. “I thought that would be an interesting take on the whole Boy Who Cried Wolf thing. It really tickled my funny bone. I thought it was a charming idea, but I really didn't have a story for it.”

2. Peter Vincent made Fright Night click.

It wasn’t until Holland conceived of the character of Peter Vincent, the late-night horror movie host played by Roddy McDowall, that he really found the story. While discussing the idea with a department head at Columbia Pictures, Holland realized what The Boy Who Cried Vampire would do: “Of course, he's gonna go to Vincent Price!” Which is when the screenplay clicked. “The minute I had Peter Vincent, I had the story,” Holland told Dread Central. “Charley Brewster was the engine, but Peter Vincent was the heart.”

3. Peter Vincent is named after two horror icons.

Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.

4. The Peter Vincent role was intended for Vincent Price.

Roddy McDowall in Fright Night (1985)
Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

“Now the truth is that when I first went out with it, I was thinking of Vincent Price, but Vincent Price was not physically well at the time,” Holland said.

5. Roddy McDowall did not want to play the part like Vincent Price.

Once he was cast, Roddy McDowall made the decision that Peter Vincent was nothing like Vincent Price—specifically: he was a terrible actor. “My part is that of an old ham actor,” McDowall told Monster Land magazine in 1985. “I mean a dreadful actor. He had a moderate success in an isolated film here and there, but all very bad product. Basically, he played one character for eight or 10 films, for which he probably got paid next to nothing. Unlike stars of horror films who are very good actors and played lots of different roles, such as Peter Lorre and Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, this poor sonofabitch just played the same character all the time, which was awful.”

6. It took Holland just three weeks to write the Fright Night script.

And he had a helluva good time doing it, too. “I couldn’t stop writing,” Holland said in 2008, during a Fright Night reunion at Fright Fest. “I wrote it in about three weeks. And I was laughing the entire time, literally on the floor, kicking my feet in the air in hysterics. Because there’s something so intrinsically humorous in the basic concept. So it was always, along with the thrills and chills, something there that tickled your funny bone. It wasn’t broad comedy, but it’s a grin all the way through.”

7. Tom Holland directed Fright Night out of "self-defense."

By the time Fright Night came around, Holland was already a Hollywood veteran—just not as a director. He had spent the past two decades as an actor and writer and he told the crowd at Fright Fest that “this was the first film where I had sufficient credibility in Hollywood to be able to direct ... I had a film after Psycho 2 and before Fright Night called Scream For Help, which … I thought was so badly directed that [directing Fright Night] was self-defense. In self-defense, I wanted to protect the material, and that’s why I started directing with Fright Night."

8. Chris Sarandon had a number of reasons for not wanting to make Fright Night.

Chris Sarandon stars in 'Fright Night' (1985)
Chris Sarandon stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

At the Fright Night reunion, Chris Sarandon recalled his initial reaction to being approached about playing vampire Jerry Dandrige. "I was living in New York and I got the script,” he explained. “My agent said that someone was interested in the possibility of my doing the movie, and I said to myself, ‘There’s no way I can do a horror movie. I can’t do a vampire movie. I can’t do a movie with a first-time director.’ Not a first-time screenwriter, but first-time director. And I sat down and read the script, and I remember very vividly sitting at my desk, looked over at my then wife and said, ‘This is amazing. I don’t know. I have to meet this guy.’ And so, I came out to L.A. And I met with Tom [Holland] and our producer. And we just hit it off, and that was it.”

9. Jerry Dandridge is part fruit bat.

After doing some research into the history of vampires and the legends surrounding them, Sarandon decided that Jerry had some fruit bat in him, which is why he’s often seen snacking on fruit in the film. When asked about the 2011 remake with Colin Farrell, Sarandon commented on how much he appreciated that that specific tradition continued. “In this one, it's an apple, but in the original, Jerry ate all kinds of fruit because it was just sort of something I discovered by searching it—that most bats are not blood-sucking, but they're fruit bats,” Sarandon told io9. “And I thought well maybe somewhere in Jerry's genealogy, there's fruit bat in him, so that's why I did it.”

