'Head of the Class' turns 35: How the show pioneered diversity on TV

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It's a high school experience everyone can fondly remember.

“Head of the Class,” a sitcom about a class of gifted honors students in New York City’s fictional Fillmore High School who learn life lessons under the caring eye of history teacher Mr. Moore, played by Howard Hesseman, celebrates the 35th anniversary of its premiere this September.

A more polished “Welcome Back, Kotter,” whose students were lovable and remedial social delinquents, “Head of the Class” was a vehicle for Hesseman, known primarily for his TV work as burnout DJ Dr. Johnny Fever on “WKRP in Cincinnati.” The cast of students was comprised of actors who soon became stars in their own right as the show enjoyed a solid five-year run on ABC while becoming one of the more successful sitcoms of the 1980s.

“I just think, for me, ‘Head of the Class’ embraced the kids who were incredibly smart in their own way, but they were all social misfits in another,” Tony O’Dell, who played conservative Alan Pinkard, told TODAY. “They were all incredibly smart, but they have their flaws.”

L-R: TONY ODELL;JOHER COLEMAN;KIMBERLY RUSSELL;TANNIS VALLELY;DAN FRISCHMAN;ROBIN GIVENS;BRIAN ROBBINS;KHRYSTYNE HAJE;LESLIE BEGA (Disney via Getty Images)
L-R: TONY ODELL;JOHER COLEMAN;KIMBERLY RUSSELL;TANNIS VALLELY;DAN FRISCHMAN;ROBIN GIVENS;BRIAN ROBBINS;KHRYSTYNE HAJE;LESLIE BEGA (Disney via Getty Images)

“Head of the Class” was among a stable of ABC shows of its era that are fondly recalled today, including “Perfect Strangers,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “Growing Pains.” For viewers of a certain generation, it was comfort TV before they knew what that term meant.

“The ‘80s to me were an incredible time, but sitcoms were definitely thriving at the time, and now not something that I would say is as common,” O’Dell said.

“It was hilarious,” Khrystyne Haje, who played the sensitive and poetic Simone Foster, told TODAY about the show. “I felt that it was really well written, and that it was very funny, while still being heartfelt. And there was also a level of innocence in it, so everyone could watch it. The whole family could watch it.”

That’s not to say “Head of the Class” was fluff. The show was far from it. The sitcom featured an eclectic cast that may have been ahead of its time, with characters who were white, Black, Latino and Indian.

L-R: TANNIS VALLELY;KIMBERLY RUSSELL;DAN FRISCHMAN;DAN SCHNEIDER (Disney via Getty Images)
L-R: TANNIS VALLELY;KIMBERLY RUSSELL;DAN FRISCHMAN;DAN SCHNEIDER (Disney via Getty Images)

“And you couldn’t have a more diverse classroom setting,” Kimberly Russell, who played Sarah Nevins, told TODAY. “You couldn’t have a group with people with different opinions. You know, everybody had different opinions. Their social, economic, their political views, everything all burst in this classroom, yet they love each other and got along and I think that’s what the public saw. They saw themselves.”

Haje echoes that sentiment.

“Now, diversity is really important, and people are highly aware that they need to represent everyone,” she said. “But when our show premiered, that wasn’t necessarily the predominant thinking, and we were diverse. ... We were representing what was really out there.”

“The Big Bang Theory” made nerdiness chic, but you can argue geeky “Head of the Class” staples like Arvid Engen (played by Dan Frischman) and Jawaharlal Choudhury (played by Joher Coleman) planted the seeds that germinated decades later with Johnny Galecki’s Leonard Hofstadter and Kunnal Nayar’s Raj Koothrappali, while retaining humor and relatability as it addressed topics like dating, fitting in and finding your own path.

L-R: TONY ODELL;BRIAN ROBBINS (Disney via Getty Images)
L-R: TONY ODELL;BRIAN ROBBINS (Disney via Getty Images)

“It was a great show. It had a lot to teach. And it had tremendous heart,” Haje said.

