Candidate With A Diff'rence

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

LOS ANGELES --

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.)

Sharply cognizant of his marketing potential as a punch line, he gets up nowadays before 6 a.m. in his modest West L.A. apartment and readies himself for another round of media appearances as a serious (or at least semi-serious) candidate for governor in a statewide recall election to be held Oct. 7.

Except for the two days a week he receives hemodialysis, Coleman honors a steady stream of requests for TV, radio and newspaper interviews.

He will be seen on the Game Show Network next month in a spoofy "Who Wants to Be Governor of California?" competition. If there's an appearance to be made, he is likely to say yes to it, but within limits; at the news conference for the game show last weekend he declined a photo-op request nuzzle into the bosom of fellow candidate and porn actress Mary Cook. ("I'm not gonna make you money today," he sassed to the photographer who asked, according to LA Weekly.) Similarly, he now has nothing but contempt for a local deejay who goes by the name of Big Boy, who Coleman says tried to trick him into saying "Watchoo talkin' 'bout?" and other things that could be edited into humiliating gags. He's also soured on Sean Hannity, the Fox News talk show host, who he says was mean and "bombastic . . . a jerk."

Some of these campaign obligations involve a network sending a car to pick him up, in a manner befitting trips to and from the Land of the Has-Been. Most times, though, he will drive himself to these appointments, as he does this Wednesday dawn to the Fox 11 building at South Bundy and Olympic, in his 2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse. His car, he says, has not yet fallen prey to the dreaded "triple tax" on vehicle registration that some Californians take more seriously as a threat to their daily existence than they do crime, economic calamity or natural disaster.

As a teenager, Coleman made nearly $70,000 an episode to play little Arnold Jackson on the sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes," but that money got away from him a long time ago, and he now believes he couldn't afford triple the cost of registering his car. "But that is the kind of thing that qualifies me for this job, isn't it?" he says. "I'm mad."

Like the state, he has known empty pockets (he filed for bankruptcy protection four summers ago, with $71,890 in debt against $19,850 in assets) and worked his way in and out of solvency. He has seen what comes after the glow. He has been lonely almost as long as he can remember. He believes himself to be a man of the people, even as he wonders what it might be like to be "a normal person."

Shortly after 7, one of the assistants on the set of "Good Day L.A.," a loose and gabby news show at Fox 11, yells out across the room, "Is Gary Coleman here yet?" No response. "Has anyone seen Gary Coleman?" A few minutes later, an assistant producer comes out of the control room and asks, too: "Has Gary Coleman shown up? Have we seen him?"

In his absence, yet another Gary Coleman joke is made, a simple gesture of humor: A Fox staff member sitting in a cubicle reaches out and lowers his palm toward the floor, as if to say, Look down.

Coleman arrives on time, prepared to participate in the hype and punch lines of his own existence. He is cleanshaven and gentlemanly, wearing a creamy tweed sport coat seemingly cut for a boy's Easter church service, with pleated olive dress slacks, with a blue button-down shirt and tie. He steps over to a corner of the set, holds a mirror and makes his own touch-ups to his face with cocoa-colored makeup. He murmurs talking points to himself about California's deficit and energy crisis, fragmented sound bites about "the people" and "the politicians."

And now the news: Police chases in L.A. are significantly down (thus threatening an iconic Southern California image: the aerial shot of hot pursuit). A house burned down. The alleged Belmont Shores rapist appeared in court yesterday. Madonna had J. Lo and Britney over for her 45th-birthday luncheon.

And Gary Coleman is here with us this morning!

As always, the first question for him is whether this is all a mere stunt. He refuses to admit that.

"I'm still running. I haven't pulled out and I'm not going to pull out," he says, but Coleman, who is running as an independent, will say he'll endorse Arnold Schwarzenegger if it gets closer to the election and "I still don't have very many votes."

"What if you win?" bubbles Jillian Barberie, the weatherwoman and fashion reporter with long, Farrah-feathered Valley hair. (God bless Southern California for still having its weather gals, in the absence of serious weather, who stand full-bodied against the chroma-keyed Baja frontal systems and show off their long legs.)

"If I win, I'm going to make a lot of phone calls after I pick myself up off the floor from fainting," Coleman says.

"Okay, Gary," barks the anchor, Steve Edwards. "Let's go through a couple of issues and see how you stand on them. The car tax?"

"Uh, it's necessary, but it doesn't need to be that high."

"How high?"

"I don't think it needs to be tripled. You don't want to balance the budget on the backs of the people."

(In fact, the car tax, with the increases, would barely dent the state's current budget deficit of $38 billion.)

"Okay. Gun control."

