Making of 2019, 2021 ABC Special – The Hollywood Reporter

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While the episodes chosen from All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Good Times for the first installments of ABC’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience, which aired in 2019, were picked to reflect the timeliness of ’70s politics and social issues, it was a different topical phenomenon altogether that dictated the theme of the 2021 television special from executive producers Norman Lear and Jimmy Kimmel. “We had all just come off a two-year pandemic. It was an exhausting time, and we wanted to just have fun,” says executive producer Brent Miller of the decision to re-create episodes from the classic NBC sitcom Diff’rent Strokes and its spinoff The Facts of Life. (Sony Pictures Television Studios, which owns the rights to both series, was a producing partner.) “The episodes that we chose were intentionally lighter. We wanted to enjoy the fact that we were in front of a live studio audience once again, even though they were masked up.”

For the episodes — The Facts of Life‘s “Kids Can Be Cruel” and Diff’rent Strokes‘ “Willis’ Privacy” — an impressive A-list ensemble cast was assembled, including Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Hart, Jon Stewart, Ann Dowd, John Lithgow and Snoop Dogg. Miller says getting high-profile actors to commit to Live is rarely more than a scheduling matter. “Jimmy would tell you that everybody wants to work with Norman Lear. Norman would tell you that everybody wants to work with Jimmy Kimmel. I just enjoy that I can throw both their names around, and typically they’re going to say yes,” he says.

That said, in December 2021, Miller’s greatest concern was having an irreplaceable star come down with the novel coronavirus. “I was a little nervous because this is a live show, and if someone did test positive, what were we going to do?” says Miller. “This is not a cheap thing to do, by any stretch. It is a one-off, and it is scheduled. I can’t say that there wasn’t anxiety that whole 10 days leading up to the final day. We just kept staying positive — not literally, of course — and hoping for the best.”

From left: Jason Bateman as Tim Holifield, Allison Tolman as Natalie Green, Jennifer Aniston as Blair Warner and Will Arnett as Blair’s boyfriend, Dink Lockwood.
Courtesy of Christopher Willard/ABC

To prepare for every possible scenario, costume designer Keri Smith outfitted each castmember and an understudy with identical costumes. “We had two of everything,” says Smith. “It didn’t have to match exactly, but it still had to represent the characters. We never had to use it, but that is an added pressure of doing Live.”

The pandemic also affected what was already a complex job for production designer Stephan Olson. “There were the supply issues, construction materials cost more, it was difficult getting labor. Sourcing everything ended up being a problem, and we didn’t have a lot of time,” says Olson, who had five weeks to complete two sets for one soundstage. “We had scenic artists working on marbleizing for weeks. It took over a week just to put the wallpaper up. It was down to the wire, but it looks fantastic.”

In fact, Olson managed to re-create the iconic sets to the point where even the original castmembers couldn’t tell the difference. “When Diff’rent Strokes‘ Todd Bridges first walked out onto that set, and the same goes for The Facts of Life’s Kim Fields, Lisa Whelchel and Mindy Cohn, they were blown away by how much it brought them back to the times that they were actors on those shows,” says Miller.

Kevin Hart in the Diff’rent Stokes episode “Willis’ Privacy,” which originally aired in February 1979. Hart plays Arnold, the character originated by star Gary Coleman.
Courtesy of Christopher Willard/ABC

For the producer, it’s important that those who originated these shows are part of the specials. “As we’re jumping into the world that they actually grew up with, it wouldn’t make sense to not include them,” he says, adding that the entire series is about honoring the sitcoms that raised a generation of viewers.

“These shows are not easy to make, and we’re not necessarily in the business of making a lot of money on these things. It’s more about the nostalgia and the enjoyment and the celebration of the creators, the writers, the actors, the producers, all those who came before us, and celebrating them.”

Executive producers Kimmel and Lear on set with Lear’s wife, Lyn.
Courtesy of Christopher Willard/ABC

From left: Kathryn Hahn, Aniston and Gabrielle Union, as the characters originated by Nancy McKeon, Whelchel and Fields, in The Facts of Life episode “Kids Can Be Cruel,” which originally aired on NBC in March 1982.
Courtesy of Christopher Willard/ABC

John Lithgow as Phillip Drummond (originally played on Diff’rent Strokes by Conrad Bain) and Ann Dowd as Edna Garrett. The latter, originally played by Charlotte Rae in the sitcom’s first two seasons, would lead the show’s spinoff The Facts of Life when it premiered in 1979.
Courtesy of Christopher Willard/ABC

The cast and producers of Live in Front of a Studio Audience, with executive producer Norman Lear seated front and center.
Courtesy of Christopher Willard/ABC

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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