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‘A Different World’ Icon Kadeem Hardison Takes Us Back to Hillman with Behind-the-Scenes Memories & More

This piece is part of a franchise called 'Issa Throwback,' where we celebrate the golden age of Black TV. From the best ‘90s sitcoms to Disney Channel classics, it’s time to tune back into the shows that shaped our identities.

On July 9, 1993, Dwayne Cleofis Wayne (or shall we say Chipmunk?) bid an emotional farewell to his partner in crime, Ron Johnson, on the series finale of A Different World. After six years of Hillman adventures, from rush week to spring break vacations, it was time for the unstoppable duo’s next chapter, marking the end of a pioneering Black sitcom that was way ahead of its time.

See, A Different World didn’t just deliver laughs. It shed light on the Black college experience, which directly inspired a wave of Black students to pursue higher education. In 2010, Dr. Walter Kimbrough, Interim Executive Director at the Black Men's Research Institute at Morehouse College, revealed in The New York Times that from 1984 (the debut of The Cosby Show) to 1993 (when A Different World ended), “historically Black colleges and universities grew by 24.3 percent—44 percent better than all of higher education.") In addition to its higher ed impact, the series explored real issues that typically weren’t addressed on TV in the '90s, like apartheid, the AIDS epidemic, censorship and police brutality.

But aside from its thoughtful approach to student life, the series introduced a phenomenal group of multi-layered characters. Among my personal favorites? Dwayne Wayne—the math-whiz-turned-engineer who made being intelligent cool. 

To celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the show’s finale, PureWow sat down with actor Kadeem Hardison, who brought Dwayne to life throughout the show’s six-season run. What was meant to be a 20-minute interview, turned into a nearly-hour discussion about the show’s legacy, Dwayne’s evolution and how he’d fare in today’s climate.

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PureWow: Can you believe it's been nearly 30 years since the finale of A Different World? Where do you think the characters would be now if the show didn’t end? Where would Dwayne and Whitley be? 

Kadeem Hardison: I think Dwayne and Whitley would still be together—Jasmine and I have talked about this, and her feelings are great. She loves the idea of a midlife crisis for Whitley because she's known this one guy, she's been with this one guy through all of this, and right about now, the child is about to go off to school. And maybe there's some, you know, ‘What happened to me? I spent all this time doing this, this, and this. I was with him and then we had a baby before I could really get into my [career].’ You know, she was curating art for a minute. And that might drive her a little stir-crazy.

That is absolutely perfect because she was such an all-over-the-place kind of character, and now would be the time for her to really do some searching and find out you know, what is it that she missed? What is it that she wants? What's going to fill her life now? 

PureWow: That sounds accurate. And we imagine that Dwayne would be thriving at Konishiwa.

Hardison: Dwayne would still be trying to teach the kids, trying to impart knowledge. And I think Konishiwa was probably lucrative, and he might have made a good amount of money—maybe a boatload of money—and came back to doing what he really loved, which was teaching students. I think his success in business with Konishiwa would be the beginning of really intense video games or learning programs or AI, or whatever he was brought there to do. And then what he learned from it, he would bring that back to Hillman and teach the kids all he learned about business about being an executive.

And I always thought Dwayne would probably be rubbing Whitley's feet with one hand and grading papers with his other hand, you know what I mean? Or on the computer, figuring something out. That would be his perfect night.

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PureWow: As you’re speaking, we can already envision this as a spin-off series. There’s Dwayne and there’s Whitley, but then the show would focus on the next generation of Hillman students—including their child. Are there still talks of a potential reboot? 

Hardison: Oh, we've been trying to get this going for at least 10 years, but the owners of the show don't have the same interest. I guess they're not fired up about it enough to say, ‘Okay, you think you can do it? Let's see what you can put together.’ Because we know there’s a bunch of people out there that want it, that would love to be a part of bringing that back. But since we don't own it, we can’t just do it. It's really not up to the cast at all. We've all kind of, in our own way, said, ‘Sure, I'd be down.’ But, ‘I'd be down’ doesn't really get it done.

PureWow: Going back to Dwayne’s character, we’ve seen him evolve from the quirky kid with a perfect math SAT score to the brilliant, well-rounded engineer and professor. Were you involved in the development of his story arc?

Hardison: Absolutely, but not as much as you may think. The first season was kind of in its own capsule. And then from the second season on, the show started to take shape with me. When Debbie Allen got there, one of the things she had us do was write a Bible on our characters. Nobody remembers it, and she might have them in a vault somewhere. But we all wrote some pages, saying ‘This is what I think’ and ‘This is where I’d like to be’ and ‘This is where I want to go.’ We wrote all this down, and then she would take it to the writers, and they would keep it just to kind of be like, ‘Hmm, this is what he thinks…’ Some stuff got pulled in, and some stuff got thrown out. 

PureWow: Were there opportunities to change certain things about Dwayne?

Hardison: There were a whole bunch of times when I read something that didn't feel true. So I would rebel a little bit and be like ‘Hold on. Wait a minute.’ So there was lots of collaboration. The writers were all fantastic and accommodating in that sense. I noticed that Jasmine had a really good ear, a sense of what worked and what didn't work for Whitley and how to fix it. Me, I'd have to get down on stage and walk it out a little bit and then go, ‘Okay, yeah, this doesn't work.’ And then I’ll improv something that would work or give them somewhere to go. You know, I’d show them something like, this is what I think would be more in line, and then they’d take that and remix it and put it back in, and it would keep us all happy.

PureWow: What about his style? Was it your idea to include the trademark flip-up glasses?