10. William Ragsdale learned he had booked the part of Charley Brewster on Halloween.

William Ragsdale had only ever appeared in one film before Fright Night (in a bit part). He had recently been considered for the role of Rocky Dennis in Mask, which “didn’t work out,” Ragsdale recalled. “But a few months later, [casting director] Jackie Burch tells me, ‘There’s this movie I’m casting. You might be really right for it.’ So, I had this 1976 Toyota Celica and I drove that through the San Joaquin valley desert for four or five trips down for auditioning. And in the last one, Stephen [Geoffreys] was there, Amanda [Bearse] was there and that’s when it happened. I had read the script and at the time I had been doing Shakespeare and Greek drama, so I read this thing and thought, ‘Well, God, this looks like a lot of fun. There’s no … iambic pentameter, there’s no rhymes. You know? Where’s the catharsis? Where’s the tragedy?’ … I ended up getting a call on Halloween that they had decided to use me, and I was delighted.”

11. Not being Anthony Michael Hall worked in Stephen Geoffreys's favor.

In a weird way, it was by not being Anthony Michael Hall that Stephen Geoffreys was cast as Evil Ed. “I actually met Jackie Burch, the casting director, by mistake in New York months before this movie was cast and she remembered me,” Geoffreys shared at Fright Fest. “My agent sent me for an audition for Weird Science. And Anthony Michael Hall was with the same agent that I was with, and she sent me by mistake. And Jackie looked at me when I walked into the office and said, ‘You’re not Anthony Michael Hall!’ and I’m like ‘No!’ But anyway, I sat down and I talked to Jackie for a half hour and she remembered me from that interview and called my agent, and my agent sent me the script while I was with Amanda [Bearse] in Palm Springs doing Fraternity Vacation, and I read it. It was awesome. The writing was incredible.”

12. Evil Ed wanted to be Charley Brewster.

Stephen Geoffreys stars in 'Fright Night' (1985).
Stephen Geoffreys stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Geoffreys loved the script for Fright Night. “I just got this really awesome feeling about it,” he said. “I read it and thought I’ve got to do this. I called my agent and said ‘I would love to audition for the part of Charley Brewster!’ [And he said] ‘No, Steve, you’re wanted for the part of Evil Ed.’ And I went, ‘Are you kidding me? Why? I couldn’t… What do they see in me that they think I should be this?' Well anyway, it worked out. It was awesome and I had a great time.”

13. Fright Night's original ending was much different.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

14. A ghost from Ghostbusters made a cameo in Fright Night.

Visual effects producer Richard Edlund had recently finished up work on Ghostbusters when he and his team began work on Fright Night. And the movie gave them a great reason to recycle one of the library ghosts they had created for Ghostbusters—which was deemed too scary for Ivan Reitman's PG-rated classic—and use it as a vampire bat for Fright Night.

15. Fright Night's cast and crew took it upon themselves to record some DVD commentaries.

Because the earliest DVD versions of Fright Night contained no commentary tracks, in 2008 the cast and crew partnered with Icons of Fright to record a handful of downloadable “pirate” commentary tracks about the making of the film. The tracks ended up on a limited-edition 30th anniversary Blu-ray of the film, which sold out in hours.

16. Vincent Price loved Fright Night.


Columbia Pictures

Holland had the chance to meet Vincent Price one night at a dinner party at McDowall’s. And the actor was well aware that McDowall’s character was based on him. “I was a little bit embarrassed by it,” Holland admitted. “He said it was wonderful and he thought Roddy did a wonderful job. Thank God he didn’t ask why he wasn’t cast in it.”

13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $8.8 billion this year on spooky goods, including $3.2 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, founder of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

1. Some Halloween costumes are just too outrageous for retail

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … but there are some lines Halloween costume designers won’t cross.

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. Designers can produce a Halloween costume in a matter of days.

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. Beyonce can help move stale inventory.

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “[In 2016] we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. Women don’t usually wear masks as part of their Halloween costumes.

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage in 2016.

6. Food costumes are always a hit for Halloween.

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.”

7. Adding ”sexy” to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. People ask for some weird stuff when it comes to Halloween costumes.

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. Halloween costume designers have workarounds for big properties.

Go out to a Halloween party over the past few years and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. People love sharks.

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. Dead celebrities mean sales.

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.”

12. The Halloween costume business profits from people shopping at the last minute.

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. It’s not actually a seasonal business.

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.”

This piece was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

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