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How Debbie Allen Got Whoopi Goldberg to Appear in Historic AIDS Story Line on ‘A Different World’

Debbie Allen Emotionally Recounts Whoopi Goldberg Appearing in AIDS Storyline on A Different World
Debbie Allen and Whoopi Goldberg Getty Images (2)

When A Different World made the historic decision to address the AIDS epidemic head-on, Debbie Allen knew exactly who she had to call.

“I remember the degree of difficulty of doing a show about AIDS,” Allen, 74, recalled during a cast reunion of the iconic sitcom on The View Wednesday, April 17. “Whoopi Goldberg was our secret weapon.”

In a season 4 episode of A Different World called “If I Should Die Before I Wake” that aired in 1991, a professor played by Goldberg, 68, gave her class the assignment of preparing a eulogy for their own funeral.

During her speech, Josie (Tisha Campbell) revealed she was HIV-positive, which led to a landmark discussion about AIDS and all of the questions and misconceptions surrounding the disease.

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In the wake of increased fear and panic about AIDS, particularly in the Black community, Allen — who joined A Different World as a producer in season 2 and went on to direct 83 episodes of the show — knew she “had to do something.”

“I said, ‘We’ve got to get a big gun to make this happen,’” Allen recounted about the episode. “Whoopi, I called her. She said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ She was down.”

Goldberg was certainly a big gun at the time, as she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Ghost just weeks before the episode aired on NBC.

Sitting on the same stage as her friend more than 30 years later, Allen told Goldberg that her guest role “saved millions of lives.” As Allen explained, Goldberg’s casting was likely the only reason the episode made it to air.

“It’s the truth, because advertisers were pulling out,” Allen remembered. “We had never had to show a script to an advertiser.”

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It all paid off in spades, as Allen boasted, “It was our highest-rated episode.”

Goldberg, who received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for the role, explained why the show itself was so groundbreaking.

“I want to point out something,” Goldberg offered. “The thing that no one has said yet that I want to make sure I point out is that, yes, folks needed a job. But this was also a unique opportunity that did not present itself. And you know that because you only saw one show full of characters who were brown about a school, a college. Someplace you didn’t see us on television.”

Goldberg closed the conversation by turning the attention back to her friend. She remarked, “Any time Debbie asked me to do something, I just said, ‘Yes.’”

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