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.
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?”