Obituary: Gary Coleman / Star of 'Diff'rent Strokes' who wanted to be more
Feb. 8, 1968 - May 28, 2010
May 29, 2010 4:00 AM
Actor Gary Coleman
Gary Coleman, left, playing Arnold, talks with Dana Plato, as Kimberly, and Todd Bridges, as Willis, in the "Small Claims" episode of "Diff'rent Strokes" in 1980.
By Jennifer Dobner The Associated Press
Gary Coleman, the adorable, pint-sized child star of the smash 1970s TV sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes" who spent the rest of his life struggling on Hollywood's D-list, died Friday after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He was 42.
Mr. Coleman was taken off life support and died with family and friends at his side, Utah Valley Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Janet Frank said.
Best remembered for "Diff'rent Strokes" character Arnold Jackson and his "Whatchu talkin' 'bout?" catchphrase, Mr. Coleman chafed at his permanent association with the show but also tried to capitalize on it through reality shows and other TV appearances. His adult life was marked with legal, financial and health troubles, suicide attempts and even a 2003 run for California governor.
"I want to escape that legacy of Arnold Jackson," he told The New York Times during his gubernatorial run. "I'm someone more. It would be nice if the world thought of me as something more."
Mr. Coleman suffered the brain hemorrhage Wednesday at his Santaquin home, 55 miles south of Salt Lake City.
A statement from the family said he was conscious and lucid until midday Thursday, when his condition worsened and he slipped into unconsciousness. Mr. Coleman was then placed on life support.
"It's unfortunate. It's a sad day," said Todd Bridges, who played Mr. Coleman's older brother, Willis, on "Diff'rent Strokes."
"Diff'rent Strokes" debuted on NBC in 1978 and drew most of its laughs from Mr. Coleman, then a tiny 10-year-old with sparkling eyes and perfect comic timing.
He played the younger of two African-American brothers adopted by a wealthy white man. Race and class relations became topics on the show as much as the typical trials of growing up.
"He was the reason we were such a big hit," co-star Charlotte Rae, who played the family's housekeeper on the show, said in an e-mail. "He was the centerpiece and we all surrounded him. He was absolutely enchanting, adorable, funny and filled with joy which he spread around to millions of people all over the world."
"Diff'rent Strokes" lasted six seasons on NBC and two on ABC; it lives on thanks to DVDs and YouTube. But its equally enduring legacy became the troubles in adulthood of its former child stars.
In 1989, Mr. Bridges was acquitted of attempted murder in the shooting of a drug dealer. The then 24-year-old Mr. Bridges testified he became depressed and turned to drugs after "Diff'rent Strokes" was canceled.
Dana Plato, who played the boys' white, teenage sister, pleaded guilty in 1991 to a robbery charge. She died in 1999 of an overdose of painkiller and muscle relaxer. The medical examiner's office ruled the death a suicide.
"It's sad that I'm the last kid alive from the show," Mr. Bridges said.
Mr. Coleman's short stature added to his child-star charm but stemmed from a serious health problem, kidney failure. He got his first of at least two transplants at age 5 and required dialysis. Even as an adult, his height reached only 4 feet 8 inches.
Mr. Coleman was born Feb. 8, 1968, in Zion, Ill., near Chicago. In a 1979 Los Angeles Times profile, his mother, Edmonia Sue Coleman, said he had always been a ham. He acted in some commercials before he was signed by T.A.T., the production company that created "Diff'rent Strokes."
"Gary remembers everything. Everything," co-producer and director Herb Kenwith told the newspaper. "His power of concentration is unlike any adult's I know."
Asked by Ebony magazine in 1979 how he learned his lines so easily, young Gary replied, "It's easy!"
After "Diff'rent Strokes" was canceled, Mr. Coleman continued to get credits for TV guest shots and other small roles over the years, but he never regained more than a shadow of his old popularity. At one point he worked as a security guard.
Mr. Coleman played upon his child-star image as he tried to resurrect his entertainment career in recent years, appearing on late-night shows and "The Surreal Life," a VH1 show devoted to fading celebrities.
His role as a car-washing plantation slave in the 2008 conservative political satire "An American Carol" was cut from the final print. The actor also appeared in last year's "Midgets vs. Mascots," a film that pits little people against mascots in a series of silly contests for a chance to win $1 million. Mr. Coleman met with producers of the film earlier this year to ask them to remove a brief scene of frontal nudity that he says he didn't authorize.
Mr. Coleman told The Associated Press in 2001 that he would do a TV series again, but "only under the absolute condition that it be an ensemble cast and that everybody gets a chance to shine."
"I certainly am not going to be the only person on the show working," he said. "I've done that. I didn't like it."
He also said he preferred earning money from celebrity endorsements. "Now that I'm 33, I can call the shots. ... And if anybody has a problem with that, I guess they don't have to work with me."
Mr. Coleman was among 135 candidates who ran in California's bizarre 2003 recall election to replace then-Gov. Gray Davis, whom voters ousted in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Mr. Coleman, who advocated drastic steps for California's faltering economy such as lowering income taxes and raising sales tax, came in eighth place with 12,488 votes, or 0.2 percent, just behind Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.
Running for office gave him a chance to show another side of himself, he told The Associated Press at the time.
"This is really interesting and cool, and I've been enjoying the heck out of it because I get to be intelligent, which is something I don't get to do very often," he said.
Legal disputes dogged Mr. Coleman repeatedly. In 1989, when he was 21, his mother filed a court request trying to gain control of her son's $6 million fortune, saying he was incapable of handling his affairs. He said the move "obviously stems from her frustration at not being able to control my life."
In a 1993 television interview, he said he had twice tried to kill himself by overdosing on pills.
He moved to Utah in fall 2005, and according to a tally in early 2010, officers were called to assist or intervene with Mr. Coleman more than 20 times in the following years. They included a call where Mr. Coleman said he had taken dozens of Oxycontin pills and "wanted to die."
Some of the disputes involved his wife, Shannon Price, whom he met on the set of the 2006 comedy "Church Ball" and married in 2007.
In September 2008, a dustup with a fan at a Utah bowling alley led Mr. Coleman to plead no contest to disorderly conduct. The fan filed a lawsuit claiming that the actor punched him and ran into him with his truck; the suit was settled out of court.
He remained estranged from his parents, Sue and Willie Coleman, who said they learned about his hospitalization and death from media reports.
Sue Coleman said she wanted to reconcile and had been patiently waiting for her son to be ready.
"One of the things that I had prayed for was that nothing like this would happen before we could sit with Gary and Shannon and say, 'We're here and we love you,'" Sue Coleman said. "We just didn't want to push him."
She would not discuss the cause of the estrangement.