Gary Coleman Was A Huge Star Of The 1980s, But His Life Was Full Of Pain And Hidden Darkness

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The sassy young African-American boy in the TV sitcom was prompting gales of laughter from the audience. It was November 3, 1978, and the pilot episode of a new comedy series called Diff’rent Strokes was airing in the U.S. The child in question was Gary Coleman – a diminutive, angel-faced ten-year-old actor – and the show in which he was starring would soon catapult him to fame and fortune. But the boy’s upbeat demeanor on the show sat in stark contrast to the nature of his private life, which was marred by darkness and tragedy from the very beginning to its heartbreaking end.

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Coleman’s role on Diff’rent Strokes, a show about a pair of African-American orphan brothers adopted by a widowed rich white man and his only daughter, would rapidly become iconic. His often-hilarious and jovial performances on the show made him one of the most recognizable faces on U.S. TV, and arguably one of the most-loved. Furthermore, the young actor’s frequent question aimed at his brother seemed to capture the zeitgeist. At the time, you’d often hear people on the street or in the schoolyard reprising the soon-famous line, “What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

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Indeed, Diff’rent Strokes became such a cultural phenomenon that none other than the First Lady at the time, Nancy Reagan, would make an appearance on the show. The former actress and wife of President Reagan guested on the season 5 episode “The Reporter,” which hit the small screen in March 1983. She used the appearance to promote her strong anti-drug message with considerable help from Coleman’s character, Arnold Jackson. Yes, by 1983 the pint-sized actor was acting alongside one of the most influential people in the world, but how did he get to that point? Let’s rewind to where it all began.

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Coleman entered the world on February 8, 1968. Born in Zion, Illinois, he was a sickly child from the off, suffering from a multitude of health problems, most notably a genetic defect of the kidneys known as nephritis. As a baby, Coleman was put up for adoption and was taken in by pharmaceutical rep W.G. Coleman and his wife Edmonia, a nurse.

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Coleman’s kidney problems were in fact so severe that he would require constant dialysis, and very soon he would need a transplant. Indeed, the young African-American received one in 1973 at the tender age of five. Furthermore, the focal segmental glomerulosclerosis that afflicted him from birth, and the medication he took as a result of it, would permanently stunt his growth.

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Despite the devastating health challenges that he faced from birth, Coleman would make his career breakthrough within the first decade of his life. Aged just six he appeared on TV screens in a commercial for Harris Bank, ecstatically grasping a toy lion that could be acquired by saving at the bank. Not too long after the ad aired, he would make his real acting debut.

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The young Coleman cut his acting teeth in the hospital drama Medical Center, playing a boy named James in the season 5 episode “Appointment with Danger” in 1974. Three years later Coleman appeared as Stymie in the film The Little Rascals, an updated take on the children’s comedy classics that ran from the early 1920s until 1944. The made-for-TV movie failed to gain any traction, however.

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Coleman’s role in The Little Rascals would not be a waste of his time though. In fact, it would contribute significantly to him making his major breakthrough. That’s because his performance in the failed project caught the eye of NBC bigwig Fred Silverman, who was determined to cast the young acting talent in a future project: one that would change his life forever.

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Coleman’s next role, though, was in the long-running sitcom The Jeffersons. The young actor played George and Louise’s problematic nephew Raymond in the series 4 episode that aired on February 18, 1978: ten days after his tenth birthday. That same year he also appeared in two episodes of Chicago housing project drama Good Times. However, 1978 was most notable for his aforementioned career breakthrough: the legendary role of Arnold Jackson in Diff’rent Strokes.

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Yes, it was on the popular sitcom set in Manhattan that Coleman really made his mark and became a household name. Playing the younger sibling of Todd Bridges’ Willis, Coleman’s loveable rogue Arnold Jackson won the hearts of millions with his cheeky demeanor and humor. Coleman and Bridges’ Jackson brothers and their adopted father perfectly complemented each other, and the show quickly became a hit.

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Indeed, the first three seasons of Diff’rent Strokes – which took its name from a quote popularized by boxer Muhammad Ali – all nestled into the top 30 shows in the U.S. at the time of their airing. Though Conrad Bain’s millionaire father figure Phillip Drummond (who adopted the boys after his housekeeper passed away) had first billing on the show, Coleman’s jovial and quick-witted Arnold soon became the star attraction. It was an incredible feat for a boy who had not even entered his teenage years yet.

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The show, which featured a memorable theme song sung by Alan Thicke, was much more than a lighthearted piece of escapism however. In fact, Diff’rent Strokes bravely confronted difficult subject-matter such as racism, drug abuse and bulimia. The sitcom even ran a controversial two-part episode on pedophilia, in which Arnold was coveted by actor Gordon Jump’s creepy bicycle-shop owner.