"Necessary," says Coleman, who once told Geraldo Rivera he carried a pistol for protection, "but it's still a Second Amendment right."

"Okay. Do you think there needs to be a right for illegal immigrants to get, er, social and medical help here in California?"

"No, I do not."

"What would you do about immigration?"

"You can't stop the floodgates," Coleman says. "But you need to come up with new ways to stop people from getting across the border."

"You know," Barberie coos, "I like him."

"Great," Edwards sniffs. "You just got the Canadian vote, Gary."

(Barberie, alas, can't vote here.)

"So what's your platform," Barberie then asks, "on people who say, 'Watchoo talkin' 'bout?' "

Uh-oh. She had to go and say it. This is usually the point where Gary Coleman doesn't quite appreciate his contribution in the world, and the world is unsatisfied if he stops contributing the one thing they desire of him.

Since Aug. 6, when Coleman gave an alternative weekly newspaper in the Bay Area permission to jokingly nominate him for governor (the paper also spotted him the $3,500 filing fee, and gathered the necessary 65 legitimate signatures in support), Coleman has walked a line of believing in his own legitimacy and mocking it. This is harder than it looks. The newspaper, the East Bay Express, seemed to deploy the stunt merely to mock the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis. It naturally followed, in terms of identifying with its Gen-X demographic, to pick a child star who ascended in the glorious days of late-'70s television, the Happiest Days, as it were. Despite his innermost desire to be viewed as a tough, profane, sharp-witted man about town, Coleman is still very much the lovable rascal he played on television and in a few movies: He is still sass-talkin', folksy, and marketable in a black way that plays cute to Middle America.

In the spectacle of the California recall election, it would seem to almost any observer that Coleman's sole purpose as a candidate is to be on hand to watchoo, etc., his diminutive heart out, to pop some one-liners about the mess the state is in, and to pose for pictures with all manner of quasi-celebrities, voters, the buxom, the marginalized, the masses. Only this week has an unsettling reality sunk in:

Gary Coleman, in Gary Coleman's mind, is seriously running for governor of California. Step one is to schmooze his way to Sacramento, to let himself be patronized.

"You're cute enough," he purrs back to Barberie. "You can say it."

"Do you have a girlfriend?" she asks.

"No. Are you making me an offer?" he asks. "I can take you away from weather maps."

"I, uh, um, no," Barberie stammers. ("First lady of California," anchor Edwards leaps in. "Or director of communications!")

She changes the subject.

Rejection is a recurrent theme in the life of Gary Coleman, so it's actually no problem, he says later, to put himself on a ballot of 135 candidates and take his chances in the statewide psychodrama. In a recent celebrity dating show on E!, he is seen trying to get a home phone number from his setup date; she is seen physically running from him; the camera records him taking it all in stride. Implied in all this is the subtle refrain: Gary Coleman Can't Win.

This is also the obvious point of his campaign. Gary Coleman Can't Win, and yet the electorate (and a bemused world beyond the state line) is repeatedly tantalized by the mere notion that Gary Coleman Could Win, with only a fraction of the votes. In some way, this is what the recall movement has stirred up in the people. It is the frightening prospect of a government that shifts much the same way people flip TV channels, or the way the famous descend to obscurity. California is at once smitten and embarrassed by it all.

Food for Thought

He is shown through a hallway toward the studio exit, but not before a station employee comes up to him and asks to have her picture taken with him, hugging him and telling him he's so cute. Another employee, a camera operator, comes over to reminisce about their days working together on the "Diff'rent Strokes" set, during the first season, 1978-79. (Coleman doesn't remember the man, but he remembers the studio.) The two men talk about the old building, where "Soul Train" was also taped. It's being torn down now, Coleman learns, and he seems genuinely sad for a moment.

Then it occurs to him he was promised breakfast in all this. "Wasn't there something about a breakfast?"

"Did they tell you that you could get breakfast?" a station employee asks. And Coleman insists, so he is led to the back end of the studio, where an intern-aged young woman sits and guards a picked-over buffet table of grocery store bagels, a few Danish pastries and an almost empty tray of scrambled eggs. Coleman makes himself a plate of eggs and covers them with salt and pepper.

He eats rapidly, standing up, and patiently explains to us where he's "been," what he's been doing all these years: "Unless you've been living under a rock, you'd know I've been right here, that I've been busy." He's designed a video game. He is the spokesman for a Web network called UGO.com, which has assigned him to various publicity tasks, such as writing an online advice column, and escorting models to awards shows. He says he recently had a part in a small independent film called "A Christmas Too Many," currently unreleased, about "a dysfunctional family who has a vegan Christmas." Earlier this year, in another expression of American television's love for its recent past, Coleman and "Strokes" co-stars Todd Bridges and Conrad Bain reunited in March at the TV Land Awards, to present the prize for "Funniest Food Fight."

