A Different World is one of the most important shows in television history. It was truly groundbreaking. To have a show feature young black adults attending college was a huge deal. On the one hand, it showed other black kids that it was perfectly fine to go to college. On the other hand, it showed all of America that getting a degree was something that we worked toward, as well.
But the show would have been nothing without the acting chops of Kadeem Hardison, Jasmine Guy, Patti LaBelle, Cree Summers, and the rest of the cast. We saw real stories that we could relate to, or we were waiting to be able to relate to as we got older. If you watched the show, you could find a character or two that you connected with. There were some characters who left a bigger impression on the viewer than others, so we bring you the 25 most important characters of A Different World, all ranked.
25. Maggie Lauten
No shade to the future Oscar-Winner, Marisa Tomei, but Maggie was just so unnecessary. She whined about her boyfriend woes (the sad kind, remember them?), and the entire season she was on she didn’t leave a lasting impression, despite being a main character. And that’s probably why she was on for only one season.
24. Terrence Taylor
Cory Tyler portrayed the only son of Colonel Bradford Taylor, and he did the best with what he could. He plié’d onto Hillman’s campus as an incoming freshman, with the hopes of getting any girl he could. Let’s just say, it didn’t pan out. What was refreshing, though, was to see his relationship with Colonel Taylor, and how important a parent’s role was in their child’s college career. He made the decision to major in dance much to his father’s dismay, which is a brave step to honoring who one is. He was also a champion of the #YouOkSis before the phrase was ever a thing (see Gina Deveaux, below), when he helped a friend who was being domestically abused. He wasn’t a standout character, but a few of his moments made him an honorable character.
Millie had a big role to fill being Whitely’s only friend during season one, which pretty much meant that she was Miss Southern Belle’s lapdog. One thing she did do, however, was date the incomparable Ron Johnson. Both fitted with glasses and goofy demeanors, Millie brought out Ron’s sweet, sensitive side, which is something that we didn’t see in any of the other seasons.
22. Lettie Bostic
Lettie was the Gilbert Hall Resident Director and all-around Renaissance woman. She kept all of her ladies in check, but gave an extremely malleable ear when they needed advice. Not only that, she was a great representation that one really could do it all. She was a spy in World War II, lived in Paris, and prattled with Picasso before she helped to shape the lives of the women in her dorm. She was a role model for the characters and viewers alike.
21. Dean Hughes
Okay, college isn’t always peaches and cream, and Dean Hughes made that point very clear each every time she came around her students. She eloquently drove her points home each and every time, and her students appreciated her for it.
Matthew was the token white guy on A Different World who everyone loved. He was Freddie’s cousin, so he had a bit of an inside track to Hillman College. In addition, he used his connections well, and hooked up with Freddie’s friend, Kimberly Reese. We got to the show’s first (and only) foray into interracial relationships. Thanks to Matthew, it was kept all the way real.
19. Barnabus Foster
Everyone needs that one professor that will call your bluff, and Professor Foster did that for the entire duration of the show. We saw him bring life out of Denise Huxtable so it fluttered around her poetry, and he did the same with Miss Lena James. He made sure to show his students that talent was inside of them – all they had to do was search a little bit.
18. Gina Deveaux
Gina was a side character who made the most of her time at Hillman. She showed viewers that she was a well-rounded student who had flaws. First, the good: she joined a sorority and made a great group of friends. The unfortunate: she dated Gino, one of the most popular guys on campus, who she discovered was physically abusive. Gina was able to see that he wasn’t going to change while they were together, and made the brave decision to leave him behind.
17. Colonel Taylor
Colonel Taylor (played by Glynn Turman) forgot that he wasn’t in the Vietnam War, and his students at Hillman were young adults. But he brought the best out of everyone, especially Dwayne Wayne, who followed in his footsteps and became a professor, too. Things did get a little weird when he started dating Jaleesa (because, huh?) and they soon got married and had a baby. Whatever makes you happy, we guess.
16. Byron Douglass III
What can we say about Byron Douglass the Third? He swept Whitley off of her feet and was everything she thought she wanted. Smart, good looks, and a public servant with money in his wallet. And everything was all good until Whitley jilted him at the alter for Dwayne. He just didn’t have that je nai sai quoi, you know? So we never heard from him again.
