Gary Coleman, the diminutive actor who came into the consciousness of the television viewing public as a precocious child with phenomenal comedic timing, died recently at the age of 42 in Provo, Utah, after falling on his head at his home and sustaining a brain hemorrhage.
Coleman was one of America’s favorite television child stars of the late 1970s through the mid-1980s and an inspiring story of success over a handicap. Born with a defective kidney in 1968 in Zion, Ill., near Chicago, his growth was stunted from childhood (he would ultimately grow only to be 4’8″), and he always appeared younger than his age. His adoptive parents allowed him to be a child model at age five because it was an activity in which their son could excel without fear of injury.
A highly intelligent youngster, Coleman quickly developed acting ability and was a frequent child actor in Chicago-area stores and banks in the mid-’70s. He won several awards for these commercials. A talent scout for television producer Norman Lear saw them and brought him to appear in the proposed pilot for a series based on the “Little Rascals.”
The show did not become a regular series but Lear kept Coleman under contract and featured him as a guest star on key Lear productions such as “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons” while working with his production company to create a project for the young actor.
“When he walks onto a stage, something has happened, and you feel it,” Lear explained. “That’s called presence, and it’s rare. Many important actors, even stars, don’t have it. Gary does.”
Ultimately, Lear developed “Diff’rent Strokes” in 1978. The situation comedy was based on a wealthy, White widower adopting his recently deceased Black maid’s two sons from Harlem to live with him, his daughter, and their new maid in his elegant penthouse on Park Avenue in New York. The show became a major hit, and the 10-year-old Coleman was a star. Included in this multiracial cast were Conrad Bain (as the wealthy Philip Drummond), Todd Bridges (as older brother Willis), Dana Plato (as sister Kimberly), and Charlotte Rae (as new maid Ms. Garrett).
The scene-stealing Coleman quickly became a pop cultural icon, with his catch phrase, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout …?” becoming part of the country’s vernacular. He was praised by comedy giants Redd Foxx, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, and Eddie Murphy and was in big demand on the television talk show circuit. During a memorable appearance on the “Tonight Show,” the late, legendary host Johnny Carson closed the interview by asking the pre-teenaged Coleman, “What night are you available for guest host?”
The young actor was extremely active, despite his medical condition, making at least one television movie during each hiatus from “Diff’rent Strokes.” These movies included “The Kid from Left Field,” “The Kid With a Broken Halo,” “The Kid With the 200 I.Q.,” and “Playing With Fire.”
Coleman had received a kidney transplant at age six, but in 1982 the kidney began to fail. Consequently, he was forced to rely on portable dialysis equipment. In November of 1984, he received a second transplant. He returned to “Diff’rent Strokes” two months later with the words, “Let’s go to work.”
As the years progressed, however, Coleman’s energy for his work was frustrated by his stunted growth’s impact on the television series’ story line. Unlike Bridges and Plato, who were allowed to grow and have episode plots with teenage dating and adolescent romance, Coleman was stuck in the role of the “cute, cuddly, cherub-cheeked kid.” The show’s writers found it difficult to create scenes for the young star focusing on a romantic interest for him. “That was frustrating for Gary,” Bain recalled. “He wanted to have stories where he had a girlfriend. However, the writers and producers did not feel the audience would believe it.”
Harriet Scott, TV Guide columnist, made the observation about how key factors in making an on-screen couple successful were never possible for someone such as Coleman. “For a viewing audience to have even a mild connection with an on-screen couple, be it in movies or on television,” Scott explained, “Two factors must be present. One, the female must be appealing to the eye. At least to the point that the viewer who isn’t even attracted to her can see why her on-screen counterpart is in love with her. Two, the male must be unquestionably taller than his female counterpart, even if she is wearing nosebleed heels.
“That was never going to happen with Coleman, who was well short of five feet,” the columnist lamented.
When “Diff’rent Strokes” left the air in 1986, the actor’s television career fizzled. He made only occasional guest appearances and had mostly small roles in films and television movies. Financial problems would soon follow.
At the zenith of his success, Coleman reportedly earned $18 million. However, by 1989, he was suing his parents and his former business manager, Anita DeThomas, for squandering his fortune. The Colemans and DeThomas countersued the actor for defamation and breach of contract. The legal fight ended in 1993, when a Santa Monica Superior Court Judge awarded the former child star $1.28 million and ruled that his parents and manager had wrongfully profited as his guardians and managers, during five years while he was a minor.
As an adult, Coleman had encounters with the law that put his name back in the news. In 1998, he was charged with punching an autograph-seeker, Tracy Fields, in the face, allegedly telling her “all you Black people are alike.” Bridges, who has faced his own legal and personal difficulties since the cancellation of “Diff’rent Strokes,” recently said that Coleman was taught by his parents to disassociate with Blacks.
For the 1998 incident, the actor was fined and ordered to take anger management classes. Coleman’s financial problems continued, and he eventually filed for bankruptcy in 1999.
In the new millennium, Coleman worked as a commercial pitchman and even ran for political office. In 2003, during the recall Governor Gray Davis, Coleman ran for the office of governor of California. He was among a group of 135 candidates that included eventual winner Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, and then-San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens.
A New York Times writer wrote that Coleman had “become the poster child of the California freak show that is the governor’s recall election.”
Coleman was outwardly confident that he could run the state. “My slogan,” the actor said at the time, “is I’m the least qualified guy for the job, but I’d probably do the best job.”
The Washington Post reported that Coleman, who went on to lose the election, “has walked a line of believing in his own legitimacy and mocking it.”
In his private life, despite Diff’rent Strokes writers’ inability to pair him with a romantic interest and to the astonishment of some, Coleman married Shannon Price in a secret ceremony in the summer of 2007. Price struck an interesting contrast to the former child star in that she was White, 11 inches taller, and 17 years younger. “Her age and height don’t matter to me,” Coleman said. “I have issues with intelligence. She’s more intelligent than I am, and that’s what matters to me.”
However, there was turbulence during their brief marriage prior to his death. Each accused the other of domestic violence in 2008 and 2009, respectively, with Coleman accepting a plea deal in Utah to pay a fine of $595 and to complete classes in avoiding domestic violence. These incidents marked an unfortunate turn for the actor once recognized as one of the most popular figures in television.
Ultimately, Coleman became exasperated with his “Diff’rent Strokes” image. “I want to escape the legacy of Arnold Jackson,” he said. “I’m someone more. It would be nice, if the world thought of me as something more.”
Coleman is survived by his wife and parents Willie and Sue Coleman.