It may seem that the cast of Diff’rent Strokes is competing with the cast of The Golden Girls to see which beloved sitcom can have the last actor standing. (Of the four central characters from each, three are no longer with us; Rue McClanahan, The Golden Girls‘ Blanche and Gary Coleman, Diff’rent Strokes‘ Arnold, left 80s television fans mourning in the very same week in 2010.) They’re tied, as of this past week, when Conrad Bain, who played Philip Drummond, passed away at age 89.
Bain was known to the world well before Diff’rent Strokes, having co-starred on the long-running series Maude (along with Golden Girl Bea Arthur, which gives me an idea for a new game, Six Degrees of Golden), among numerous other screen and stage credits. But he is probably well-remembered to many who were children during the time he was playing the most generous millionaire dad on the small screen.
The pilot episode is set entirely during Arnold and Willis’ first day in the Drummond household. For the uninitiated — if you exist — Philip Drummond is a WASPy Park Avenue millionaire who has agreed to take in the two sons of his deceased housekeeper. Fourteen-year-old Willis (Todd Bridges) and 11-year-old Arnold (Coleman) are black and have lived their whole lives in Harlem. To them Manhattan may as well be Mars. Well, if Mars were the headquarters of Toys ‘R Us. Drummond also has a teen daughter, Kimberly (Dana Plato), who doesn’t do much in the pilot but pout and squeal.
Drummond delivers the exposition by explaining it all to the maid. The maid, Mrs. Garrett, has just been hired to replace the boys’ mother. The chemistry between the two actors is too good to make us believe these characters have only known each other for a day, but the device works.
When the boys arrive, there are a lot of fish-out-of-water gags, including one with an actual fish, and lots of chubby-cheeked young Arnold mugging and wise-cracking. Drummond wants the boys to love living with him, while Willis refuses to accept their new circumstances. Basically, that’s the whole plot. It’s just one conflict, one through-line, one note. In the end Arnold talks Willis out of leaving, not that they have anyplace to go, by playing the “it’s what Mom would want” card.
Drummond instantly treats the boys like part of the family, and his warmth is undeniable. Awkward as he may be, falling all over himself to impress the boys, he’s fully likable, almost faultless. Perhaps his having a lovely, well-adjusted daughter helps us accept him as a beneficent father figure. Viewed through the lens of today’s cynicism, it would be hard not to find his motives suspicious. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking up the pleasure of hot-tubbing. In fact, the plot is finally resolved by Willis deciding to take a soak. Yet, somehow Drummond pulls off seeming innocently happy with two shirtless boys splashing around in his palatial bathroom. It was critical for the writers to convey in the pilot that his motives were entirely altruistic. Incidentally, pedophilia did not go unaddressed on he show. Who can forget the bicycle shop plot?
It’s a pretty frothy pilot devoid of any too-deep emotion. Subsequent episodes would dole out a little more information about the boys’ parents and how they died, so we’re not left with a Brady Bunch situation where deceased parents are swept under the rug.
Here’s some more trivia about the show.
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