15. Julian Day
Julian was Whitley’s first boyfriend on the series, and she was completely head over heels for him. Again, he had all of her favorite qualities in a man, including loads of cash, cash, and more cash. But Julian just didn’t give everything Whitely wanted. In fact, he treated her as though she was just another girl he was dating, so she’d see that the world didn’t revolve around Whitley. Kudos, Julian!
14. Marion Gilbert
This was the moment we got to see where exactly Whitley came from, and viewers saw that the apple did not fall far from the plantation. Played masterfully by Diahann Carroll (because who else would play Whitley’s mother), Marion oozed more elegance and shade than anyone could handle.
13. Denise Huxtable
Sorry, Denise. Sure, it was her spinoff, but she wasn’t the best part at all. She might have been worse than Maggie, but she was a detrimental part of the show. Denise on A Different World was very different from Denise on The Cosby Show. She was whiny and less likable. She had the attention of all the guys on campus, especially Dwayne Wayne, but Denise just couldn’t keep her attention on her studies. IRL, she became pregnant with Lenny Kravitz’s child and was written out of the show because Bill Cosby didn’t want to have an unwed student become a mother on the show.
12. Shazza Zulu
Hotep to the fullest, Gary Dourdan played Shazza too well. He was a super-duper senior at Hillman, and the ultimate ladies man. Shazza was handsome enough and was also very vocal about his smarts. Because of this, he scooped up Freddie Brooks, who matched his wits and smarts in every way. Not everything about Shazza was open-minded, though. He had a few negative comments to say about Kimberly’s interracial relationship with Matthew, but it was still a very real moment. All that aside, he just couldn’t get it together with Freddie. They broke up and got back together several times, but finally decided to call it quits when Freddie got with Ron, went to law school, and became one with “the man.”
11. Adele Wayne
Mrs. Adele Wayne surely made her presence known as her chipmunk’s mama. Played by Patti LaBelle, Adele was armed with a loud mouth, prune cobbler, and a lot of love. She might not have liked Whitley at all (she frequently called her Miss Thing), but she tolerated her for the sake of Dwayne. Always funny and refreshing, Adele really should have been on the show more, but that ride from Brooklyn was too long.
10. Lena James
Lena (played by Jada Pinkett) shook things up a bit on Hillman’s campus. Outspoken and fearless, she was never one to back down from anybody, including her ex-boyfriend Piccolo (played by Tupac). Like Terrence, she went through the trouble of changing her major to one that suited her better. But also, like some other students in the real world, Lena was also tempted with taking the easy way out when it came to her grades. In one episode, she fabricated an entire story about her father for Professor Foster’s class and had to keep up her lie when she won a literary award.
9. Kinu Owens
Nookie. Kanekalon. Karate. Whitley called Dwayne’s girlfriend every name in the book, except for the one she was given. Dwayne brought back the ultimate souvenir from his stay in Japan, and it was one Whitley could have done without. Kinu was a student at a nearby school, but she always found her way on campus and on Whitley’s nerves. But let’s keep it real. She was one of the only people (other than Jaleesa) to stand up to Miss Southern Belle, which was refreshing to see because no one ever stands up to her. Us viewers hated her because we all wanted to see Dwayne and Whitley together. It didn’t work out in her favor, though, and Dwayne dumped her for Whitley – finally.
8. Jaleesa Vinson
Jaleesa was a brave student. She enrolled in school as a divorced freshman at the age of 25 – and even lived in the dorms! – so she could get her degree, no matter what it took. She was bred to be a businesswoman, after all. Jaleesa sang, danced (she performed with Gladys Knight), and went toe to toe with Whitley on several occasions. The one person who did soften her sometimes steel exterior, was her boyfriend Walter Oakes. He brought out the fun side of Jaleesa, which was why viewers were a little shocked when she and Walter decided not to marry, and she got hitched to Colonel Taylor instead.
7. Vernon Gaines
Mr. Gaines (played by the late Lou Myers) was the truth. He was grumpy, black man with a big heart, and in running The Pit, he got to see all of the students at Hillman grow and help them out along the way. He gave Whitley her first job, and he even helped pay for Kim’s tuition. (How’s that for a boss?) He was the real father figure of the show and voice of unrelenting reason.