Coleman prefers to live by himself. "Family," he says, "never meant anything to me but a whole lot of trouble that I don't need," although he is on speaking terms with his own, after years of protracted court disputes. A 1993 settlement awarded Coleman an amount believed to be several hundred thousand dollars, maybe a million -- but almost all of it going to legal fees. He says he never wants to have children.

This is not to say he isn't a warm, friendly person, because he very much means to be; testiness, however, has always been his trademark. As a 10-year-old overnight sensation being interviewed by The Washington Post's television critic, Tom Shales, he was similarly snappish, petulant, at least in print:

"[The episode titled] 'Goodbye Dolly,' the one we're working on now, I think is going to be a FLOP," he said, while eating a slice of carrot cake.

"I don't particularly like that show. All the dumb lines they threw into it! It's about a doll that I sleep with -- who wants to see that? Why can't be something important, like it's always been? A doll! Who wants to see that baloney?"

Do studio audiences always laugh at the right time? Shales wondered.

"No, they're as dumb as we are."

Does he like signing autographs?

"No. I remember one night when I had to sign at least 300 of them. I got writer's cramp! My hand was like THIS [he scrunches his hand into a gnarl]."

In fact, it was the request for an autograph that resulted in an assault charge against Coleman 20 years later, for which he was sentenced to anger management classes (which angered him, because they focused on domestic violence, which only reminded him that he had no love life).

Arnold Jackson, Coleman's sitcom character, was one of the last Norman Lear creations to at once confront and then gloss over an American pop-cultural exploration of race. Phillip Drummond (Bain) is a white millionaire who adopts the two sons of his deceased black housekeeper.

"Real boys!" exclaims Drummond's prep-school teenager daughter (Dana Plato) in the pilot episode, which aired in November 1978. "Hi, big brother! Hi, little brother!"

To which Arnold snaps, "What she smokin'?"

Watchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis followed soon after.

It would never leave him.

A Life More Ordinary

The show lasted for 189 episodes, as Arnold Jackson learned life's little lessons from a revolving cast of guest stars, including Nancy Reagan, who told him to stay off drugs, and Mr. T, who answered his watchoos with a pity-the-fool. His exhaustion with the role, and another failed kidney transplant in 1984, sapped him of a particular level of cheer that audiences expected, and producers brought in another child to play his new stepbrother. (An early episode for that character revolved around bed-wetting.)

Finally, around the time the call sheet ominously featured "David Hasselhoff as himself," the show was canceled, wrapping its last episode in February 1986, when Coleman was 18 (and still playing an eternal 12-year-old boy). By 1990 he had fired all his agents and managers, and sued his parents in an attempt to locate his lost fortune.

He describes his twenties as "boring" -- a constant yearning to find himself and finding nothing, and no one. He left California and lived in Denver for a while, but show business drew him back in. He believes in working for a living, and so he has taken almost any job he could stomach. He spends a lot of time doing "nothing," he says, but he still has model trains, and he spends a lot of time on the Internet. He likes go-karts and bowling. His favorite restaurants are Hamburger Hamlet, Tony Roma's and Chili's. It's a nice life, he says, and it is a manhood, despite how people sometimes treat him. He is able to laugh about himself, but you should be careful not to humiliate him: Don't pet him, don't lift him, don't tell him what to do.

You could, if you lived in California, vote for him. He'd like that.

"My slogan is I'm the least qualified guy for the job, but I'd probably do the best job. I have no ambitions or any motivation at all to be a politician," he says, getting ready to go back to his car. "I am going to be a private citizen who happens to be governor. I'm not going to be political about anything. I'm going to make decisions. I'm going to decide things that are good for the state as a whole, not a left-wing or right-wing or no-wing kind of thing. You've got your senators and representatives and they're going to be fighting me tooth and nail, because I'm going to be going after their little honey pot way too often. So I'm about being a public servant. Career politicians have forgotten that their job is to make life better for their citizens . . . "

And on he goes, auditioning for the part.

Any part.

Going back to Zion, he says, is not an option. He is stuck here.

If it could happen all over again, he would never have come to Hollywood as a boy. He would have said no to the commercials and the sitcom. He doesn't think children should be allowed in television or movies. "They can make dinosaurs in movies now," he says. "Then they can make children, too."

He is also aware of the special effects of California's overbudgeted politics, and he still wants more than a bit part. He wants to be bigger than they think he is.

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