Gary Coleman, child star of TV's 'Diff'rent Strokes,' dies at 42

By Matt Schudel
Saturday, May 29, 2010; B04

Gary Coleman, 42, the diminutive, wisecracking child star of the sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes," whose adult life collapsed into a tabloid calamity, died Friday at a hospital in Provo, Utah. He suffered a brain hemorrhage after falling at his home in Santaquin, Utah.

Mr. Coleman was 10 when he stepped into the national spotlight in 1978, playing the witty, lovable Arnold Jackson on NBC's "Diff'rent Strokes." The role was created for him and made Mr. Coleman the best-known child star on television for the eight years the hit comedy was on the air.

He played the younger of two orphaned African American brothers adopted by a white Manhattan millionaire after the death of their mother, the rich man's housekeeper. The show was a comedic showcase for Mr. Coleman, who looked younger than his age because his growth had been stunted by a congenital kidney condition.

On the set, he proved to be a thorough professional who could memorize his dialogue in a single reading and deliver it with perfect timing. His signature line, directed toward his brother, played by Todd Bridges, became a nationwide catch phrase: "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

"The true star of the show is 10-year-old Gary Coleman as 8-year-old Arnold," Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote when the show premiered, calling Mr. Coleman "a most unusual tot with a strikingly professional comic delivery."

Newsweek pronounced him "NBC's Littlest Big Man" and "possibly the most original vid-kid since Howdy Doody."

The show was such a cultural touchstone that first lady Nancy Reagan appeared on "Diff'rent Strokes" in 1983 to make an anti-drug pitch.

Mr. Coleman also had his own Saturday morning cartoon show and was a guest on "The Tonight Show," where he upstaged Johnny Carson, who jokingly asked whether he wanted to take over the rest of the show.

"With all the laughing and cheering out there," he replied, "quite possibly."

As Mr. Coleman's salary rose from $1,500 to $70,000 an episode, his fragile health continued to deteriorate. He had undergone two kidney transplants by the time he was 14, and he was on dialysis while taping "Diff'rent Strokes."

When the show was canceled in 1986, he was 18 and had amassed a personal fortune estimated at $18 million. But his life quickly devolved into a sorry spectacle of lawsuits, countersuits, recriminations and hurt feelings.

He sued his parents and advisers for taking money from trust funds meant to support him as he grew older. In court, his parents charged that Mr. Coleman had been brainwashed by a manager and was not competent to handle his affairs. In the end, Mr. Coleman won a $1.28 million settlement, but his relationship with his parents was all but fractured.

Now an adult with two failed kidneys, the 4-foot-8 Mr. Coleman was becoming increasingly embittered and unemployable. He found occasional work in film and TV, but mostly he watched his money slip through his hands. At one point, his father said, Mr. Coleman tried to run him over with a car.

"Gary Coleman's rage," as a Los Angeles Times article bluntly put it, "is the direct result of being pampered, badgered and obliged to keep on being a cute freak for hire."

By the late 1990s, his life was crashing in a sad, gossip-fueled tailspin. One of his fellow child stars on "Diff'rent Strokes," Dana Plato, died of a drug overdose. Bridges served time on drug and weapons charges.

Mr. Coleman sold many of his possessions, filed for bankruptcy and was working as a security guard at a Los Angeles mall in 1999 when a woman recognized him and asked for an autograph. They got into an argument, exchanged blows and ended up in court, where a tearful Mr. Coleman pleaded no contest to battery.

Describing his fight with the 200-pound woman, he reportedly said, "I'm 4-foot 8-inches, 86 pounds of nothing."

Gary Wayne Coleman was born Feb. 8, 1968, in Zion, Ill., and was adopted as an infant by a blue-collar family. Mr. Coleman's kidney disease was diagnosed at 18 months, and he had his first transplant at 5.

He began modeling for a local store at 7 and appeared in TV commercials. A talent scout recommended him to producer Norman Lear, who cast the budding actor in episodes of "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons." Recognizing Mr. Coleman's appeal, Lear and his production team designed "Diff'rent Strokes" around him.

In later years, Mr. Coleman felt trapped by his early fame and yearned to find a dramatic role to play as an adult. He appeared on a celebrity dating show, worked as a corporate pitchman and wrote an online advice column. In 2003, a weekly newspaper promoted him as an independent candidate for California governor, and during his half-serious campaign he said he was the only virgin on the ballot. He received more than 14,000 votes in the election won by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After moving to Utah, Mr. Coleman married 22-year-old Shannon Price in August 2007. Nine months later, they appeared on the TV show "Divorce Court" apparently trying to work out a public reconciliation. Mr. Coleman and his wife were arrested several times for disorderly conduct and, in January, he was jailed overnight for domestic violence.

He continued to have health problems, including heart surgery in 2009 and a series of seizures.

Besides his wife, survivors include his parents, W.G. Coleman and Edmonia Sue Coleman of Zion.

"Family never meant anything to me," Mr. Coleman said in 2003, "but a whole lot of trouble that I don't need."

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