“Head of the Class” enjoyed other moments of distinction. In 1988, it became the first American episodic television series to shoot in Russia. That same year, star Robin Givens made headlines when she married Mike Tyson in a union that lasted one year.

It also became one of the early guest roles for a young actor America didn’t yet know named Brad Pitt, who appeared in a season three episode as the dreamy boyfriend of Leslie Bega’s Maria Borges.

“I don’t know if I really thought he was going to become a megastar,” O’Dell said. “I just knew that he definitely had that vibe.”

KHRYSTYNE HAJE;HOWARD HESSEMAN (Disney via Getty Images)
KHRYSTYNE HAJE;HOWARD HESSEMAN (Disney via Getty Images)

“I remember the week that he first came to the set, I mean, all of us, all of us actresses were like, ‘Oh my God, who is that person?’” Russell said. “Yeah, he just had that great quality. And he was the nicest person who loved to play his guitar in between takes and make jokes and smile and laugh.”

The big joke about “Head of the Class,” of course, was that a class of geniuses can’t stay in school. Eventually, the cast changed, with new students coming in and Hesseman leaving, replaced by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. The series would continue one season with him.

“It’s kind of like ‘The Brady Bunch’ when little Oliver came and joined the cast,” Russell said.

“I felt that the show shifted when Howard Hesseman left,” O’Dell said.

L-R: KIMBERLY RUSSELL;KHRYSTYNE HAJE;DAN FRISCHMAN (Disney via Getty Images)
L-R: KIMBERLY RUSSELL;KHRYSTYNE HAJE;DAN FRISCHMAN (Disney via Getty Images)

“Head of the Class,” which signed off in 1991, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, with the series streaming on HBO Max for a new generation of fans to discover as a reboot looms. O’Dell, Russell and Haje all speak glowingly about their hopes for it, with Russell saying she’s been contacted about her opinion and potential guest spots.

“I wish the best for the show, especially because I have friends who work on it,” O’Dell said.

Haje says she has not been asked to be part of it, but she would like to know what happened to the characters.

L-R: DAN SCHNEIDER;BRAD PITT;LESLIE BEGA (Disney via Getty Images)
L-R: DAN SCHNEIDER;BRAD PITT;LESLIE BEGA (Disney via Getty Images)

“I know as a viewer, when I see a reboot, you know, I want to see what happened,” she said. “Where are they in their lives? What are they doing? How did they grow up? Did they stay with that person? Did they find love? Did they have kids? I’m always drawn in by the original characters.”

Talk to O’Dell, Russell and Haje and you quickly realize the affection they all have for the show and not just in terms of what they learned about acting or comedy. The series has clearly bonded them in a way fans know today with another sitcom you may have watched.

Dan Frischman, Tony O'Dell, Kimberly Russell, Dan Schneider and Khrystyne Haje together in 2020. (khrystynehaje / Instagram)
Dan Frischman, Tony O'Dell, Kimberly Russell, Dan Schneider and Khrystyne Haje together in 2020. (khrystynehaje / Instagram)

“I don’t, sadly, get to know what it was like actually to be on the ‘Friends’ set, but it felt like we were the ‘Friends’ before ‘Friends,’” Haje said. “Very close, very close relationships.”

“I’m grateful that ‘Head of the Class’ was a part of my life, a huge part of my life,” O’Dell said. “I say I live in the house that ‘Head of the Class’ built. I’m still in the same house that I bought in season two. I’ve been in my home now for 34, almost 35 years. And I established some friendships that I’ll have for my lifetime.”

“None of us, none of the 10 cast members, the originals, can go anywhere without being asked about ‘Head of the Class,’” Russell said, while noting her relationships with her co-stars has more than stood the test of time.

“I just really cherish them and their friendships and the whole experience was great,” she added.

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