IF only real life for the child stars of Diff’rent Strokes was anything like the fictional Park Avenue life of luxury they inhabited on television.
The death of pint-sized star Gary Coleman on Friday at age 42 underscored the troubled lives of the sitcom’s stars after the television lights went out in 1986 after eight seasons. Some have even talked about the “curse of Diff’rent Strokes“.
Two of the young stars, Coleman and Dana Plato, are dead. The third, Todd Bridges, went through years of drug abuse and was tried and acquitted of murder in 1988. The actor who played their dad, Conrad Bain, is alive at 87, out of show business and living quietly in the Los Angeles area.
The fate of the Diff’rent Strokes cast is a concentrated example of the difficulties faced by many young people chewed up by the entertainment industry and forced to mature while living a life of fame and luxury. For every Jodie Foster who navigated the transition to adulthood with aplomb, there’s a Lindsay Lohan or a Britney Spears still struggling.
Later in life, Coleman talked bitterly of his early Hollywood experience.
“I would not give my first 15 years to my worst enemy, and I don’t even have a worst enemy,” Coleman told The Associated Press in a 2001 interview.
Coleman, who remained small throughout his life from a kidney disease that stunted his growth, died estranged from his parents.
He had several minor run-ins with the law, and his attempts to stay in show business often forced sad roles upon him: a stint in The Surreal Life and an appearance on Divorce Court with his wife trying to solve some of their marital problems.
In need of money, he once worked as a security guard in a Los Angeles shopping mall. Even with that, he fared better than Plato, who died of a drug overdose in 1999.
In Diff’rent Strokes, she played the daughter of Bain’s character, whose lives were enlivened when two brothers from Harlem, played by Coleman and Bridges, came to live with them. She stumbled into drugs early; Bridges wrote in his autobiography that she introduced him to marijuana when he was 14.
Her post-TV stardom life was a blur of alcohol and drugs. She was arrested for shoplifting and forging a Valium prescription. She posed nude for Playboy and appeared in a softcore porn movie that traded on her sitcom stardom.
Tragedy even outlasted her: Her son, Tyler Lambert, had his own alcohol and drug problems trying to cope with his mother’s death, and he took his own life at age 25 this year shortly before Mother’s Day.
Bridges seemed on an even tougher path than his two fellow actors. He became a crack addict after the series ended, immersed in Los Angeles’ seedy underworld.
When someone from Bridges’ drug dealer’s gang was shot and killed, Bridges was charged with the crime but was acquitted. It took several more years of drug use before he cleaned up.
He’s since lectured to young people about the dangers of drug and alcohol and has done some minor Hollywood work: roles in The Young and the Restless and Everybody Hates Chris.
“The bottom line is I’ve made stupid choices,” Bridges told Entertainment Weekly in 2000. “But I got my life together and that’s the difference. I’m not the same idiot I used to be.”
Bridges titled his autobiography Killing Willis, a reference to his character’s name in Diff’rent Strokes.