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Diff’rent Strokes would run for a total of eight seasons, with its 181st and final chapter airing on March 7, 1986. The family-orientated show became a sort of pioneer in the “special episode” concept, with not only the aforementioned Nancy Reagan showing up but other major stars, including Muhammad Ali. During its successful eight-year run, the in-demand Coleman was also able to appear in a variety of different projects, too.

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Indeed, Coleman found the time to appear in several TV movies including The Kid From Left Field, Scout’s Honor and The Kid With The Broken Halo. He also appeared on the big screen in the 1981 flick On The Right Track and Jimmy The Kid a year later. An eponymous NBC animated series The Gary Coleman Show was also created and aired in 1982. In the early 1980s, his career was truly on fire.

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That level of success, not surprisingly, began to translate into considerable personal wealth for Coleman. The pint-sized star was earning $1,500 an episode in the show’s first season. That figure would soon begin to look paltry, as before long he was raking in $20,000. The salary then moved from $40,000 to $70,000 and finally an eye-watering $100,000 per show. Coleman was rich beyond his wildest dreams.

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But as the saying goes, money cannot buy happiness, and sadly, that was certainly the case for Coleman. The long working hours on Diff’rent Strokes, his stunted growth and his severe health problems – he had to have a second kidney transplant in 1984 after the first one failed – often made his life far from idyllic. Indeed, such was his misery, he later told news agency Associated Press: “I would not give my first 15 years to my worst enemy, and I don’t even have a worst enemy.”

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In any case, the actor would eventually discover he was nowhere near as rich as he thought he was. Indeed by 1986, when Diff’rent Strokes had finished and he increasingly found work hard to come by, Coleman went to access his trust fund, expecting to find close to $18 million from his work on the hit show and elsewhere. However, to his utter dismay, a 17-year-old Coleman found just $220,000. Where had all the money gone?

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The 4’8” actor – who had impressively founded the Gary Coleman Productions company for management of his career at the age of ten – learned an astonishing truth. His parents and his agent, entrusted as the full-time managers of his career, had seemingly squandered nearly all of his earnings. He had to take action.

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In 1989 he did exactly that, starting legal action against his own parents and trusted financial advisor Anita De Thomas for unlawfully siphoning off his money for themselves. Coleman’s mother fought back, and in an attempt to seize control of her adopted son’s wealth, filed a request to the courts stating the then-21-year-old was incapable of managing his own money and affairs. Coleman attacked the move, stating in an interview at the time that it “obviously stems from her frustration at not being able to control my life.”

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The case concluded in 1993, when a settlement was reached. “I’m extremely pleased with this morning’s judgement,” he said in a statement after the hearing ended. “This suit has been an enormous burden for me over the last four years.” But the actor only landed $1.3 million in the settlement, significantly less than he had earned over the peak years of his career.

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As the prepared statement had hinted, the case had appeared to take its toll on Coleman’s mental health. The actor suffered from depression during this period and frankly admitted in a later 1993 interview on TV that he had attempted suicide twice by taking overdoses of pills. Thankfully, he would survive both attempts.

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Before he started his long legal battle with his parents, Coleman had relocated to Colorado in the autumn of 1988. The then-21-year-old purchased a 4,300-square-foot house for a cool $470,000. He made sure his new abode had enough room to accommodate his biggest hobby: a spectacular collection of model trains. Coleman also began to present a Sunday night show on a local radio station, predominantly playing New Age and jazz music. He donated part of his salary for that to the National Kidney Foundation.

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By 1993, though, Coleman’s acting career had stalled alarmingly. From 1986 and the end of Diff’rent Strokes, he had made sporadic appearances on TV, including in the private detective series Simon & Simon and apartment building drama 227. Coleman also appeared in two episodes of The Ben Stiller Show in 1992.

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Money was getting tighter for Coleman. But from 1995 until 1997 his career picked up ever so slightly. Coleman appeared in the TV shows Martin, Unhappily Ever After, Married With Children and a few episodes of Waynehead.

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He also made a cameo, crossover appearance as Arnold Jackson in the 148th and final episode of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air opposite Will Smith. The storyline runs that his adopted father from Diff’rent Strokes Mr Drummond is considering buying the Banks’ home, and Arnold tags along to take a look for himself. When Smith tries to put them off buying by coming out with a bogus scare story about being able to hear the wailing of the dead at night, Arnold revives – but slightly amends – his famous catchphrase, demanding, “What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Will?” to Smith.

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But by the late 1990s even the cameos had dried up, and he was seriously struggling for work. Coleman – who had spent time living in both Colorado and Arizona by this time – would eventually find work as a security guard. Alongside his financial woes his behavior became even more erratic, and an inexplicable violent outburst would put him in major trouble with the law.

