A Different World was more than just a Cosby Show spinoff — when Debbie Allen took over the show’s second season, the series went from retreading silly sitcom situations to tackling real-life issues that we were dealing with in the late ‘80s. In the 30 years since the series premiered on NBC on September 24, 1987, the cast members have gone on to huge entertainment careers for themselves — here’s what some of them have been up to…
(Denise Huxtable, Season 1)
At 19, Lisa Bonet played the lead in The Cosby Show’s spinoff, then played opposite Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. Bill Cosby was very vocal about the movie — Bonet was in a few pretty shocking nude scenes and the satanic overtones didn’t go over well with America in 1987 so her budding career never really took off like it should have. She’s had a few cool cameos (High Fidelity, Drunk History), but for the most part, she’s laying low, picking up recurring guest roles (Ray Donovan) and enjoying just getting married to Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Aquaman).
(Whitley Gilbert, Seasons 1 – 6)
When Lisa Bonet left the series after the first season, the show’s producers scrambled the cast and promoted Jasmine Guy’s stuffy Whitley Gilbert from occasional supporting cast member to first on the call sheet. At 26, Guy was the lead of her own primetime top 10 show. While she never made a big splash in film, she did rack up a lot of television work, and she currently spends most of her time working for the True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta as the company’s producing director.
(Jaleesa Vinson-Taylor, Seasons 1 – 5)
Dawn Lewis is probably the busiest of this bunch in terms of work. If Lewis isn’t doing voice over (The Simpsons, Rick and Morty, Inside Out), she’s can be seen in small roles on established shows like Better Call Saul and Day of Our Lives. Of course, it all started when she was 26 when she got her first substantial TV role in A Different World after she was still hot from the success of I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in 1988.
Darryl M. Bell
(Ronald “Ron” Marlon Johnson, Seasons 1 – 6)
It’s no accident that Darryl Bell’s Ron Johnson got promoted from a season one recurring comic relief to a season two regular. Bell was getting a lot of attention from co-starring in Spike Lee’s School Daze and his angsty nerd played off well against Kedeem Hardison’s Dwayne Wayne. Unfortunately, Bell wasn’t able to turn his comedic gold into bigger roles. While he got steady work in the ‘90s (where he peaked at co-starring in Homeboys in Outer Space), the roles really dried up in the ‘00s. Now, you might catch him in an occasional straight-to-video movie, but today, he’s most known for being in a quirky domestic partnership with Tempestt Bledsoe for over 20 years.
(Dwayne Wayne, Seasons 1 – 6)
While he was never leading man material, Kadeem Hardison has become a strong supporting cast member in just about everything he’s touched since A Different World ended in 1993. Movies like White Men Can’t Jump, Vampire in Brooklyn, and The Sixth Man made him bankable comic relief. Now, Hardison is still best friends with Darryl M. Bell, and you can still see him in dozens of one-off roles in television and film.
(Coach Walter Oakes, Seasons 1 – 4)
Oakes had to be the busiest man at Hillman — he coached the football team, the basketball team, the baseball team, and the track teams, and he was the co-director of the Gilbert Hall dorm. Sinbad (a.k.a. David Adkins) served up comic relief with Oakes’ loud personality and louder outfits. After Sinbad left the show after season four in 1991, he got his own family-friendly comedy, The Sinbad Show. He starred in ’90s comedies Good Burger, First Kid, and Jingle All the Way, and did had small parts on Cosby and Resurrection Blvd. Besides making tons of cameos on TV, Sinbad has taped a lot of standup specials HBO and the like. He also still tours comedy clubs across the United States and often performs overseas for the USO.
(Winifred “Freddie” Brooks, Seasons 2 – 6)
Cree Summer played Freddie, Jaleesa’s roommate and the love interest of pretty much every guy who attended Hillman. You might not have seen Summer in anything since A Different World, but you’ve probably heard her. She’s had a busy voice career, voicing characters on cartoons like Sonic the Hedgehog, Batman Beyond, Rugrats, Danny Phantom, and most recently, Voltron. Summer has also enjoyed some success as a musician; she opened for the tour of her friend Lenny Kravitz, who also produced her first solo album. Now, Cree spends almost all of her time doing voice over for dozens of animated shows. (Check out her IMDb page – she’ll the VO queen!)
(Lena James, Seasons 5 – 6)
Although Jada Pinkett wasn’t a rookie when she took on the role of Hillman freshman Lena James in the show’s final two seasons, she already had substantial time in front of the camera, specifically with her role in Menace II Society. Admittedly, her time on A Different World didn’t highlight her abilities, but by the late ‘90s, she picked up substantial roles in The Nutty Professor, the Scream series, and The Matrix franchise. Now, Jada picks up cameo roles in guilty favorites like Magic Mike XXL, Bad Moms, Girls Trip, and currently, a regular gig in the critically-acclaimed Gotham. Oh yeah, she also got married to Will Smith – that’s probably a job in itself.
(Maggie Lauten, Season 1)
At 23, Marisa Tomei scored the lead in A Different World – the Cosby Show spinoff was originally going to be about a young white girl’s experiences while attending a historically black college – Hillman. Meg Ryan, a relative unknown, was set to play Maggie Lauten, but dropped out to focus on a film career, so Tomei stepped in. Before initial filming, the show’s premise changed again and A Different World became about Bonet’s Denise adjusting to college, and Tomei’s role lessened drastically. After one season, Tomei broke out big in film with an Academy Award-winning role in My Cousin Vinny, a co-lead in Chaplin, and maybe her best role to date, Pam in The Wrestler. She still stars in substantial film roles, but you can also find her in short-arc roles like Mimi Whiteman in Empire.