‘Live in Front of a Studio Audience’ Creator Opens Up About Confronting ‘Sadness’ of ‘Diff’rent Strokes’

by Taylor Cunningham

Live in Front of a Studio Audience is tackling two of the most iconic sitcoms in television history. And they both have a tragic past.

Tomorrow, Norman Lear is teaming up with his normal crew to bring Diff’rent Strokes and its spinoff All in the Family back for a one-night event.

In the show, Hollywood greats such as John Lithgow and Kevin Hart will act out a fan-favorite episode of each classic series. And as you may have guessed, they’ll perform the scripts live in front of a studio audience.

But as Lear admitted to TVLine this week, recreating Diff’frent Strokes brought upon an emotional burden. And the sitcom guru had to work hard to make sure he did proper justice to the show—and its history.

The 1980’s sitcom has already lost five of its lead actors, and another faced criminal charges after years of addiction.

Dana Plato (Kimberly Drummond) passed away at only 34 years old after an intentional drug overdose. Gary Coleman (Arnold Jackson) died when he was 42 after a fall caused a brain hemorrhage. Conrad Bain (Phillip Drummond) died of natural causes. And Charlotte Rae (Edna Garret) passed away after a long battle with cancer.

Another star, Todd Bridges (Willis Jackson), struggled with drug abuse for most of his life. And he was tried and acquitted of murder in 1988. So there is a lot of sorrow surrounding Diff’frent Strokes.

And while Lear was writing his special episode, he had a lot of conflicting feelings. However, in the end, he was happy to pay tribute to the series and actors.

“We went through what you would expect us to feel, a sadness,” Lear said. “But there is also some joy in seeing the work of [Coleman], who is not here any longer, honored by the talent of a really good actor playing his role.”

‘Live in Front of a Studio Audience’ Made a Couple Surprising Casting Choices for ‘Diff’rent Strokes

Brent Miller had an untraditional idea when he was casting his Live Diff’rent Strokes event.

Usually, when Miller puts together a live recreation of classic sitcoms, he keeps the actors’ ages true to the original series. Meaning, if someone was 10 while the show was in its prime, he would cast a 10-year-old for the new episode.

But for Diff’rent Strokes, he put adults in the place of the two iconic child actors, Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges.

“It started with Jimmy [Kimmel] and his desire to have Kevin Hart play Arnold Jackson, the Gary Coleman role,” Miller explained to TVLine. “He had mentioned it when we were doing our second special, that the third one has to be Kevin Hart. At the time, I didn’t know: Is he going to want to cast everybody old, or is he just going to have the joke be Kevin? “

“But as we started talking through it,” he added. “It made sense to be consistent with that conceit of having older people play kids.”