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What Might Have Been

By RD Heldenfels Published: July 13, 2006

Imagine a race-reversing variation on ''Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'' starring Marisa Tomei and Kadeem Hardison. Debbie Allen thought that would have been a good idea for ''A Different World'' but she never got to do it.

Allen is here for a ''Different World'' reunion panel, tied to Nick at Nite's telecasts of ''Different World'' reruns beginning July 19. A lot of the discussion has involved how uneasy television can still be about matters of race. The cast sees their ensemble anticipating ''Friends'' (and wonders why, after ''Different World's'' college life, they couldn't have grown into their own ensemble comedy if NBC was looking for ''Friends''-ish ideas). Dawnn Lewis said she did a pilot that was never picked up even though it had an ''Alias''-like premise two years before ''Alias.''

As for Tomei, she was on ''Different World'' the first season, playing a white student at the school's African-American college. When Allen came in as producer in the show's second season, she wanted to address the racial contrast, making Tomei's character a good friend with Dwayne Wayne (Hardison) and then having her go home for the holidays with Dwayne.

''They didn't like that idea,'' Allen said. Instead, she said, the show's executives dropped Tomei. But she did all right. Hardison recalled telling Tomei that she'd probably win an Oscar one day -- and Tomei did, for ''My Cousin Vinny.''

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