Here’s a reposted book review from March 6, 2018. It appears here as/is, as I consider what the subject of today’s fresh content will be. Lately, I’ve been watching tons of 80s era sitcoms. I find them oddly comforting.
Today’s title probably only means something if you were around in the late 70s and early to mid 80s and watched TV. That period of time happened to be during the prime years of my childhood, when we had no Internet and TV was the thing rotting everyone’s minds. I was a big fan of the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, which was an enormously popular and successful show during that time period. It’s been really sad for me, and for a lot of my peers, to watch the cast of that beloved show die off, one by one.
As of 2018, Conrad Bain, Dana Plato, and Gary Coleman are all dead. So are Mary Ann Mobley, Nedra Volz, and Dixie Carter. But we still have Todd Bridges, Janet Jackson, Mary Jo Catlett, Danny Cooksey, and Shavar Ross, who played Arnold Jackson’s (Gary Coleman’s character) best friend, Dudley Johnson. To this day, the only other Dudley I know of is Dudley Moore. I don’t think “Dudley” is a very popular name these days. According to Shavar Ross, his character “Dudley” was named after someone on the Diff’rent Strokes production crew. I learned that little tidbit and a handful more when I read Ross’s book, On The Set of Diff’rent Strokes.
Ross published his book in 2007, when Gary Coleman and Conrad Bain were still alive. Nevertheless, the cast of Diff’rent Strokes did seem to have a bit of a curse. Dana Plato died of a drug overdose in 1999, having previously fallen into an abyss of drug addiction, porn, and crime. Nedra Volz, who played housekeeper Adelaide, had died years earlier of old age. Todd Bridges is still living, but he had some serious problems with drugs and was even tried for the attempted murder of Kenneth “Tex” Clay, a Los Angeles area drug dealer. And Gary Coleman just plain seemed pissed off at the world.
At the beginning of Ross’s book, he explains that the book isn’t about all of the scandals that plagued the cast of Diff’rent Strokes. Instead, he focuses on his experience getting cast in the role of Dudley. He also explains that he likes to write the way he speaks, so the book won’t be as grammatically correct as it could be. That made me twitch a little, but it’s fair enough, I guess. I only spent about $3 on the book, anyway.
I managed to read Ross’s book in a couple of hours. The only reason it took longer than an hour or so, is because I had to take a brief nap while I was reading. This book is only 36 pages and contains no pictures. It starts off with a brief history of Ross’s family of origin. He was born in the Bronx and his parents separated when he was six years old. His dad was an actor who decided to move to Los Angeles. His mom took Ross and his half sister to Macon, Georgia so they could be close to family while his mother went to college.
Ross went on a vacation to California to see his father at Christmas time. During that visit, he was discovered by a top children’s talent agent named Evelyn Shultz. Shultz noticed him when he was watching a play starring Kim Fields, who later became famous in her role as “Tootie” on The Facts of Life, which was a highly successful spinoff of Diff’rent Strokes. Ross writes that he was a fan of Diff’rent Strokes and had watched it in Georgia on a black and white portable TV. When the opportunity came up for him to audition for a part playing Arnold’s best friend, Dudley, he jumped at it, beating out about 250 kids.
Ross’s first appearance on Diff’rent Strokes was on a 1980 episode called “Teacher’s Pet”. His father was one of the extras on that episode, which was about Arnold’s dad, Phillip Drummond, asking out Arnold’s teacher after meeting her at a parent/teacher conference. The teacher began to dote on Arnold, causing his friends to tease him. The chemistry was good enough on that episode that Ross was asked to be a recurring character.
Basically, that’s about it for Ross’s story, which I think is a real shame. I appreciate that he didn’t want to share any dirt on the series. I imagine it would have been tempting to do that, since the show was so popular. He does offer a few superficial insights about Gary Coleman and the rest of the cast, but a lot of what he wrote was stuff I already knew. Like, for instance, Coleman loved trains. If you watched the show, you’d know that. He basically says Dana Plato was “nice” and Todd Bridges was “cool”. Janet Jackson was very “sweet and shy”. I think he could have gone into more detail without stooping to spreading gossip.
Also, while I think the book is basically well-written, especially for someone who flat out writes that he isn’t concerned with proper grammar, there are a lot of typos and some misspellings. I understand that editing is a chore, but it really wouldn’t have taken much to polish this book a bit more and give it a more professional air.
Finally, I can’t believe Ross didn’t write more about the episodes themselves. Anyone who watched Diff’rent Strokes knows that Ross was featured in a very special two part episode called “The Bicycle Man”. That episode, in which the late LDS character actor Gordon Jump starred, was about child molestation. The show handled the subject in a rather G-rated fashion, but it was still pretty shocking material at the time. It would have been interesting if Ross had dished a bit about that episode. But maybe it was too traumatic for him.
I do know that Ross eventually became a pastor, so maybe some subjects are taboo. He’s also been married for a long time and has two kids. It would have been nice if he’d written more about his family and his life beyond his acting career. That would have been interesting reading and he wouldn’t have been guilty of spreading dirt. He could have written more about how he broke into acting. The way the book reads now, it sounds like he went on vacation, lucked into meeting an agent, and *poof*, he was an actor. I think he could have offered more details and a more accurate accounting of his time. What did his family think of his success? Did his mom stay in Georgia with his sister? Did Shavar Ross live with his dad? He addresses none of this in his very brief book.
Although I appreciate that Shavar Ross took the time to write his story, I think On The Set of Diff’rent Strokes could have been a whole lot better. I don’t think it’s terrible as much as it is incomplete. It’s just a very short book and doesn’t reveal much at all. I think if a person is going to go to the trouble of publishing a book, he or she should make it worth reading. This book probably doesn’t reveal anything that a determined researcher can’t find online. But, on the positive side, it’s cheap, and Ross straight up says he’s not going to dish much. At least I didn’t spring for the paperback version, which sells for $7.95.
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