Gary Coleman: Child star of the television sitcom 'Diff'rent Strokes' who faced legal and personal problems in later life

Anthony Hayward
Tuesday 01 June 2010 00:00

The American television sitcom Diff'rent Strokes turned the 10-year-old Gary Coleman into a worldwide star, but he proved to be right at the top of that league of child actors who experience a much-troubled life after such early fame.

Audiences were introduced to him as the wisecracking Arnold Jackson, one of two orphaned, black brothers fostered – and later adopted – by a white widower, Philip Drummond (played by Conrad Bain), who took them from a Harlem ghetto to his luxury penthouse.

"What choo talkin' 'bout?" was Arnold's catchphrase, often directed at his older brother, Willis (Todd Bridges), or his stepsister, Kimberly (Dana Plato), and the words found their way into popular culture.

Throughout the run of Diff'rent Strokes (1978-86), the diminutive, chubby-cheeked Coleman was one of the world's best-known child stars, earning up to $100,000 an episode. However, he was left with only a quarter of that after tax and the cut taken by his parents, advisers and lawyers. He later sued his parents and former manager for misappropriation of his $3.8m trust fund and, in 1993, was awarded $1.28m. Six years later, Coleman filed for bankruptcy.

Financial troubles were only one aspect of the actor's problems in his post-Diff'rent Strokes days. Coleman found acting work hard to come by and, at various times, worked as a salesperson and a shopping mall security guard. In 1998, an argument with a woman in the mall led him to punch her, which resulted in a suspended prison sentence for assault and payment of hospital costs.

A month before Coleman's 2007 wedding to Shannon Price, he found himself charged with disorderly conduct following a "heated discussion" with her. Both faced a similar charge two years later. Then, less than six months ago, Coleman was arrested for domestic violence, fined $595 and ordered to take classes on avoiding domestic violence. His other clashes with the law included a $100 fine for disorderly conduct in 2008, following an incident in which the actor's truck hit a man and a car.

Coleman was born in 1968 in Zion, Illinois, with a congenital kidney disease that meant he never grew beyond 4ft 8in tall. He was adopted at birth by a fork-lift truck operator and his nurse wife, endured regular dialysis and had undergone two kidney transplants by the time he was 16.

At the age of six, Coleman made his screen debut in a commercial for a Chicago bank, offering a toy lion to the camera. "You should have a Hubert doll," he said. An acting part followed in an episode of the drama series Medical Center (1974). Then, he was cast as Stymie in the pilot for The Little Rascals (1977) – a new version of the Our Gang children's comedy films that had been popular from 1922 to 1944 – but it failed to attract attention. He briefly played Raymond Jefferson, nephew of George (Sherman Hemsley), in the sitcom The Jeffersons (1978), before his breakthrough came in Diff'rent Strokes.

Between series, the young actor cashed in on fame, appearing in other programmes such as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-80). He even voiced Andy LeBeau, an apprentice angel dispatched to Earth to help children with problems, in the animated series The Gary Coleman Show (1982-83).

Years later, asked about the benefits of this fame, Coleman said: "You get to exercise your creativity. You get to play cowboys and Indians, and get paid for it. Other than that, I can't find one good thing about it." Of his childhood, he commented: "I would not give my first 15 years to my worst enemy – and I don't even have a worst enemy."

Most of Coleman's adult roles were one-offs, in episodes of television series such as Married... with Children (1994) and The Drew Carey Show (2001), as well as totally forgettable films. He also voiced the character of Kevin in the animated television show Waynehead (1996-97). Outside acting, Coleman briefly owned a video game arcade in Fisherman's Village, near Santa Monica. Then, in 2003, he joined the list of candidates for the California governor election that was won by Arnold Schwarzenegger, finishing eighth out of 135.

In the same year, his plight was highlighted in the award-winning Broadway musical Avenue Q. Without any attempt to disguise the parody, a character called Gary Coleman was seen as a washed-up child star working as the superintendent of an apartment complex. Any humiliation was more biting for the fact that most others satirised in the show were puppets, such as the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street.

To financial, legal and marriage problems, Coleman added health issues this year. In January and February, he suffered two seizures. Last week, he died from a brain haemorrhage in hospital after falling and hitting his head at his Utah home.

Gary Wayne Coleman, actor: born Zion, Illinois 8 February 1968; married 2007 Shannon Price; died Provo, Utah 28 May 2010.

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