I just went on twitter and learned that Canadian actor Conrad Bain, who will be best remembered for his role as Philip Drummond on the sitcom NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes and as Dr. Arthur Harmon on Maude, has passed away. I grew up watching Diff’rent Strokes and so a part of me feels as though some of my childhood is gone with this news. Who would have thought in the 80’s that Todd Bridges would be last remaining cast member of Diff’rent Strokes?
On Diff’rent Strokes, Bain played the rich White adoptive father to two Black children (Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman AKA Arnold and Willis). This is the first inter-racial family that I ever remember seeing on prime time television. This show was successful not because it radically challenged difference (a few episodes about race not withstanding) but because it supported the idea of the White saviour complex, which continues to haunt our media to this day with movies like the Dangerous Minds, The Help, Freedom Writers, The Soloist, Avatar, and of course, The Blindside.
Drummond not only pulled Arnold and Willis out of poverty, (a poverty he both colluded with and supported through his race and gender privilege and by his employment of their mother) but he served to uphold the White Man’s burden to uplift the downtrodden races through headship. With catch phrases like “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” that served as the only avenue to the retention of Black dialect or culture, Diff’rent Strokes largely sent the message of, if you catch Black boys young enough, they can be saved.
When I watched Diff’rent Strokes as a child, none of this was even remotely apparent to me. It is only in looking back as an adult that I can see the true nature of this sitcom and it saddens me. For a time I wanted every White man I met to be just like Mr. Drummond, with no realisation that this kindly middle age man on my television screen was problematic as hell. So it is with a heavy heart that I learned about his passing. Conrad Bain and his role on Diff’rent Strokes, is something I wish that my eyes had remained closed to because it is only in ignorance that I could enjoy his work on the show or Diff’rent Strokes itself.