Hardison: I had no say in the glasses. It was two days before I shot my first scenes, and our executive producer at the time came to me with these glasses, and she had seen them at a Bowie concert or something like that. I think his drummer or his guitarist had them on, and she said ‘Would you be interested in wearing these?’ I was so eager to hide myself because I thought, ‘I don’t know if this is gonna work. This first season, the way it’s going? Yes, please. Anything that I can hide behind. The glasses, a hat, a hood, anything.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want anybody to recognize me.’ This was not what I thought it was going to be.’ So, yeah, it was her that gave me the glasses. 

PureWow: Was it your decision to ditch the glasses in season three? 

Hardison: It was [Bill] Cosby who said, ‘Time to lose the glasses, it’s time to grow him up.’ So, next thing you know, they were like, ‘Okay, we’re losing them,’ and they just gave me regular glasses. I was happy about it. I thought it was a good change. But I kind of missed being funny, because once the glasses were gone, Ron became more of the jokester and Dwayne became a little more serious. But it was dope for both of us. 

PureWow: Agreed, it was great to see Dwayne’s growth. But he was still funny and so authentic. Was this because you shared similarities with Dwayne?

Hardison: I would always say, ‘Well, we look alike, and we have the same voice…and that's about it.’ But I think there's more to it than that. I don't know how to explain it other than because the words weren't mine. I mean, every now and then I did improv something that would stay in. That was coming to me playing the character long enough, knowing what he would say, but using my personality because I think this would be funny.

There's a lot of me in there and then yet, there's none of me because those words were all written. I learned them and I performed them. But then I infused my energy. So it was a good balance, but when I watch it, sometimes, I don't recognize me, because it's like… ‘Yeah, no, I wouldn't have went that way.’

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PureWow: We’re curious to hear more. 

Hardison: Okay, case in point—you’re taking me down memory lane. The little vacation we went on with the drug dealers [in season 3’s “Getaway”]. I was like, ‘Why am I wearing a dress? This is not gonna fly. Who's gonna think I’m a girl? Then there’s guys flirting with me, calling me cute and I’m like, ‘I’m not a girl, I’m not buying this at all.’ So, right there. That was me having to make do with what I had. And as an actor, the only thing you can do is commit.

PureWow: That’s fair. On the flip side, did you have any moments where you felt like Dwayne was right in line with your true personality?

Hardison: There's a scene [from season 4’s “Ex-Communication”], where I'm recycling cans. I'm stepping on the cans to recycle them, and Ron comes in and jokes about Whitney going out with Julian and how I’m getting played. And Kadeem was not in the mood for that, because he knew how I felt about it. I made myself vocal about how I felt about it. I had to go through it anyway. So me getting angry with him, telling him ‘Don't start, yo’, was very me. And then I stomped on the cans, and then I got so mad at the end that I went to the door and yelled. I think the line was, ‘I don't need this, and I don't need her.’ I yelled because her apartment was across the way, and I wanted her to hear. Then I applauded myself and exited. I liked the fact that I got that kind of aggression and anger out. The words were written in the script, but just how I did it, I was like, ‘Nah, that felt real.’ 

PureWow: Absolutely, we got chills just watching it.

Hardison: Yeah, it might have been some relationship drama with me and my real life at the time, so maybe that was some stuff that came out, like, fighting through it and living it, then using it.

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PureWow: Which other episodes stood out for you and why?  

Hardison: The date rape episode, when Freddie went out with Garth, and he was not on the up and up. It's probably my favorite scene with Sinbad because we had a lot of great scenes together and a lot of time together. The episode is called “No Means No,” and there's a scene where I'm trying to piece together what I've heard and what I think. I try to, without snitching, get information and pick his brain on how that sounds. And there's a scene where I've never seen two guys—two Black guys—sit down and talk about when a girl says no, what do you do? When you know there's a whole bunch of her saying yes, but what are the next steps and how do you handle it? So that one is special to me.

PureWow: That was a pretty intense episode, but it ended on such a beautiful note.

Hardison: Yeah, and then her saying “Thank you for being my friend” and the end always kills me. I think [Cree Summer and I] were dating at the time, and I knew she was great at comedy and physical and voices and sounds, but when she got serious and dropped that, I was stunned at how quickly she called that up. 

PureWow: Out of curiosity, how do you think the younger Dwayne and Whitley would fare in today’s world? 

Hardison: It would definitely be a tougher road. A darker road. But, as much as I’d love to see a reboot, I wonder if the climate is ripe for a four-camera sitcom. That was a thing that worked really well in that time because we came from Cosby, but things now seem to be single-camera and with more of an edge in tone. So, I wonder if a traditional sitcom work now. You gotta get the audience you know, because we did in front of a live audience. So I would assume that you would want that for the energy. It's really interesting to think about the topics and the navigation of today. I mean, all I can think is, ‘Man, imagine Dwayne and Whitley in Euphoria...’

PureWow: Oh, that would be so fascinating. Given that it’s a different time and that comedy has evolved, we imagine their storylines would be very different. 

Hardison: Yeah, we had some stuff back in the ’90s, but it seems like the stakes are really high now, and it’s dangerous. I couldn't imagine, with the kind of pill addiction that's going on and the music, which kind of promotes the addiction and getting into that...It would be a lot for [the characters]. It would be a great challenge, though. As long as it evolves with the times. Because A Different World was lightning in a bottle back then. I don't think we were out to catch lightning in the bottle. That was Mr. Cosby, who was like, ‘We're gonna do a spin-off about an HBCU.’ It started out rocky, and then Debbie came and all of a sudden, it struck lightning. Then, over the years, we managed to own it and catch it. So, not to say that we couldn't do it again, but maybe not the easier path. The evolutionary path would work best. •

nakeisha campbell bio

Associate Editor, News and Entertainment

Nakeisha has been interviewing celebrities and covering all things entertainment for over 8 years, but she has also written on a wide range of topics, like career...