Whatchu Talkin’ ‘Bout, Travis?: Why, Gary Coleman and “Diff’rent Strokes”!

February 8 is the birthday of the late Gary Coleman (1968-2010). Let’s put this post sort of half in my series of Black History Month posts. It’s not exactly celebratory, but it does concern two African American stars, as well as a groundbreaking (if not very good) show about an integrated family. But, it’s also a story about exploitation and lack of opportunity so maybe it fully belongs here. And it does end on a hopeful, even inspirational note.

Coleman, you will recall, was a child-star of rare adorableness. He gained notice in a 1977 reboot of the Little Rascals with which Norman Lear was involved. (Coleman played Stymie). Next came guest shots on Lear’s shows The Jeffersons and Good Times in 1978. Due to a medical condition (he would never grow taller than 4’8″), Coleman looked much younger than he was, so it was quite startling when he said and did precocious things a younger tyke probably wouldn’t have thought to do. A younger kid IS cute. Coleman USED his cuteness.

People took to Coleman so much that he was put at the center of a new sitcom called Diff’rent Strokes in 1978. The premise (reiterated by a catchy theme song at the top of each episode) was simple. A widowed white millionaire (played by Conrad Bain, fresh off of Maude, another Lear show) adopts the two orphaned kids of his recently deceased African American employee. The brothers were played by Coleman and another recognizable child actor of the day, Todd Bridges. Believe it or not, I actually recognized Bridges when the series started — he had been a regular on Fish the previous season, and lots of other shows I had watched, like Roots and Little House on the Prairie and others. Though his role as the older (less cute) kid on Diff’rent Strokes was kind of thankless, he had the most successful career by far of the three kids on the show, both before and after this particular series.

So these poor Harlem street kids, who were after all not babies, had to adjust to a new white sibling played by Dana Plato, and vice versa. Plato’s character wasn’t nearly as obnoxious and hateable as I imagine most children in the Drummond’s financial circumstances might be, but she still wasn’t too likable. By today’s standards the show had a “white savior” thing going on that isn’t too enchanting in the ultimate analysis. And interestingly, the only setting I ever recall seeing was the interior of their Fifth Avenue penthouse. I don’t remember ever seeing the kids’ old neighborhood other than in the credit sequence. Anyway. It is what it is.

For a few months, everyone was parroting Coleman’s cute catchphrase, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” — followed by a pouty, skeptical kid-face. Our favorite character on the show was the funny, humane maid Mrs. Garrett, played by the immortal Charlotte Rae. And I guess most people felt that way, because the producer yanked her off the show during the second season and set her up in her own sitcom The Facts of Life. That’s about when I lost interest in Diff’rent Strokes on a regular basis. Nor had I had any interest in The Facts of Life, which was about a girls’ school. I was about 13 and I admit that Lisa Whelchel made my heart go pit-a-pat, but not only were there no boys on the show, but the writing seemed even worse than that on Diff’rent Strokes. You know that Aesop Fable about the greedy dog who had a bone, saw a reflection of a bone, and lost the first bone, trying to get two dog bones? Ladies and gentlemen, this viewer was that lost dog bone. 

Oh, I still tuned into Diff’rent Strokes from time to time. They slammed the “very special” episode thing hard, and they often booked interesting celebrity guests like Muhammad Ali and Nancy Reagan (the latter of whom we naturally tuned in to hate-watch). “Just say no to drugs!” she intoned. But Dana Plato and Todd Bridges didn’t listen.

The show remained on the air until 1986. That’s a healthy run of eight years. While it was on, Coleman did okay for himself. He had lots of guest shots on other TV shows, and he starred in several TV movies, and was in at least one theatrical film. But it looks like all those appearances were just part of a grand scheme to cross-promote, to feed viewers to the mother-show. The instant it was over, so did the offers evaporate.

In 1989 (the minute he turned 21, I notice) Coleman sued his parents, lawyers, accountants, and whomever else he could think of for misappropriating and mismanaging his earnings. He won the suit, but that was really the only good news of his post-Diff’rent Strokes career. He did get occasional cameos and guest shots over the next couple of decades, though many of them were humiliating self-referential goofs on his identity, not unlike the sort of gigs Herve Villechaize was forced to do after Fantasy Island. Most of Coleman’s last years were spent embroiled in legal battles, altercations, arrests, menial jobs, and health problems, which eventually killed him at the young age of 42.

Equally sad, if not sadder was the fate of Dana Plato. She missed the last couple of seasons of the show (apart from a few guest appearances) due to pregnancy and substance abuse issues. Hardly the image the producers wanted for the show! She was married when this happened, but only 21, and after this her slide was strictly downward. Her drug problem worsened. An accountant stole most of her money. In 1989, she posed nude for Playboy, which is fine for plenty of celebrities, but probably not for one who is trying to pull her public image out of the mire. She slid from B movies to softcore porn. In 1991 Plato made headlines for committing armed robbery. Finally, in 1999 following a particularly mortifying appearance on Howard Stern’s radio show she committed suicide by overdose at age 34. 11 years later, Tyler Lambert, the son she’d had while still on Diff’rent Strokes, blew his own brains out. This is one sad story. Back in the day, we used to snicker about the Diff’rent Strokes Curse, and the idea of Dana Plato robbing a video store at gunpoint, but the full might of the thing, when you add up the whole story is just heartbreaking. It’s so sad it takes your breath away.

Nor was Todd Bridges immune. In 1989, the same year Gary Coleman made headlines by suing his parents, and Dana Plato was baring her knockers for Playboy, the world learned that Bridges had a crack problem. We learned about it as secondary news when he went on trial for shooting his crack dealer. Bridges was acquitted and he also seems to have beaten his drug problem, which is why I said at the top that the story has a silver lining. Bridges has been acting in film and television for decades, and seems to have put his past behind him. So, I still get to laugh at Nancy Reagan, right?

My main take away from this story is what a sewer Hollywood is. All three of these kids were exploited by an army of predators and parasites. Clearly none of them were raised with any sensible guidance for how to function as an adult.  Then, when they were down and out (grown-ups or no grown-ups), it seems like NONE of them had a friend they could turn to. It’s like Timon of Athens.

And naturally there’s no safety net for the jobless or people with addiction. I guess, if we’re to go with the thesis of Diff’rent Strokes, our plan is to hope all poor children get adopted by millionaires?