On this day in 1987, the classic sitcom, A Different World, debuted on NBC. A spin-off of The Cosby Show, the television program followed Denise Huxtable, played by Lisa Bonet, as she enters the fictional HBCU Hillman College, located in Virginia.
What was unique about A Different World was its portrayal of young African American men and women in a positive way, as well as highlighting the culture of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in this country. A Different World also addressed issues that were avoided by The Cosby Show writers, such as race and class relations, sexual assault, and the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS. This shift in content is heavily attributed to the arrival of Debbie Allen, who served as a producer for the show in its second season.
Alongside Bonet, the show also starred Jasmine Guy as Whitley Gilbert, Kadeem Hardison and Dwayne Wayne, Dawnn Lewis, Cree Summer, Darryl M. Bell, Charnele Brown, Glynn Turman, and Jada Pinkett-Smith, along with a long list of other actors, actresses, and special guest stars.. After Bonet’s departure in the first season, the remainder of the series primarily focused more on Gilbert and Wayne’s relationship as they navigated college life at Hillman College.
The show aired from 1987 to 1993, and received stellar reviews during its six seasons on NBC. A Different World also influenced an entire generation of Black students to attend HBCUs (and college in general), while providing a weekly dose of comedy and thought provoking content to a national audience.
In celebration of the 35th Anniversary of A Different World, let’s take a look at its cast – then and now.
The star in the first season of the Cosby Show spin-off sitcom, A Different World. The second-born child of Cliff and Clair Huxtable, Denise is known for her eccentric clothing and free-spirited, rebellious nature.
The Emmy Award-nominated actress took a step back from acting after her departure from A Different World. She returned back to Hollywood in 1998 with her appearance in Enemy of the State. In subsequent years, she had roles in High Fidelity, Biker Boyz, and Road to Paloma.
The Southern Belle of Hillman came from an affluent family who had dorms on campus named after them. She came to college spoiled, but eventually became more selfless as the series progressed. Her and Dwayne Wayne develop an on-and-off relationship throughout the show, which resulted in their marriage in season 5.
While on A Different World, Guy also had starred in the films School Daze and Harlem Nights. She also appeared in several stage plays, in addition to writing the biography of Afeni Shakur. Guy had recent roles in Grey’s Anatomy and the Amazon Prime show Harlem.
He is known for his trademark flip up eyeglasses/shades, this Brooklyn native appeared in all six seasons of A Different World. He eventually marries his longtime love interest Whitley Gilbert.
Hardison has maintained a steady acting career throughout the years. He has starred in films such as Vampire in Brooklyn, Panther, The 6th Man, and Life is not a Fairytale: The Fantasia Barrino Story. He has also established himself as a tenured actor in television. This year alone, he had roles in Grown-ish, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Moonhaven.
Ron appeared in every season of A Different World. The funny musician and ROTC student loved women, and was the best friend of Dwayne Wayne.
Darryl M. Bell
After A Different World, Bell earned a lead role as Morris Clay on the sci-fi comedy series Homeboys in Outer Space and appeared in Cosby in 1997. He is in a relationship with Tempestt Bledsoe, who played Vanessa on The Cosby Show.
The afrocentric roommate of Jaleesa, Freddie rose to prominence in the second season of A Different World and became a fan favorite until the show ended in 1993.
Aside from acting, Summer has one of the most notable voices in the entertainment industry. She has had voice-over roles in several animated films, TV shows, and video games, including Bratz, Rugrats, Batman Beyond, and Animaniacs. Summer also appeared in two episodes of OWN’s Queen Sugar in 2019.
The 25-year-old who enrolled at Hillman after a failed marriage, Taylor was a bold, mature woman who assisted her schoolmates and friends navigate the college experience.
Lewis – who almost co-wrote the theme to A Different World – left the show after season 5 to star in ABC’s Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper. She also had voice over performances in many Marvel video games, and appeared in Grey’s Anatomy earlier this year.
Kimberly’s debut came in the second season of the show. She played overachieving biology student and Whitley’s roommate and best friend.
Since A Different World, Brown appeared in a few small guest roles on Living Single, Martin, My Wife and Kids, and Girlfriends. She also owned her own acting school in Houston, TX.
Coach Walter Oakes
Walter coaches multiple sports teams at Hillman, and is also dorm director of Matthews Hall. He becomes involved in a serious relationship with Jaleesa during season 2.
David “Sinbad” Atkins
The stand-up comic known as Sinbad appeared in some classic 90s films such as Meteor Man, Houseguest, First Kid, Jingle All The Way, and Good Burger. He was also part of the main cast in the Fox sitcom, Rel.
Named after singer Lena Horne, James is a headstrong native of Baltimore, Maryland, She was roommates with Gina Deveaux and Charmaine Brown during the last season of A Different World, and was also a journalism major.
Pinkett-Smith went on to star in films such as Menace II Society, The Nutty Professor, Set It Off, and Scream 2, before appearing in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. She returned to television in 2009 with starring roles on Hawthorne and Gotham, and also had a standout performance in the instant classic Girls Trip. She is also the husband of Will Smith, and mother of Jaden and Willow Smith.
Colonel Bradford Taylor
Colonel Taylor, a career U.S. Army man friend of Vernon Gaines. He was also the Mathematics professor on campus, as well as Hillma’s ROTC instructor. He eventually dates and marries Jaleesa Vinson.
With an acting career spanning over 60 years, Turman has become influential to the next generation of Black entertainers. After A Different World, he appeared on The Wire, House of Lies, and Black-ish. Turman portrayed Doctor Senator in the fourth season of the FX series Fargo, also starred alongside Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2020.
Often referred to as Mr. Gaines, Vernon was the owner and manager of the Hillman College restaurant called The Pit. He was a veteran, and friends with Colonel Bradford Taylor.
Myers booked small roles in films in the years following A Different World, including Tin Cup, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and The Wedding Planner. Sadly, he passed away in 2013 at the age 76.