Gary Coleman’s famous catchphrase from the sitcom Diff’rent Stokes, ‘What chu talkin’ bout Willis?,’ is forever ingrained in American pop culture. Sadly, it dogged Coleman for the rest of his life, which ended prematurely when he succumbed to a brain hemorrhage today at the age of 42.
The adorable, big-cheeked Coleman landed on television just as the nation was in the tail end of a tough struggle to make public school integration a reality. As courts mandated that public school districts in cities like Boston and Detroit desegregate through forced busing, Diff’rent Strokes, for many, presented an idyllic view of what it could look like for blacks and whites to get along.
The storyline of a rich white widower and father of one child adopting two orphaned sons of his former black maid was definitely steeped in white paternalism. But, aside from the obvious condescension of the show’s premise, the message that love could chip away at huge racial differences resonated with many audiences, making Coleman one of the biggest child stars in American television history.
Considering that before him, Buckwheat from The Little Rascals was arguably the most well known black child star, Coleman’s significance can’t be overstated. Premiering on NBC on November 3, 1978, the show, which also starred Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson (brother to Coleman’s Arnold Jackson), Conrad Bain as Mr. Drummond and Dana Plato as his daughter Kimberly, was a huge success before finally ending its run on ABC on March 7, 1986. Years after that, the series was kept alive through syndication.
WATCH A TRIBUTE TO GARY COLEMAN HERE
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With a track record like that, Coleman should have been financially set for life. Along the way, however, his American dream became an American nightmare.
Born February 8, 1968 in Zion, Illinois, Coleman suffered from a kidney disease that stunted his growth, never allowing him to reach more than four feet, eight inches tall. He was also left without parents until Edmonia Sue and W.G. Coleman adopted him.
Coleman’s ascent as the biggest African-American child star of his era was really the stuff that inspires movies. At the height of his fame, Coleman was so popular that he commanded as much as $100,000 per episode for Diff’rent Strokes — yet he died broke.
His troubles started almost immediately, and they hit very close to home. When all was said and done, it was estimated that about 75 percent of his fortune was gone. In 1989, he sued his parents and ex-advisers for misappropriation of funds and was eventually awarded $1.3 million in 1993. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of his troubles. As he attempted to transition from child star to adult star, times just got harder.
He made national headlines in 1998 when working as a security guard at an L.A. bank after he allegedly assaulted a fan for demanding an autograph and then later as a candidate for governor of California during the state’s infamous 2003 “recall” election. Most of his adult life seemed to be one public embarrassment after the other. After finding love with Shannon Price, a tall, 22-year-old, white redhead who became his wife, he went on national television shows broadcasting that, until that point, he had been a virgin. Later, during marital difficulties, the couple appeared on Divorce Court in 2008, but yet remained together.
An angry profanity-laced tirade on The Insider this February certainly didn’t indicate that Coleman’s troubles were behind him. The show’s panel was stunned by his behavior and so were audiences. Coleman was a long way from the beloved Arnold Jackson so many of us remembered as a child. Where did his innocence go? When your claim to fame has everything to do with remaining in the forever childlike state how does one navigate that?
In many ways, Coleman’s physical challenges forced him to live out a storyline that could have easily made for an interesting episode of The Twilight Zone. Todd Bridges explained to me once that the public did not understand that Gary Coleman was very sick and that many of his off choices were motivated by the fact that he required daily dialysis and constant medical care.
All we know is that his life was not the one we envisioned for him. There was no way of knowing that a fall would lead to his ultimate demise in Utah, a place in some ways as white as the television homes he integrated in the late 1970s. It’s not a leap to say that his death occurred a long time ago. Never able to escape his child star image, he was forever Arnold Jackson and that never sat well with Gary Coleman.
In this country, fame is a curious thing, delivering both joy and pain. Unfortunately, for Coleman, his personal journey was filled with pain. For all the joy that he brought his legions of television fans, he never quite captured it in his own life.
Check out a Grio slideshow of classic Gary Coleman moments here