STUDIO CITY, CALIF. -- Some annoyances, Kadeem Hardison figures, you gotta take an umbrella to.

He can deal with NBC's seeming lack of regard for his popular TV show ("A Different World," which begins its new season tonight at 8:30 on Channel 4). He's used to little or no media recognition of his talent. He listens politely when costar and best pal Cree Summer, a recent vegetarian, tries to convert him.

But a pinch on the butt?

On a damp night last month, the actor was leaving the New York premiere of Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" with his mom and manager, Bethann Hardison, when a swarm of screaming girl-fans descended upon him.

"These little {expletive} were pinching me on my butt!" says the baby-faced Hardison, 25, who plays college senior Dwayne Wayne on "World." "I've been a fan of several women and I never thought to touch one of them. I was raised by women -- I know better."

To fend off the fans, he raised his umbrella "like Babe Ruth." Then Mom swung into action.

"She grabbed my arm, her eyes big, and gave me this look -- 'Do not look like you're gonna hit a fan in front of all these photographers.' "

Hardison lowered the umbrella and the screamers retreated. Actually the actor -- who despite Summer's warnings is scarfing back a turkey-and-provolone sandwich in his dressing room ("I can't {expletive} with no tofu franks") -- seems a laid-back sort. But a man can stand only so much disrespect.

Take how "World" is regarded by NBC.

"When they say good things about 'Cosby,' I assume they mean us too," he says about "World," which consistently has landed in the Nielsen top five since its debut three years ago.

"They must mean us -- we haven't dropped out of the top 10," he continues, his voice rising. "But then you hear all about the new season, and we're barely mentioned... ."

Suddenly, you sense the umbrella, poised. The pinch: "So what's the real reason 'World' gets no respect?"

He smiles. "It's because" -- he pauses for effect, "we're Negroes."


Hardison likes his life -- the (non-pinching) attention from fans, the freebies. ("Hey, call up Nike and get me the new Bos {Bo Jackson sneakers}," he instructs the show's publicist. "Yesterday I saw this kid in the new Bos -- they were orange. And I said, 'Hey, I'm supposed to get those first!' ")

He likes attending screenings at Eddie Murphy's manse; thinks it's great hanging with Michael Jordan, whose celebrity is such that, Hardison says, "I can ride his coattails. Folks forget I'm even there."

But the actor -- like so many African American celebrities, so many everyday black folks -- feels that some opinions and decisions made about him and his show might be colored by his, well, color.

"They can't stop Cos," he says finally. "But us -- they don't have to give us no dap."

"Dap" is "respect," and both "World" and Hardison deserve more than they get. Part of the problem, Hardison acknowledges, continues to be the awfulness of the "Cosby" spinoff's first season in 1987.

Critics bashed the show's unfunny scripts and then-star Lisa Bonet's lackadaisical acting; black viewers wondered why so many white kids were enrolled in what was supposed to be a Howard University-type school.

The show "just wasn't black," Hardison said in a recent interview. "The problem was the producers and the scripts. The humor wasn't true to us. We were acting like ... high school kids from Kansas."

But certain characters -- particularly Southern belle Whitley (Jasmine Guy) and the wisecracking Dwayne (Hardison) -- caught on. The show, situated between "Cosby" and "Cheers," earned fine ratings. In its second season, Bonet returned to "Cosby" and actress-dancer-choreographer Debbie Allen -- who'd directed episodes of "Fame," "Family Ties" and "The Bronx Zoo" -- joined "World" as producer-director.

It made all the difference. Today the show deals with the real-life concerns of black college kids: South Africa, date rape, just saying no to drugs and unprotected sex. Stereotype-busting characters like Hardison's Dwayne (a hip Phi Beta Kappa who hides his sensitivity behind flip-up glasses) and Whitley (Scarlet O'Hara in brownface) continue to deepen. Good reviews are even trickling in.

On tonight's show, seniors Dwayne and Whitley take their first steps toward consummating their wary, two-season mating dance -- though the introduction of a new girlfriend of Dwayne's complicates things. Of course.

