You won’t find me waxing nostalgic about Diff’rent Strokes. Television shows about cute little Black kids who are wise beyond their years and taken in by kindly White men reek of Good Liberal Paternalism and Negro Foolishness and I give a wide berth to both. That’s why when Gary Coleman, the 42-year-old, 4’8″ star of the show died in a Utah hospital from injures he suffered in a fall, I couldn’t figure out why so many people reacted as if it were Arnold Jackson who had just passed away.
Why is everyone so in love with Coleman now? When he was alive it seemed he lurched from just one hot mess after another. To the extent anyone thought Coleman as anything but another child star who hadn’t been able to carry on that stardom as an adult, it was usually because he had gotten into trouble again. It’s too bad the brother died so young, but this man needed the well wishes and sympathy a lot more when he was alive than he does now that he’s dead.
Everyone is talking about the Gary Coleman who played Arnold, the smart-mouthed little kid on a lightweight sit-com. That was 24 years ago. As an adult Coleman seemed stuck in one of two modes: in trouble or a sad joke. Once upon a time he was funny. Now he just seemed angry, unhappy and permanently pissed off.
And boy, did he have plenty of reasons to be pissed off. At the show’s peak he was making $100,000 an episode. His manager and his own parents screwed him out of his Diff’rent Strokes salary and he sued them eventually being awarded $1.3. million. He lived with continued health problems. Coleman had two kidney transplants, first in 1973 and again in 1984. He required daily dialysis treatments.
His two child co-stars, Dana Plato and Todd Bridges experienced similar career meltdowns. Bridges has battled drug addiction and his memoir, Killing Willis (nice title!) spreads the dirt around including allegations Plato gave him a blowjob when he was 12 and she was 13 and by the seventh season of Diff’rent Strokes Coleman required the use of a walker and a hearing aid. Plato, whose character was written out of the show when Plato became pregnant, fell hard after the show winding up posing for Playboy, making softcore sex flicks and being arrested for armed robbery. Her short, unhappy life was over by age 34 after a drug overdose.
Plato’s death didn’t quell Coleman’s resentment. He remarked, “It’s very unfortunate that Dana is no longer with us–she was a wonderful woman, but her death was a welcome, though sad piece of closure to “Diff’rent Strokes.” “The possibility of a reunion no longer exists now, and thank God.” Even then it was still all about Gary.
The downward spiral continued in 1998 when he was charged with assault while working as a security guard and he punched a woman following an argument over an autograph. The woman apparently mocked Coleman for his lack of post Diff’rent Strokes success. In 2007, Coleman was cited for misdemeanor disorderly conduct following an argument with his wife, Shannon Price. This started a cycle of troubles between the couple as in 2009 Price was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. Coleman appeared on a television program where he argued and cursed out with a host before walking off. Coleman would suffer a seizure and was treated by celebrity physician, Dr. Drew Pensky who was on the set. On January 24, 2010, Coleman was arrested on a charge of domestic violence and spent a night in jail.
Kicking around Coleman became something of a national joke. In the Tony-winning musical, Avenue Q, a character named “Gary Coleman” is a “washed up child star” who is now a building superintendent. The role (which is played by a female actor) features “Coleman” singing a song entitled, “It Sucks to Be Me.”
It’s hard to think of a group child actors who grew up more miserably than the trio from Diff’rent Strokes. Plato and Coleman are dead and for a while it looked as it Bridges was headed down the same, sad path. If the short and largely wasted lives and early deaths of his two colleagues isn’t a cautionary tale for him, they should be for everybody else.
Coleman brought a lot of happiness playing the part of a precocious, cute little boy. There wasn’t much left over for him as a failed and frustrated middle-aged man who outgrew his cuteness. The outpouring of sympathy and pity for him now comes a little too late to make any difference now. Maybe he wasn’t good enough of an actor or comedian to repeat as an adult the success he enjoyed as a child, but did that mean simple respect wasn’t in the works either?
What killed Gary Coleman was a brain hemorrhage but he had to die inside just a bit more with each humiliation and every embarrassment. It’s one thing to spend your life making people laugh. It’s something else when what’s making them laugh is your life.