Question: Here's an obscure one, but maybe you know something about it. Didn't Sinbad get in trouble on A Different World? I seem to recall something about him getting kicked off the show, or almost getting kicked off. Am I nuts?
Answer: You may be nuts, but you ain't wrong, Amy. (And what do you mean maybe I know something about it? Ouch, babe.)
The stand-up comic did indeed get in trouble early in the NBC Cosby Show spin-off's 1987-92 run for refusing to stick to the script, ad-libbing to avoid what many agreed were subpar jokes. "I was supposed to play this older graduate student who was crazy and just into all kinds of mischief," he said of his character, Walter Oakes, in 1990. "But it never went that way. I was wearing corduroy suit coats. I was everything I hated...." So he started making up his own gags. "I would change the whole concept to make it funny. I wouldn't ask, I wouldn't discuss it. And they would say, 'Quit doing it,' and I would just keep doing it. And then, on Friday, at the taping, I would change it again."
His rationale? If he stuck to a lousy script, nobody would know it wasn't his fault that he stunk. "I cannot not be funny," he told the producers. "Because if it doesn't work, they are not going to say, 'You can't write for Sinbad.' They are going to say, 'Sinbad cannot act. Sinbad cannot transform his stage work to TV,' and you'll kill my career."
The funny thing about writers and producers is, they actually do expect their performers to say what they're told to. So Sinbad was suspended for five weeks. But he was just one of many problems for the show, which did well in the ratings thanks to its Cosby lead-in but was pummeled by the critics and suffered numerous behind-the-scenes dramas. (Star Lisa Bonet departed after the first season.) And eventually the powers that be saw the light and began to listen to him. "They took to the notion that I could be funny, that I did make things work," he said. Yet when interviewed, he still wanted some more changes.
"I would like to see more of that college life," Sinbad said. "The students aren't going through any of the things that happen in college. Nobody has pulled the famous all-nighter. Nobody's complaining about the toilets and the elevators. Nobody uses a fake credit card to call on the phone. Our shows always revolve around dating. Never basic guys coming through the door saying, 'Hey, good-looking.' They need one good jerk."
Sinbad wasn't alone in his griping. Kadeem Hardison made no secret of wanting out of the show when interviewed by TV Guide in 1989. When he auditioned for the series and was asked to give his reading a street-heavy, Spike Lee spin (which made sense, since he'd already appeared in Lee's School Daze), the actor won the role in a backward baseball cap, baggy shorts, high-tops and shades. But he soon wondered whether that was such a good thing. "I thought I was going to get stuck on TV," he said. Then he decided that wouldn't be a problem because the stinker of a show obviously wasn't going to stick around. "It was awful," he said. Matters took a turn for the worse when the producers decided to make his Dwayne Wayne a nerdy character, but Hardison still figured he wasn't in for the long haul. "I thought I'd make good money in a short period of time, and they were going to let me play a home boy on TV. I didn't think the show was going to last more than five episodes."
Wrong. Two years in, Hardison claimed to be looking for the exit. "Now I want to do something else," he said. "I love it, it's great work and everybody's cool, but I desperately want to get into something else."
Producer-director Debbie Allen didn't take such protests seriously. "That's youth talking," she said. "He's still exploring himself as an actor; he's growing up." She was most likely right, as Hardison stayed with the series until it left the air four years later.