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Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life Go Live: Norman Lear and Brent Miller Talk Unusual Casting Picks, Surprises

LIVE IN FRONT OF A STUDIO AUDIENCE

This Tuesday at 8/7c, ABC will revisit two more classic sitcoms, Diff’rent Strokes and its offshoot The Facts of Life, by way of its Live in Front of a Studio Audience franchise.

But whereas these live specials in the past stayed age-accurate in the casting of characters from All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Good Times, this time around Jimmy Kimmel, sitcom titan Norman Lear, Brent Miller and the other exec producers opted to have some fun refilling iconic roles with, let’s say, Actors of a Diff’rent Age.

For example, while the live Diff’rent Strokes cast includes John Lithgow (3rd Rock From the Sun) as Mr. Drummond and Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale) as Mrs. Garrett, 42-year-old Kevin Hart (True Story) will play Arnold and 61-year-old Damon Wayans (My Wife and Kids) will portray big brother Willis.

Similarly, the live staging of The Facts of Life — which follows teen girls at a prep school — stars Jennifer Aniston (Friends) as Blair, Kathryn Hahn (WandaVision) as Jo, Allison Tolman (Fargo) as Natalie and Gabrielle Union (L.A.’s Finest) as Tootie, alongside Dowd’s Mrs. Garrett.

The choice to cast adults as kids, while an obvious play for word of mouth/publicity, was met by potential viewers with some confusion and in extreme cases rather righteous indignation, but it was set in motion more than two years ago.

LIVE IN FRONT OF A STUDIO AUDIENCE“It started with Jimmy [Kimmel] and his desire to have Kevin Hart play Arnold Jackson, the Gary Coleman role,” Miller, who is Lear’s creative partner, tells 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, it made sense to be consistent with that conceit of having older people play kids.”

Miller admits that “when we were talking about casting Facts of Life the same age as the women who are still with us” — meaning, OG cast members Lisa Whelchel, Nancy McKeon, Mindy Cohn and Kim Fields — “I was a little confused. But I have to say, Norman and I went to the table read on Wednesday and Thursday, and [Jimmy’s] instinct was spot on.”

Lear concurs, saying “I enjoyed [the table reads] as if I had never spent a day in show business.”

Notably missing from the announcement for this third Live in Front of a Studio Audience special was any casting for Diff’rent Strokes‘ Kimberly, but don’t take that to mean they’re recreating one of the few episodes from which the late Dana Plato’s character was absent or light. “Maybe she’s been cast…,” Miller hints. “We do have surprise guests, and we intentionally want to keep it that, way, to keep it fun and exciting, to make sure people stay tuned for both episodes.”

How many such surprise guests can viewers expect across the two episodes? Lear quipped, “About 44!,” while Miller himself narrowed it down to “over a handful. With the personalities involved, maybe two handfuls.” (FWIW: Jennifer Aniston, in an ABC featurette, said that The Facts of Life will feature “three unexpected visitors,” presumably in addition to Jon Stewart’s “mystery” role.)

As usual, the specific episodes being revisited is also intended as a surprise, though Miller confirms for TVLine that Diff’rent Strokes is not tackling what we will call “the Gordon Jump episode.” (As the EP explained, “After the pandemic and our two-year break, we really wanted to lighten things up.”)

That said, taking on Diff’frent Strokes in any way carries a special weight, given the fact that both Plato (at 34, from an intentional prescription drug overdose) and Coleman (at 42, after suffering a fall) died at young ages; Todd Bridges (who played Willis) went through years of drug abuse and was tried and acquitted of murder in 1988; and both Conrad Bain and Charlotte Rae passed away during the past decade.

“We went through what you would expect us to feel, a sadness,” Lear affirms. “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.”

What’s next for Live in Front of a Studio Audience, which typically delivers a nice ratings bump for ABC? Lear is “absolutely” open to doing One Day at a Time, even though that sitcom of his was recently (if too briefly) rebooted for Netflix/Pop TV. Similarly, the sitcom king says, at our suggestion, that he would be “proud” to serve up a Happy Days/Laverne & Shirley double bill.

“I loved those shows and thought the world of [their creator] Garry Marshall,” Lear says. “We were very good friends.”

As for what remains on Lear’s overall “to-do” list, the 99-year-old legend told TVLine, “Well, I’ll start with finishing this interview!”