The above image is from Gary Coleman’s short-lived Hanna-Barbera cartoon series in which he played an apprentice angel sent back to earth to earn his wings. Coleman died today at the age of 42. I’m sure the networks are busy digging through old footage of the troubled child stars from Coleman’s popular 1970s sitcom, “Diff’rent Strokes.” Dana Plato, who played Coleman’s sister, Kimberly, descended into softcore porn, drug abuse, and armed robbery before committing suicide in 1999. Todd Bridges, who played brother Willis, became a drug dealer and addict after the series ended. He recently appeared on “Oprah” to talk about his new memoir, “Killing Willis,” and seems to be doing much better today. Gary Coleman’s short life was beset with health and other problems. He famously sued his parents for financial mismanagement and was arrested on several occasions as a result of his own behavioral issues. The three “Diff’rent Strokes” actors came to represent all of the potential pitfalls of child stardom.
Forgive me, but we can now admit how horrible the show “Diff’rent Strokes” was? I’d go so far as to place it on my top ten list of the worst sitcoms in the history of television. Seriously, watch an episode on YouTube and tell me if you can find one line that seems authentic or funny. To be fair, I was 19 when the show began so it doesn’t hold any of the childhood nostalgia that makes me feel so fondly towards the awful sitcoms from my era such as “Petticoat Junction,” “Mr. Ed,” or “My Mother, the Car.” And while I think the writing on “Diff’rent Strokes” was abominable, I do acknowledge that Gary Coleman had a certain charm and engaging personality. I enjoyed him several years earlier when he appeared on a few episodes of “Good Times” and he always stood out in the small parts he played on other 1970s series.
I guess what bothered me the most about “Diff’rent Strokes” was the condescending premise of the rich white guy taking in the impoverished Harlem tykes and proving his grand benevolence. In trying to be hip and with it, the show and its all-white writers missed every opportunity to say anything real about race in America. I guess I should at least give “Diff’rent Strokes” credit for trying to deal with some difficult issues in their “very special episodes.” For the sake of sweeps-week ratings, the Drummond kids had to face topics that most sitcoms never touched such as pedophilia, sexual assault, bulimia, epilepsy, and drug abuse.
Can you imagine a sitcom from the 1970s (or even today) in which a black couple adopts a white child? While biracial adoptions are quite common in real life, the scenario of African-Americans adopting a white baby is rare enough to be big news. Sure, Josephine Baker did it over half a century ago, but such adoptions still continue to raise eyebrows. A recent article Newsweek addressed the issue:
Decades after the racial integration of offices, buses and water fountains, persistent double standards mean that African-American parents are still largely viewed with unease as caretakers of any children other than their own—or those they are paid to look after. As Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson has asked: “Why is it that in the United States, a white woman can have black children but a black woman cannot have white children?”
My pitch to Gary Coleman to revive his acting career would have been to have him star in a sitcom where he and his African-American wife adopt two impoverished white boys from the Louisiana gulf coast after their parents are tragically killed in the British Petroleum blast that started the oil spill.
Rest in peace, Gary Coleman. I’m afraid my first thought today when I heard about his death was wondering how the Broadway musical “Avenue Q” was going to deal with their Gary Coleman character. When I first saw this insanely funny show (which is due back in Los Angeles in a few months), I wondered how they could get away with basing one of their main characters on a real person who is still alive. Did he mind that his part was always played by an African-American woman?
I’m Gary Coleman
From TV’s “Diff'rent Strokes”
I made a lotta money
That got stolen by my folks!
Now I’m broke and I’m the butt
Of everyone’s jokes
But I'm here
On Avenue Q!
You win! It sucks to be you!
Coleman was not a fan of the show, even though his character was portrayed with affection. He announced his intention to sue the producers in 2005 but the lawsuit never happened. In 2007 he said, “I wish there was a lawyer on Earth who would sue them for me.” Tonight’s performance in New York will be dedicated to the late actor. From a just-released statement: “The creators, producers, and company of ‘Avenue Q’ are terribly saddened to hear of the death of Gary Coleman, whose tremendous gifts brought delight and inspiration to audiences around the world. While everything in life may be only for now, we suspect that Gary’s legacy will live on for many years to come.”