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Specifically, in 1998 Coleman was summoned to court for a shocking attack. After a female fan named Tracey Fields spotted him in a mall on July 30, 1998 and sought an autograph, Coleman initially complied, before an alleged argument saw him rip it up and punch her before hurrying off. “I thought if I distract her with a blow, I can flee,” he stated in the televised court appearance. “So I hit her,” he admitted.

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Unsurprisingly, the law took a dim view of his actions and reasoning, despite his claims that Fields had been aggressive towards him and he had only hit out at her through fear. Coleman – who pleaded “no contest” to the charge brought against him – was given a 90-day suspended sentence, 52 anger management classes to attend and ordered to put his hand in his pocket for a fine, penalty assessment fee and to cover his victim’s hospital bills. In truth, he was fortunate to avoid doing serious jail time.

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Those extra financial outlays he was now compelled to make didn’t exactly help Coleman’s perilous financial situation. Indeed, just a year later in August 1999, and a few short months after his equally troubled Diff’rent Strokes co-star Dana Plato had died of a drug overdose, the former child actor would declare himself bankrupt. It was a remarkable fall from grace, particularly given he was the highest paid actor on television at his career peak.

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Strangely, Coleman was really philosophical about it all. The by-now-34-year-old argued that with his impending insolvency he “should be able to create the kind of future I want.” He also went on to assert, rather unconvincingly it must be said, “Bankruptcy is good. Millions do it.”

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Of course, Coleman could point with some conviction to his parents and former financial advisor for their role in his financial ruin. But in truth, and as he admitted himself, he was as much to blame as them. The former child prodigy remarked to Time magazine in 2012 that he could “spread the blame” for his predicament, “from me to accountants to my adoptive parents, to agents to lawyers and back to me again.”

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Indeed, Coleman had made some bad decisions and investments. These errors of judgement included acquiring the aforementioned legal fees in the Fields assault case (although his bankruptcy actually halted her $250,000 civil case against him) and investing in a video-game parlor in Marina Del Rey, California that went out of business by 1995. He had not been at all careful with his money.

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Coleman was largely unrepentant about how he got to the point of bankruptcy, though. He had told PEOPLE magazine in 1999: “I have lifestyle requirements. Photos, meetings, lunches, dinners, facial care, tooth care. It requires an exorbitant amount of money.” The celebrity magazine reported that at the time of the interview, Coleman had sold his luxury homes in Arizona and Colorado and had moved back to Los Angeles. He was down to $100 in spending money.

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Coleman wasn’t faring much better in his personal life. Not much is known about his prior relationships, but in the late 1990s, Coleman dated a woman named Tree Windsong. The relationship wouldn’t last however, but the two remained friends.

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From 1999 to 2004 Coleman made sporadic appearances in TV shows and lent his voice to several episodes of The Simpsons. His financial woes were so real that in 1999 he took part in an online auction of his items and memorabilia entitled “Save Me!” Coleman listed everything from a mini pimp suit to his couch in the auction. They were desperate times for the former child star.

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In 2005 Coleman travelled to Utah to shoot for a basketball movie called Church Ball, and subsequently met a woman named Shannon Price, who was working as an extra on the movie. The pair hit it off, and Coleman moved to Santaquin in the state to be with his new love. However, their relationship would prove to be tempestuous.

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Coleman’s difficulty in controlling his considerable temper was becoming increasingly prevalent, and in July 2007 he was in trouble with the law once again when a tiff with Price turned violent. Coleman was arrested, but soon released. But this ugly event didn’t end their relationship. Surprisingly, he and the equally combustible Price secretly tied the knot a month later.

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But married life for the couple proved to be anything but idyllic. Trouble soon resurfaced in the marriage, and in 2008 they made the bizarre decision to appear on TV’s Divorce Court, airing their dirty laundry for all who wished to see. Despite going on to divorce, the combustible couple strangely remained together, but in 2009 they were both charged with disorderly conduct after yet another domestic row reached the cops.

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In trouble with the law again in 2010, when Coleman was cited for domestic violence once more, the now-middle-aged actor was thrown in the slammer overnight. By now Coleman’s health was failing; the troubled star had undergone heart surgery complicated by pneumonia in 2009, and while on the set of a movie called The Insider in February 2010 he suffered a seizure. He would survive both these potentially life-threatening ailments, but just months after the seizure, the tragic end to his difficult life would arrive.

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On May 26, 2010 Coleman was rushed to hospital in Provo, Utah, having suffered a serious fall at home. He had evidently seriously banged his head in the tumble and just two days later he died, at the age of 42, from an intracranial hemorrhage. Tributes quickly flew in for the well-known TV favorite. But despite his spectacular fall from grace and his subsequent financial, legal and health problems, most people will likely remember Gary Coleman as the lovable child star of Diff’rent Strokes with his memorable catchphrase, “What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

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