Candidate With A Diff'rence

Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2003; 3:14 PM


Far from seeing himself in the governor's chair, Gary Coleman instead imagines an altogether alternative universe, how his life might have been blissfully perfect as a nobody.

In this fantasy he still allows for the loss of his kidneys as a toddler, and the failure of two kidney transplants that followed over the years, and the continual doses of immunosuppressants that kept him alive but halted his growth to four inches shy of five feet tall.

Even in his dreams of what might have been, he will still be self-conscious enough not to sit publicly in chairs or sofas in which his legs can be seen dangling.

In this other scenario he never struts down the runway of a Montgomery Ward spring fashion show in Zion, Ill., in 1975, and therefore never hears the delighted screams of the Midwestern crowd that does not happen to be watching a cute, black 7-year-old perform an impromptu shuck and jive in a three-piece suit. Therefore, he never becomes addicted to that kind of attention, and his mother never takes her ailing, sweet-natured, wisecracking child to a casting agent, and so Gary Coleman never gets picked to star in a Harris Bank commercial that amuses Chicago television audiences, and so he never catches the attention of producer Norman Lear, and so his fate doesn't involve characters named Mr. Drummond or Mrs. Garrett. The best part of the fantasy is that he never once says the line "Watchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" because there is no Willis, because there is never a sitcom called "Diff'rent Strokes."

Somewhat sacrificially, in Coleman's fantasy, there is no earning of $18 million that will be chewed away by family feuds, bad decisions, lawsuits, agents and greedy managers, and there is also never a vast collection of model choo-choo trains for young Gary to obsessively collect. He never sues his parents, and they never ask a judge to find him mentally incompetent.

In the fantasy, it is Emmanuel "Webster" Lewis who has to run for governor of California.

In the fantasy, there are no Gary Coleman epilogues because there are no Gary Coleman prologues. There is no hubris-rich E! documentary about his stardom and downfall, or the over-publicized, brief time spent in his late twenties working as a security guard. There is no mention of the autograph-seeking fan he allegedly assaulted in 1998, because there are no fans. There is just the story of a boy who grows up short.

What Gary Coleman, now 35, wishes for most is that he never left Zion.

"I would be working in Kmart, or -- what was that five-and-dime called? -- Ben Franklin," he says. "And I would be happy."

Instead, Coleman became one of those exotically unhappy California citizens who live up to or down to a permanent condition of striving, a carefully cultivated limbo called former child star. Like many other Californians, he's worried about his next paycheck, cranky about his taxes, abstractly concerned for the environment and ticked off when the lights go out. He frets over the water supply that leads to his faucet, the hungry immigrant mouths who he says sap the state's resources.

He gripes about backed-up freeways and mass transit. ("There is not a bus in California that takes me anywhere I want to go," he says, in a trademark huff, evoking a larger sense of being stranded in life.)

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company