Perhaps Gary Coleman was the child star I was most enamoured with in my adolescent years, if because we are roughly the same age. And even to my pre-cinematically trained eyes, it was obvious that this kid had talent to burn. Small wonder did he capture the hearts of countless TV viewers on the hit comedy "Diff'rent Strokes" (1978-1986), as the younger of two African American kids, Arnold and Willis Jackson (Coleman and Todd Bridges, respectively), who are taken in by a white Park Avenue man, Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), who also had a daughter of his own (Kimberly, played by Dana Plato- a childhood crush) and a funny maid (first Charlotte Rae then Nedra Volz) to round out the weekly fun. The formula worked because the writing was lively and sharp, giving ample opportunities for these eclectic characters to grow and learn from each other. Of course, Coleman sold the show with his energy, timing, cuteness, and naturally his catch phrase: the oft-repeated "What you talkin' about (insert name here)?"
Looking back on his credits, it is astonishing to see the big gulf in his acting career for several years after "Diff'rent Strokes" ended. Not only was Gary Coleman a ubiquitous face in the media because of the hit show, but he seemed to always be working whenever the show was on hiatus: appearing in inoffensive TV movies, the odd theatrical film, and even guest shots on other series. (He even did a great comic turn as a futuristic president in the "Buck Rogers" TV series, seen above with Twiki the Robot). (After school in the early 1980's, I used to catch reruns of "The Jeffersons", and once was surprised to see "Arnold" playing George Jefferson's bratty nephew Raymond-- he was even turning up in syndication!). Somewhere along the way, "Diff'rent Strokes" moved from Fridays to Saturdays -a careless decision which affected its ratings since its demographic wasn't home Saturday nights- and also "jumped the shark" by having Mr. Drummond getting married, and bringing another cute kid (Danny Cooksey) to the formula. One assumes that it was during these shifts that Gary Coleman got tired of playing cute kid Arnold (when you're 16, it's not flattering to keep being 12)- in fact, he later confessed his joy at seeing the show get cancelled.
After "Diff'rent Strokes" ended with a whimper not a bang, so too did Gary Coleman slip from the public eye. It was six years later that I was reminded about him again- six years is not a long time in the life cycle, but an eternity for show biz. The glossy rag I was reading at my convenience store job had a photograph of an older, haggard Gary Coleman with a Fresh Prince haircut appearing next to a blurb that mentioned he was currently working as a security guard, and was suing his parents over mismanagement of funds!
Child stars seldom make the easy transition into adulthood on screen. The two most obvious reasons for this misfortune are that the public still wants to see their star as an eleven year old, and, more tragically, they are often cheated out of their rightful financial reward due to naivete. Both of these affected Gary Coleman: he was a man still trapped in a child's body (as kidney complications had stunted his growth), thus making him hard to cast; and although he successfully sued his parents for frittering away his fortunes, his comparatively small settlement was hard-won.
Sadly, Gary Coleman became another example of the disgusting trend in which this industry exploits child labour (and you can take that phrase any way you like), and summarily sucking one dry for all their worth and discarding them like an empty vessel afterwards. So too did he become another footnote in the misfortune that affected the kids of this wholesome TV show: Todd Bridges received a murder charge, and America's sweetheart Dana Plato took her own life in a drug overdose. (Sadly, only weeks before Coleman's sudden death Friday, her son also committed suicide.)
Roger Ebert said it best, albeit on a different topic: "In today's world, everything is ironic." One cannot help but think that Coleman's fleeting, subsequent TV and film appearance, were all in some way a nod towards his sorry fall from grace. It is doubly ironic upon reading the outpouring of sympathy in the media towards his death after complications from a brain hemmerage, since it seemed that only scandalous headlines made us remember Gary Coleman again, yet still this sympathy is too little too late. The airwaves are instead saturated with exploitation masquerading as entertainment news or "reality TV" shows that only prefer to celebrate the worst of everything, and speak of former celebrities only in a condensing presentation of our nostalgic heroes at their very worst: yes, they're as human as we are, but there is more to real people than just their flaws.
Upon writing this eulogy for Gary Coleman, I am reminded of a similar outpouring of affection almost a year ago (albeit on a grander scale) upon the death of Michael Jackson- another celebrity icon with a tarnished image whose sudden departure robbed the public of seeing the comeback they so deserved.