Gary Coleman dead at 42
Friday, May 28, 2010; 3:30 PM
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 Utah hospital from a brain hemorrhage
Washington Post staff writer Hank Stuever was online Friday, May 28, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss the life and career of Gary Coleman. In 2003, Stuever wrote about Coleman's candidacy for California governor: Candidate With A Diff'rence
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Arlington, Va.: How sad -- I hope he finds some peace now.
Hank Stuever: Hi Arlington. And welcome everybody else. We're here in a very impromptu way to work out whatever you need to say or ask about the life of Gary Coleman, who died today. I'm sure the official grieving line is being queued up over at Larry King as we speak.
Back to what Arlington said, I think that's everyone's reaction: may he find peace.
I spent a long morning with Gary in August 2003, as he was enjoying the publicity that came with being one of the many (135, I think it was) people running in the gubernatorial recall election in California. It started early, with Gary's appearance on "Good Day LA." It was a brief but frightening window into the life of a man who was never going to be famous again, except as an object of the strangest sort of pity. He was very open that day, though, to just about anything that would happen. Also, he was very ill -- even back then, it was dialysis several times a week, I seem to recall. It made me ache for him, even as I was just one of many who wanted a piece of the very long "Watchootalkin'bout" punchline and jokey narrative that trailed him forever. I was with him about five minutes before it stopped being funny and became something else.
Please share you thoughts.
Dang: Poor Gary. I had forgotten how smart he was until I just read this article.
I'm glad he found love, at least.
Hank Stuever: He loved computers, video games, web sites. He was an early adapter when it came to things like blogging, using the web to his advantage. In the few hours I spent with him/watching him, I realized what it takes to be canny about being famous for washing out. And how he worked that online, etc. Now, of course, everyone who's ever been on reality tv knows how to do that.
Celebrity Kids: A lot was made about his financial troubles and how his parents and managers raided his trust while he was still a kid.
My question is (not that it's something I expect you to be able to answer) but what is wrong with people? Why do so many celebrity kids get taken advantage of, even by their own families?
Hank Stuever: Yes, it's true. In the course of reporting that profile, I read some of his bankruptcy papers. What happens is this: Mom (and sometimes Dad) uproot and move to LA with potential child star, who then becomes the source of income. I think the percentage of TV stars -- of all ages -- who lose control of the money and can't sustain the lifestyle after cancellation is quite high. Just my hunch. After everyone gets paid (including, hopefully, proper taxes), it's never as much money as it sounds like.
Washington, D.C.: Arnold was HUGE back in the day. Do you think it's possible to have a pop icon like that in our current fragmented, demographic culture? I think we're all too post-ironic to get hooked on a cute kid with a catchphrase now.
Hank Stuever: Just as you pronounce that, it will happen. Probably through YouTube, though. Look at the sort of fame being sought by the dad who made "David After Dentist." Monica Hesse just did a great piece last month about that.
Vienna, Va.: Would you say Coleman was one of the first real examples of child stars going astray after they grew up and becoming tabloid fodder?
Hank Stuever: No. If no one else, Bonaduce has a few years on him.
Also, ever heard a lady named Judy Garland? (You say: but she was old! Yeah, she was five years older -- 47 -- when she died than Gary was today.)
RIP: Do you think Coleman was ever okay with how (I'm sorry to say) cartoonish his image was, or did it still make him angry.
Hank Stuever: My opinion is that it was a great source of anger, woven into a lot of specific things to be resentful about: bankruptcy, family spats, sense of abandonment, lack of companionship (he was a virgin when I interviewed him in 2003, at age 35), butt of jokes, constantly being referred to as a "former child star" ... yeah, I'd be angry. Also, how frustrating to live your life with incredibly serious health issues, and repeated failures (kidney transplants) to get better. I'm sure being a cartoon, as you put it, was the least of it -- at least that provided occasional income over the years.
Also (and this is the part where I need a big flashing sign over my head that says HOW WOULD HANK KNOW?), it seems like there was ALWAYS an angry edge. There's an old Tom Shales interview with Gary, circa 1980, where the kid just seems preternaturally cranky and upset at the world.
Peoria, Ariz.: Maybe now he can find some peace and know how much he meant to everyone. He made so many people laugh on air but I think he was a sad soul and had to fight for whatever happiness he had in this life. Godspeed
Hank Stuever: Ditto.
Avenue Q: Do the producers retire its "Gary Coleman"?
Hank Stuever: Hmmm. Good question. Get me rewrite. There are so many living, washed-up tv stars to sub in.
Washington, D.C.: Okay, here's one thing I never got -- he was going to be a security guard? For real? He was 4-8, what was he going to secure?
Hank Stuever: Insert obvious retort here about security guard duties. I think the most dangerous thing for him on that job might have been the danger of accidentally catching a "Diff'rent Strokes" rerun.
Bethesda, Md.: There was kind of a doomed quality to Gary Coleman that makes me feel bad about ever laughing about him -- from his health problems to the fact that he was obviously never going to have a career as an adult.
Hank Stuever: Yes and yes. Please go read my story from 2003 -- not because it's by me, but because it gets at that aspect of society using him as a joke.
Washington, D.C.: Is this going to make you think twice before watching another reality show with a washed-up TV star or child actor? Can we force the cable channels to funnel some of that money into a retirement fund or something?
Hank Stuever: That is a terrific idea. As you may know, I'm doing most of the Post's TV reviews, and I generally try to steer clear of washed-up celeb (or reality celeb re-entry) shows, because what is there to say? It's not worth the words.
Dallas, TX: Hey there, thanks for doing this chat. For those of us of a certain age, this is sad because he was a part of our lives growing up--when TV was EVERYTHING.
But more than that, here's a guy who never really seemed to deserve all the suffering he went through.
Hank Stuever: Nobody deserved those kind of health problems, to be sure, and almost no one deserves public ridicule lasting decades. It was a tragic life. Fame is its own affliction. Ponderous essay no doubt coming to a large newspaper near you, but not by me.
Thanks everyone, for dropping by. Rest in peace, Gary Coleman.
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