6. Ron Johnson
Ron Johnson was Hillman’s resident f-ck up and chauvinist. He wasn’t the best student. In fact, he almost didn’t graduate. He barely followed through on anything, except when it came to getting girls, joining a fraternity, and making his band famous. Dwayne never hesitated to tell Ron that he needed to get his sh-t together. It was something he needed to hear frequently. Times weren’t always fun for Ron, though. In one episode, he was the victim of a hate crime – during MLK Jr. weekend, no less – and somehow he got arrested. It showed that Ron was actually able to stand up for something that was bigger than himself.
5. Walter Oakes
If Mr. Gaines was Hillman’s father figure, Walter Oakes was certainly everyone’s big brother. He coached just about every sport at the college, and was the co-director of Gilbert Hall (along with Jaleesa) when the dorm turned co-ed. Because he was played by comedian Sinbad, there was never any shortage of comic relief, but Walter knew when to get serious. In one episode, the star player on the baseball team he coached (played by The Last Dragon‘s Taimak) attempted to sexually assault another student (Freddie Brooks). He shed light that rape was not okay, and that men should stand up for women who have been assaulted.
4. Kimberly Reese
Kimberly Reese was the physical embodiment of what the perfect student should be. Straight A’s, after-school job – she was in med school, for crying out loud! So it was surprising to find out she actually had flaws, like in the episode where she had a pregnancy scare. She also shared the complexities of what it’s like to live in a world that fetishizes lighter skin, and let the world know that black really is beautiful. She was a true role model at Hillman, in every sense, and we’re sure that’s what the show’s creators had in mind.
3. Whitley Gilbert
What can we say about Whitley Gilbert? Played by Jasmine Guy, Whitley never meant to get a real education. She wanted her M.R.S. degree, but she didn’t quite get get what she wanted as soon as she wanted. She started out as Hillman’s mean girl. Literally, everyone on campus hated her, and that was a tough pill to swallow, but Whitley did it with grace. She did end up getting her degree in art history, which led her to be an art buyer for a major company in Virginia. But not before she had to deal with her father cutting her off and having to get a job at The Pit, move in with Jaleesa to save money, and at one point, be Dwayne’s maid. But the tide started to turn for Miss Gilbert when she became a woman in her own right and had to juggle her time between two men – Byron Douglass and Dwayne Wayne. We all know how this story ended; she married Dwayne (and even got caught up in the 1992 Los Angeles riots on her honeymoon). She became the biggest example of how your life may not turn out exactly as you planned, but in the end, you always get what you need.
2. Freddie Brooks
Freddie Brooks (played by Cree Summer) was the most free-spirited person that would ever set foot on Hillman’s campus. She walked around with rose-colored glasses to match. She started out as the mousy freshman who was in love with Dwayne but soon blossomed into all but Assata Shakur. She was certainly the most accepting person out of the Hillman gang, and how could she not be as the biracial daughter to a couple hippies from Arizona? So it came as a shock when she went against the grain by wounding up with Ron Johnson, and eventually in law school. Freddie was proof that you could be exactly who you want to be despite the naysayers.
1. Dwayne Wayne
Dwayne Cleofis Wayne was who dudes wanted to be like at Hillman. A brainiac (he did get a perfect score on the math section of his SATs, after all) with a mean sneaker and spectacles game, Dwayne started out as the guy who chased Denise Huxtable from Hillman to Brooklyn. But once she dropped out, Dwayne became the Zack Morris on campus, with girls lining up to date him. Not bad for a geek, right? He proved that you could be super smart and super likable at the same damn time. It wasn’t until he started to pursue Whitley that we saw there was another side to Dwayne. He wasn’t just the horndog trying to get lucky; he was trying to take his manhood to the next level and show her he could be Whitley’s true love.
Dwayne did have one badass moment in the show, and that’s when he broke up the wedding of Whitley and Byron Douglass. When a preacher asks for any objections at a wedding, no one really expects for someone to actually object. But not Dwayne, he took it literally, and got his girl, after one too many breakups over the years, he finally realized that she was the one he wanted to be with. Forget about the Kinus, forget about the Denise Huxtables. It was all about Whitley. In addition to getting the girl, Dwayne also proved that if you don’t give back, you won’t get ahead. His love for his community was unmatched, and he showed that by working at the community center and becoming a professor at Hillman. Above it all, Dwayne showed that you could be smart and get the girl and career of your dreams. And what could be better than that?
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