A Different World, which aired for six seasons on the NBC Network from September 24, 1987, to July 9, 1993, was a spin-off from the hugely popular The Cosby Show. The show, which took place at Hillman College, a fictional historically black college in Virginia, starred Lisa Bonet as “Denise Huxtable,” Jasmine Guy as “Whitney Gilbert,” Cree Summer Franks as “Winifred ‘Freddie’ Brooks,” and Kadeem Hardison as “Dwayne Wayne.” A Different World was credited with raising social and political issues rarely seen in television at the time. The show also opened doors for young black actors, writers, producers, and directors. A Different World had a major impact among African American youth who watched it, causing many to attend a historically black college or university (HBCU).
During the show’s first season, the series focused on Denise Huxtable’s college experiences at Hillman including her relationships with her roommates Jaleesa Vinson (Dawnn Lewis), a young divorcée, and Maggie Lauten (Marisa Tomei), one of the few white students at Hillman. Other characters introduced that season included Whitley Gilbert, a rich, southern belle from Richmond, Virginia; Dwayne Wayne, from Brooklyn, New York; Ron Johnson (Darryl Bell), who was Dwayne’s best friend from Detroit, Michigan; and Walter Oakes (Sinbad), who was the dormitory director and gym teacher.
After the first season ended in 1988, some critics noted that it did not accurately portray life on a historically black college campus. They noted, for example, that none of the students were ever seen in classes or studying for classes. Actress and director Debbie Allen, herself a graduate of Howard University, was hired to change the show. During the second season, new characters were introduced including Winifred “Freddie” Brooks (Cree Summer), as a freshman student from New Mexico; Kimberly Reese (Charnele Brown) as a freshmen student from Columbus, Ohio; Colonel Bradford Taylor, the ROTC Professor (Glynn Turman); and Vernon Gaines (Lou Meyers) as a cook who was the owner of the campus restaurant called the Pit. Lisa Bonet and Marisa Tomei left the show.
During the rest of the series run, the show addressed controversial issues including unplanned pregnancy, date rape, racial discrimination, AIDS, and the 1992 Rodney King riots. Many people praised the series for showing the importance of higher education for African American youth. The show had numerous guest stars including Tupac Shakur, Lena Horne, Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry, and Raven-Symoné, among others.
A Different World won many awards including the People Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy, the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actors in a Comedy Series (Kareem Hardison and Jasmine Guy), and the Producer’s Guild Award for the Most Promising Producer in Television. The series was canceled in 1993 due to low ratings. In 2006, an A Different World reunion episode briefly brought back the original co-stars of the show, Lisa Bonet, Dawnn Lewis, Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, Darryl M. Bell, Cree Summer, and Sinbad.