Darryl M. Bell Recalls Iconic Guest Stars on A Different World (Exclusive)

  • The cast of A Different World has enjoyed visiting HBCU campuses throughout this year, looking back at the iconic show’s place in television and Black history
  • Darryl M. Bell, who portrayed Ron Johnson on the show, tells PEOPLE what it was like hanging out with some of the biggest ’80s and ’90s stars while filming the sitcom
  • The actor also looks opens up about what it’s been like engaging with college students, alumni and staff and the demand for more stops on the tour

Darryl M. Bell — who played the lovable Ronald “Ron” Johnson on NBC’s A Different World — tells PEOPLE that the show was privileged to have some truly fascinating guest stars during its six-year run.

“Meeting Lena Horne was a prime example of how someone could exceed every expectation you could ever imagine. I mean, ever imagine,” Bell recalls in an exclusive chat with PEOPLE.

“You know, you hear those stories about artists and entertainers who, in their riders, are particular. They only want the green M&M’s and pluck out the rest, or the room has to be exactly 76 degrees at all times. It was rumored for a very long time that Lena Horne’s rider requested only one thing — a pitcher with water and lemon. That’s it. It speaks to just the magnitude of her aura and shine. She was the most delightful and wonderful human being and was just as warm as you’d expect. It was one of the great experiences while Lena was there.”

In a season 6 episode of the show, Horne visits the fictional Hillman College campus, where the show was set, and attracts plenty of fanfare and reverence. Off camera, the reaction was very much the same.

“We’re on set and all of a sudden I look in the door, and here comes Burt Reynolds and Ossie Davis, who were shooting [a project] in the back, and then Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold walked in the door. I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ And they were like, ‘We just heard the queen was on the lot. We came to pay our respects.’ They heard she was there and stopped working, stopped what they were doing, to come over and say hello.”

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The cast of “A Different World” in the 1980s.
NBCU Photo Bank

“From Lena Horne to Patti LaBelle to Diahann Carroll to Richard Roundtree to Tupac, Heavy D, Gladys Knight, Kris Kross … all these guest stars were just spectacular.”

LaBelle, who had a recurring role on the show as Dwayne Wayne’s mother Adele, “used to come and cook for us every time she came,” Bell recalls.

“I mean, every time. She would not come here if food was not coming with her,” he says. “That’s a big thing. So, for anyone who thinks that Patti’s cooking shows are just something designed for TV, nope, that’s that’s the real Patti. That’s how she rolls.”

Bell also marvels looking back at “everyone else [who was on the show] before they were really stars.”

“All of the Wayanses who were alive and working in show business were on our show. If their kids were alive, they would have come, too,” he says with a laugh.

Jesse Jackson on “A Different World” in the 1980s.

NBCU Photo Bank/getty

“There was Halle Berry, Theresa Randle, Eriq La Salle, Roger Guenveur Smith, Khandi Alexander. The number of folks who were just guest stars with wonderful talent. Dean Cain’s first job before Superman was on A Different World.”

Bell adds, “To go down the list of all the people who had come to us at some point [in] time, it’s truly spectacular and all of them were terrific. I wish I could tell you that we had one example of somebody who was just a diva, obnoxious, but we didn’t.”

The set was also a hangout spot for other young talent coming through.

“Will Smith used to come hang out on our set. Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington, Mike Tyson — everybody came by. It was a really magical time for all of us.”

The cast of “A Different World” in the 1980s.

NBCU Photo Bank/getty

Bell notes that, “New generations continue to find A Different World. We often hear, and it puts the clock on all of us, but that, ‘I watched the show and now my children watch the show. My grandchildren watch the show.’ ”

“There’s that renewal of every generation that looks to find stories that inspire them. And I encourage them to go to college and get an education and encourage them to think about their career and talk about the issues that are important to them,” the actor says.

Amid their time touring Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) this year, Bell says he notices that “college students in 2024 have a lot of similarities to college students in 1987.”

“We’re talking about student protests now. We talked about that in A Different World. If we’re talking about health concerns, we talk about that in A Different World. We’re talking about women’s rights and the protection of women against domestic violence and danger,” he points out.

“These are all things that we talked about and it illustrates that there are so many issues that remain evergreen for young people and people of all ages. That’s why the show continues to resonate and why the tours received such a warm and overwhelming response.”

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Kadeem Hardison, Glynn Turman, Cree Summer, Jasmine Guy, Charnele Brown, Darryl M. Bell and Dawnn Lewis pose with a guest at “A Different World” HBCU College Tour 2024 at Spelman College.

Nykieria Chaney/Getty

The cast is looking forward to continuing important conversations and heartfelt looks back at the show. They’re currently working out their tour schedule for the fall — perhaps with even bigger audiences.

“These events have all been for current HBCU students, their faculty and alumni. We have the general public that’s been messaging us asking, ‘When are you going to do something we can come to?’ ” he shares. “So we’re in the process of developing a strategy to host some public events where we can take it off campus to a wider audience.”

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