Former child star Gary Coleman, who rose to fame as the wisecracking youngster Arnold Jackson on the TV sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” but grew up to grapple with a troubled adulthood, has died. He was 42.
“We are very sad to have to report Mr. Gary Coleman has passed away,” his spokesman, John Alcantar, said in a statement Friday afternoon. “He was removed from life support; soon thereafter, he passed quickly and peacefully. By Gary’s bedside were his wife and other close family members.”
Coleman died of a brain hemorrhage at a Provo, Utah, hospital, according to a hospital spokeswoman. The actor fell ill at his Santaquin, Utah, home Wednesday evening and was rushed by ambulance to a hospital, Coleman’s spokesman had said earlier Friday.
He was then taken to another hospital — Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo — later Wednesday night.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Coleman was one of television‘s brightest stars, the personality around which NBC’s “Strokes” — the story of two inner-city children who are taken in by a wealthy businessman, his daughter and their housekeeper — was built.
“There was a touch of magic and a different stroke in Gary Coleman. He was the inspiration behind his show’s title,” said producer Norman Lear, whose company oversaw the show.
Coleman’s natural charm and way with a line — the frequently uttered “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”, directed at his older brother (played by Todd Bridges), became a catchphrase — helped make the show a breakout hit, a mainstay of the NBC schedule from 1978 to 1985 (and on ABC for a year afterward).
But in later years Coleman’s name became a punch line. He was denigrated because of his short stature — he never grew taller than 4 feet 8 inches because of nephritis, a kidney condition. He sued his parents over mismanagement of his finances; though he won a $1.3 million settlement in 1993, he had to file for bankruptcy six years later. He was occasionally in the news for scuffles.
Indeed, the 2003 Broadway musical “Avenue Q” featured a character named Gary Coleman who was identified as the former star of “Diff’rent Strokes,” and was now the superintendent of an apartment building. (Coleman himself had once been a security guard after “Diff’rent Strokes” went off the air.) The character joined the cast in singing a song called “It Sucks to Be Me.”
Coleman was born on February 8, 1968, and raised in Zion, Illinois, near Chicago. He was adopted as an infant by Willie Coleman, a representative for a pharmaceutical company, and Sue Coleman, a nurse. By age 5, Coleman was modeling for retailer Montgomery Ward, a job that was followed by appearances in commercials for McDonald’s and Hallmark, according to a 1979 profile in People magazine.
After Lear cast him in an unsuccessful pilot for a new version of “The Little Rascals” — Coleman played Stymie — he got the role of Arnold in “Diff’rent Strokes.”
“Pudgy cheeks, twinking eyes, and flawless timing made him seem like an old pro packed into the body of a small child,” wrote Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh in “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present.”
At the time, NBC was mired in last place among the three major broadcast networks and, excluding movies, had just two series in the Nielsen Top 20. “Strokes” was an immediate hit, finishing in the Top 30 its first three years, and made Coleman into a household name.
Veterans marveled at his comic timing. He appeared several times on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” performed on several specials and had a hit TV movie with “The Kid From Left Field.” Until NBC started its mid-’80s rise with “The A-Team” and “The Cosby Show,” he was the primary prime-time face of the network.
“Gary is exceptional, and not only by the standards set for children. He’s bright, sweet and affectionate. He seems incapable of a wrong reading, and I’ve never seen that in any actor,” co-star Conrad Bain, who played “Strokes’ ” millionaire industrialist Philip Drummond, told People in 1979.
“His talent,” his mother added, “may be God’s way of compensating him for what he’s been through, and the fact that he’ll never have the physical size of other boys.” Coleman reportedly had a kidney transplant at 5, and would have another when he was 16.
Coleman was ready for new challenges when “Diff’rent Strokes” was canceled in 1986.
“I liked “Diff’rent Strokes” up until about the last three or four years. I was bored,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 1999. “I was disinterested, and I was jealous because I was missing my childhood and I was missing normalcy. I knew what normalcy was, and I wasn’t having it.”
But after the show went off the air, the actor — by then 18 — struggled to find a place in show business. He had occasional guest spots on game shows and other sitcoms but rarely regular work. (His youthful co-stars fared no better — Bridges struggled with drug addiction before turning his life around, and Dana Plato, who played Kimberly Drummond, engaged in porn and crime. She died in 1999.)
Coleman also found himself with little money, after making more than $70,000 an episode at “Diff’rent Strokes’ ” peak. Upon turning 18, he looked into his finances and discovered that his fortune — which should have been put in a trust fund and totaled in the millions — was mostly nonexistent. A lawsuit against his “adopted parents,” as he started calling them, was resolved in Coleman’s favor, but he lost the money in attorneys’ fees and bad investments, he told People in 1999. At one point in the ’90s he was a security guard on a movie set.
He wanted to work, he told King.
“I like to work. To answer the thing about the security guard, it’s actually two parts. I like to work, and I’m not going to allow this industry or any industry to prevent me from earning a living,” he said.
Still, by the time People interviewed him that same year — after he declared bankruptcy — he was down to $100 cash, a few thousand in merchandise, an $800-a-month apartment and a leased pickup. He had also been sued by an autograph seeker whom he’d struck, claiming he’d felt threatened.
In the past 10 years, the headlines were generally bad news — “Gary Coleman cited for disorderly conduct” (2007), “Gary Coleman in alleged bowling alley scuffle” (2008), “Gary Coleman charged with reckless driving” (2008), “Gary Coleman hospitalized for another seizure” (2010).
Even the bright spots had dark shadows: He married 22-year-old Shannon Price in 2007, but the marriage hit the rocks before they had celebrated their first anniversary. At the time of his death, the couple had filed for divorce.
But he stayed active. He took guest spots, promotional appearances and — in 2003 — ran for governor of California.
Part of his drive, he said, came from his height.
“I suffer a little bit from Napoleonism, if you will,” he said in 2003. “I don’t like being short. I wish I was tall because I’d be accepted in other, more tall circles or adult circles, if you will.”
At one time, when Coleman was on top of the world, he’d hoped to be a great actor like his hero, Sidney Poitier, according to People. He never let go of his dream, even after all his troubles, the magazine reported.
“He’s an intelligent, successful black man,” Coleman told People in 1999. Then he laughed, aware he’d always have other challenges. “But he’s taller, so success comes rather more easily to him.”