Though he's best known for playing Dwayne, Hardison hopes his career will take him beyond "World." He's already done several movies, including Keenen Ivory Wayans's "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" and Spike Lee's "School Daze." Currently in limited release, his latest film, the funky all-black horror flick "Def by Temptation," opened in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago two weeks ago.

The Los Angeles Times called Hardison's performance "a delight." The film, a first-time effort by actor-turned-director James Bond III, has gotten great reviews in the few cities its been seen in. Barely publicized, it blew in and out of D.C. theaters last June with scarcely a flutter.

However the film ultimately performs, Hardison feels it has already passed the toughest test: the Murphy meter. As a frequent guest at Eddie Murphy's screenings, Hardison knows that regular attendees' critical responses to some movies can be brutal. "I've seen the way they rip things up... . I knew they had it at the house and I said, 'No!' ... But {Murphy} pulled me aside after the "Another 48 Hrs." premiere and told me he really liked it... . So I asked Jerome, one of the guys that hangs out at Eddie's crib, 'Were they doggin' me out?' He said, 'Nah, they were on the floor.' "

It's illustrative of a larger point: Even if Hardison doesn't always get the dap from mainstream critics and the network, he's appreciated by black folks. Last year, he won the NAACP's Image Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy Series or Special. (Costar Jasmine Guy won the same award in the actress category.)

He's generous with his own praise. Professionally, he admires Denzel Washington, Robert De Niro ("he's like Nolan Ryan, who'll strike out 43 people and not look like he's doing anything") and "Mo Better's" Wesley Snipes ("the brother comes across strong. I come across -- easy").

Personally, nobody gets more dap than "my girl, Cree," who joined the show two seasons ago. Cree the meat-avoider. ("I don't want to be part of that negativity," she explains.) Cree the motorcycle queen, whose vintage Harley is a funky contrast to Hardison's sleek BMW bike. Cree, who jumps up from a reclining position on Kadeem's dressing room couch when an interviewer arrives.

The tabloids have suggested that Summer, 21, and Hardison are an item -- they've been inseparable since she joined the cast. "Just friends," Hardison insists, grinning.

Whatever the nature of the relationship, it's tight. Much of its spark is derived from their differences -- Summer's counterculture parents raised her in Canada on a Cree Indian reservation; Hardison is Brooklyn all over. Summer's into '60s rockers like Edgar Winter and Frank Zappa; he can't get enough of that rap-jazz-funky stuff.

Hardison softens when he talks about her, reaches a little.

"We never met anything like each other. Sometimes you meet up with people who are just right for you -- she gives me things I can't get from anybody else. I need my boys, I need my girls. And I need Cree."

For what, exactly?

"Inspiration," he says, not missing a beat. "That flower child, spirit stuff that I'm not in touch with."

So what is this guy, with his turned-up cap and gummy smile, in touch with? His desire to remain unattached -- "If I had a girlfriend, even if I was doing something as innocent as flirting, I'd still feel I was doing something wrong." His new Rottweiler puppy, Thelonious. A passion for New York, whose energy and electricity boosts him in ways that somnolent L.A -- "90 degrees all year round, no fires, no accidents" -- never could.

Umbrella-wielding -- when you least expect it. Like when he wonders aloud why the Fox network didn't go for broke and put all of its hottest comedies -- Emmy winners "In Living Color" and "The Simpsons," plus "Married With Children" -- opposite NBC's powerhouse Thursday night schedule instead of just pitting bad Bart against classy Cliff Huxtable.

"If you're gonna get out your big guns, do it," he says, sounding like a network executive exasperated by the competition's stupidity.

So does his tone mean that he think Fox's move was a mistake? He hems.

"Well, people say, 'How can you compare 'The Simpsons' to 'Cosby'? " he says, intoning Mr. Pudding Pop's name with mock awe. "Like there's no contest."

Then he laughs that "I'll get in trouble, but what the hell?" laugh.

"But I know what I'm gonna be watching."