Comic became famous in sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, wound up ‘4-foot, 8-inches, 86 pounds of nothing’
Gary Coleman, the diminutive, wisecracking child star of the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, whose adult life collapsed into a tabloid calamity, died Friday at a hospital in Provo, Utah. Coleman was 42 and suffered a brain hemorrhage after falling at his home.
Coleman was 10 when he stepped into the national spotlight in 1978, playing the witty, lovable Arnold Jackson on NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes. The role was created for him and made Coleman the best-known child star on television for the eight years the hit comedy was on the air.
He played the younger of two orphaned African-American brothers adopted by a white Manhattan millionaire after the death of their mother, the rich man’s housekeeper. The show was a comedic showcase for Coleman, who looked younger than his actual age because his growth had been stunted by a congenital kidney condition.
On the set, he proved to be a thorough professional who could memorize his dialogue in a single reading and deliver it with perfect timing. His signature line, directed toward his brother Willis, played by Todd Bridges, became a nationwide catch phrase: “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”
As Coleman’s salary rose from $1,500 to $70,000 an episode, his fragile health continued to deteriorate. He had undergone two kidney transplants by the time he was 14, and he was on dialysis while taping Diff’rent Strokes.
When the show was cancelled in 1986, he was 18 and had amassed a personal fortune estimated at $18 million. But his life quickly devolved into a sorry spectacle of lawsuits, countersuits, recriminations and hurt feelings.
He sued his parents and advisers for taking money from trust funds meant to support him as he grew older. In court, his parents charged that Coleman had been brainwashed by a manager and was not competent to handle his affairs. In the end, Coleman won a $1.28 million settlement, but his relationship with his parents was all but fractured.
Now an adult with two failed two kidneys, Coleman was becoming increasingly embittered and unemployable. He found occasional work in film and TV, but mostly he watched his money slip through his hands. At one point, his father said, Coleman tried to run him over with a car.
“Gary Coleman’s rage,” as a Los Angeles Times article bluntly put it, “is the direct result of being pampered, badgered and obliged to keep on being a cute freak for hire.”
By the late 1990s, his life was crashing in a sad, gossip-fuelled tailspin.
Coleman sold many of his possessions, filed for bankruptcy and was working as a security guard at a Los Angeles mall in 1999 when a woman recognized him and asked for an autograph. They got into an argument, exchanged blows and ended up in court, where a tearful Coleman pleaded no contest to battery.
Describing his fight with the 200-pound woman, he reportedly said, “I’m 4-foot, 8-inches, 86 pounds of nothing.”
Gary Wayne Coleman was born Feb. 8, 1968, in Zion, Ill., and was adopted as an infant by a blue-collar family. His kidney disease was diagnosed at 18 months, and he had his first transplant at 5.
He began modelling for a local store at 7 and appeared in TV commercials. A talent scout recommended him to producer Norman Lear, who cast the budding actor in episodes of Good Times and The Jeffersons. Recognizing Coleman’s appeal, Lear and his production team designed Diff’rent Strokes around him.
In later years, Coleman felt trapped by his early fame and yearned to find a dramatic role to play as an adult. He appeared on a celebrity dating show, worked as a corporate pitchman and wrote an online advice column.
After moving to Utah, Coleman married 22-year-old Shannon Price in August 2007. Nine months later, they appeared on the TV show Divorce Court apparently trying to work out a public reconciliation. Coleman and his wife were arrested several times for disorderly conduct and, in January 2010, he was jailed overnight for domestic violence.
He continued to have health problems, including heart surgery in 2009 and a series of seizures.
Besides his wife, survivors include his parents, W.G. Coleman and Edmonia Sue Coleman of Zion.
“Family never meant anything to me,” Coleman said in 2003, “but a whole lot of trouble that I don’t need.”