Of all the careers out there in the world, it seems to me that being a child star, either in television or film, is the worse. For every success story (Ron Howard and Jodie Foster are the two that spring to mind immediately…I’d like to think that Dakota Fanning is following in their shoes) there are literally hundreds that end badly. If you’re smart, realize you won’t be cute forever and plan for the future, you learn to do something else. Fred Savage (“The Wonder Years” and Peter Billingsley (“A Christmas Story”) direct. Anna Chlumsky (Vada in the “My Girl” films) went to work for a publishing company, became a writer (food criticism) and only recently has returned to the occasional acting role. Television seems to be the hardest place to survive. Cute kids grow up into not always cute adults. Sometimes they just fade into obscurity (“The Munsters” Butch Patrick, Suzanne Crough, Brian Forster and Jeremy Gelbwacks from “The Partridge Family”). Sometimes they end up battling demons publicly (another “Partridge,” Danny Bonaduce, Adam Rich from “Eight is Enough). But of all the television shows that relied on kids, the most tragic one seems to be “Different Strokes.” Dana Plato had trouble finding work after the show, eventually appearing in an R-rated film that trumpeted her major nude scenes, also called “Different Strokes.” After several arrests, including one for robbing a video store, Plato committed suicide in May 1999. Todd Bridges suffered the same professional fate as Plato, forever seen by casting directors as Willis. Years of drug abuse and a trial for the shooting of a drug dealer (Willis was charged with shooting a cocaine dealer 8 times in a crack house. His defense, headed by Johnnie Cochrane, was that he was so high on cocaine that he couldn’t remember if he’d shot him or not) sunk Bridges as low as he could go. Thankfully, he appears to be back on the right track. The final, and most popular child on the show, was diminutive Gary Coleman, who passed away today at the age of 42 after suffering a head injury caused by a fall.
Coleman first came to the attention of television producers when he guest starred on “Good Times.” Impressed with his maturity, as well as his size (Coleman had nephritis, a disease of the kidneys, and had endured two kidney transplants between 1973 and 1984. The illness stunted his growth), he was cast as the youngest of two inner city boys who are adopted by a wealthy New Yorker in the series “Different Strokes.” By the time the first season had come to an end, Coleman had become known for his television punch line, “What choo talkin’ about, Willis?” During the nine year run of the show, Coleman also appeared in several popular made for television movies, including “The Kid From Left Field” and “The Kid with the 200 IQ.” Coleman made nearly $18 million during his television run. However, when he went to access his trust fund at age 18, he learned that his parents had put themselves on the payroll and that he only had less than a million dollars left, the majority of that in his parent’s name. He successfully sued them, winning a judgement of $3.8 million. However, after the series ended, he soon found himself in the same boat as his co-stars, typecast as one character. His size also prevented him from pursuing more mature roles as he got older. In fact, he only found four acting jobs during the first four years after the show ended. As he got older Coleman became bitter at the Hollywood scene, going as far as to refuse to say “wachu talkin’ about” when fans would request it. In 1993 he admitted to viewers of “Geraldo” that he had twice tried to commit suicide in the past. In 2003 he ran for Governor of California to replace Gray Davis, who had been recalled.
He appeared to once again embrace his past as Arnold Jackson when he appeared in the David Spade film “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star,” though most of his jobs were far away from the glamour of Hollywood, including a stint as a security guard. His marriage to 22 year old Shannon Price in 2007 led to a bitter appearance by the couple on the television show “Divorce Court” after both spouses had been arrested separately for domestic abuse. As he got older and entered his 40’s Coleman began to have more health problems, including suffering two seizures in January and February of this year. It is unclear if the fall that led to his death was a result of any medical problems.