Gary Coleman would’ve been 52 today. While he suffered from a disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, I find it likely that he could’ve lived a longer life if he’d been treated better as a child. He ended up suing his parents for misappropriation of his salary. He had to work longer hours than were probably good for any child, much less one with the medical problems he had. He was a remarkably famous young man, and then a hard-up middle-aged man, and then dead before his time. All in all a depressing end for an icon of 1980s TV.
Yes, I have seen Diff’rent Strokes. Not in many years, but I’ve seen it. It seems like one of those shows that could only exist in the ’80s—and weirdly, there were two shows like it, as Webster was clearly intended to cash in on its popularity. But I think the show’s popularity was mostly because Coleman was so appealing to people. It’s worth noting that his child costars both faded from the show as the years passed—Dana Plato because of substance abuse issues and a pregnancy; Todd Bridges probably because he just wasn’t young and cute anymore—but Coleman kept on.
It’s really painful to contemplate that it literally did not matter how talented he was. Because of his years as Arnold and because of the medical issues that arrested his growth and meant he kept his baby face, he wasn’t going to get “adult” roles. And that may be part of why he had such a hard time in adulthood, beyond the misappropriation from his parents. Typecasting is a real problem, and of course there simply weren’t a lot of roles for a young man who looked like a child and was so strongly identified with a character.
And, no, I don’t know how talented he was. As I’ve said, it has been many years since I watched the show, and I’m inclined to doubt it would have given him full range for his abilities anyway. Despite its famous “very special episodes,” it was still an ’80s sitcom with all that implies. Now, I like quite a few ’80s sitcoms and will defend them, but that doesn’t mean that I think they were an opportunity for most of the people on them to really stretch themselves, outliers like Tom Hanks on Family Ties notwithstanding.
Todd Bridges is the last surviving cast member of Diff’rent Strokes, and that’s a terrible shame. Not, I hasten to add, that he’s alive, but that Dana Plato and Gary Coleman aren’t. And in Gary Coleman’s case, you can’t even say, “Oh, it was his own fault.” By the ’80s standards of his show, he did everything right—and the system failed him. Entertainment is about the only industry where child labour is still acceptable, and while we try to provide protections for those children, sometimes, it’s not enough. Gary Coleman was failed.