Obituary: Dana Plato
Wednesday 26 May 1999
Born in 1964, Plato appeared in dozens of commercials and films as a child. Aged nine, she auditioned for The Exorcist and was offered the part of the possessed girl, but her mother vetoed the job and Linda Blair stepped in. The lovable sitcom Diff'rent Strokes proved far more suitable and Plato's role as the daughter of the millionaire Philip Drummond (played by Conrad Bain) brought her worldwide fame.
Ostensibly conceived by the NBC executive Fred Silverman to bridge the racial divide between The Jeffersons and the wholesome Happy Days, Diff'rent Strokes revolved around a simple premise: the adoption by white, well- meaning and wealthy Drummond Snr of two streetwise kids from Harlem, orphaned by the death of his housekeeper. Todd Bridges appeared as Willis Jackson, and the diminutive eight-year-old Gary Coleman played his savvy and grinning younger brother, Arnold, complete with "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" catchphrase.
Most episodes milked the hilarious possibilities brought about by the two sets of characters' contrasting attitudes to life and wealth and especially Kimberly's enforced relationship with her new siblings. The sitcom also featured the occasional guest appearance by stars such as Muhammad Ali and Forest Whitaker, while a teenage Janet Jackson earned good notices playing Charlene DuPrey, Willis's girlfriend. When Diff'rent Strokes began its run in 1978, Dana Plato was only 14 but, as the show topped ratings, she received hundreds of letters from fans and earned $20,000 a week. The series was sold around the world before its innocuous appeal started to decline. In 1984, pregnant with her son Tyler, Plato left Diff'rent Strokes under a cloud. Her character moved to Paris supposedly to study and the actress didn't appear in the show's last two seasons; it was eventually cancelled though it produced two spin-offs, The Facts Of Life and Hello Larry, before going into syndication.
Diff'rent Strokes may have been criticised by black organisations and white liberals who saw it as a variation on the minstrel shows of yore but, pre-Cosby Show, post-Huggy Bear (the pimp informant played by Antonio Fargas in Starsky and Hutch), it at least enabled a more positive image of America's minorities to emerge at primetime on mainstream television.
Unfortunately, the three child stars involved experienced serious difficulties away from the protective cocoon of the sitcom set. Coleman suffered from a rare renal disease which stunted his growth. After voicing The Gary Coleman Show, a cartoon series for Hanna Barbera, in the early 1980s, he became increasingly bitter, sued his parents, was recently fined for hitting a fan and is now working as a security guard in California. Todd Bridges had numerous brushes with the police and in 1990 was acquitted of shooting a drugs dealer. But Dana Plato did most to destroy her wholesome image.
Her career hit the skids and the late Eighties were a blur. "Three years of non-stop drinking," she told an interviewer. "I didn't care for drugs much, I just wanted my alcohol. I would have crashed and burned no matter what". In 1989, fed up with her dry-cleaning job (the only one she could get) and playing the slot machines in Vegas, Plato accepted an offer to pose naked for Playboy magazine.
In 1991, she stole $160 from a Las Vegas video store, returned to pick up her glasses and was arrested. The following year, she forged a prescription for 1000 valium, was caught and earned a second five-year probation sentence, losing custody of her son in the process. "If I hadn't gotten caught, it could have been the worst thing that happened to me because I would have died of a drug overdose," she later admitted as Vegas superstar Wayne Newton came to her rescue and bailed her out.
After treatment in a clinic for her drug and alcohol problems, Plato made various attempts at a comeback, though she could only get parts in B-movies. In 1992, she guested in a low-budget film entitled Bikini Beach Race, appeared in a Las Vegas revue and subsequently acted on stage in Frankie and Angie Get Married and Last of the Red Hot Lovers, a 1995 production which took her to Canada. Two years later, she starred in Different Strokes: a story of Jack and Jill . . . and Jill, a soft-porn video which blatantly cashed in on her reputation and lampooned her past.
Appearing recently on shock-jock Howard Stern's syndicated radio show to promote Victoria's Secret underwear which she'd modelled in a catalogue, Dana Plato seemed about to revive her career. "I have been sober for the longest time. Oh, it's over a decade now. No joke," she claimed, twice crying during the broadcast. "I'm tired of defending my character. I am what I am. What you see is what you get. My life is so good now. I've never been happier." The next day, she succombed to an overdose of painkillers and tranquillisers while visiting her fiance's family.
"It's a tragic case," said the actor Conrad Bain, her on-screen father. "I recall her as a beautiful, talented young girl. That's the way she is in my mind."
Dana Plato, actress: born Maywood, California 7 November 1964; married Lanny Lambert (one son; marriage dissolved); died Oklahoma City 8 May 1999.
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