Sad news regarding the passing of Gary Coleman due to a brain hemorrhage, and in my home state of Utah no less. Diff’rent Strokes was hands-down my favorite TV show when it first went on the air in late 1978, when I was just about to turn nine. While the premise of the show — wealthy white Park Avenue widower adopts African-American housekeeper’s children after she passes away — was a bit of a stretch, the witty, pint-sized Coleman used his impeccable comic timing to steal scenes left and right and became America’s number one child star. Via Jon Weisman, here’s a taste:
From CNN’s obituary:
“Pudgy cheeks, twinking eyes, and flawless timing made him seem like an old pro packed into the body of a small child,” wrote Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh in “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present.”
At the time, NBC was mired in last place among the three major broadcast networks and, excluding movies, had just two series in the Nielsen Top 20. “Strokes” was an immediate hit, finishing in the Top 30 its first three years, and made Coleman into a household name.
Veterans marveled at his comic timing. He appeared several times on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” performed on several specials and had a hit TV movie with “The Kid From Left Field.” Until NBC started its mid-’80s rise with “The A-Team” and “The Cosby Show,” he was the primary prime-time face of the network.
“Gary is exceptional, and not only by the standards set for children. He’s bright, sweet and affectionate. He seems incapable of a wrong reading, and I’ve never seen that in any actor,” co-star Conrad Bain, who played “Strokes’ “millionaire industrialist Philip Drummond, told People in 1979.
“His talent,” his mother added, “may be God’s way of compensating him for what he’s been through, and the fact that he’ll never have the physical size of other boys.” Coleman reportedly had a kidney transplant at 5, and would have another when he was 16.
In its heyday, the show featured guest appearances from Muhammad Ali (helping Arnold get even with the school bully known only as The Gooch), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Clarence Clemons, David Hasselhoff, Janet Jackson, Reggie Jackson, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, even First Lady Nancy Reagan as she fought the Drug War.
Like fellow cast members Todd Bridges and Dana Plato, Coleman didn’t find much success outside of Diff’rent Strokes, and he fell on hard times due to his congenital kidney problems (he required daily dialysis), financial woes (some brought on by his parents, who misappropriated his earnings), numerous legal scrapes, and, by his own admission, something of a Napoleon complex. He did star in an enjoyable TV movie, The Kid from Left Field, in which he plays Jackie Robinson ‘J.R.’ Cooper, a bat boy who becomes manager of the Padres. Robert Guillaume played his father, and Ed McMahon played the owner. Sadly, it’s not available on NetFlix and has never been released on DVD. He also made an appearance on a very weird Simpsons Christmas episode:
Most of the headlines he made in his post-Strokes years were unflattering ones, but he’ll always have a place in the hearts of those who saw him at his youthful peak, and he’ll be missed.