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Todd Bridges on Diff'rent Strokes movie, his sister, and reality shows

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 1st 2006 1:03PM
Gary Coleman and Todd BridgesA network conference call is an interesting beast. It's not like a conference call at work, where everyone talks over each other and the meeting moves with a glacial pace. No, network conference calls are orderly, polite affairs, where you get in line to ask a question of the star and/or producer by pressing *1 and giving your name and affiliation, and the questions are nicely asked and at times, border on the obsequios. I guess the theory is that the network's PR people were nice enough to invite you to this, so it's best that you not piss off the people who were gracious enough to make themselves available to you.

I was thinking all this when I was on a call last week promoting the upcoming movie Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Diff'rent Strokes, which airs Monday, 9/4, at 8 PM ET on NBC. The call was attended by Todd Bridges, who was interviewed for the film (as was Gary Coleman, who is pictured with Todd above), and by producer Stan Brooks. Not that the questions being asked were awful; in fact, they yielded a lot of information. But I was surprised that they didn't touch on a couple of topics.

More on that in a bit. Since the movie is basically a story about how the three lives of the child actors on the classic series, Bridges, Coleman, and Dana Plato, dissolved under the pressures of bad parenting, network and studio expectations, and typecasting problems, most of the questions revolved around that topic. And Bridges was honest in his responses, not going for the "blame the Hollywood machine" excuse:

"I really believe it's not the business that makes the kid have problems," said Bridges. "If you look at the percentage of the kids who have problems in the business, it's not a lot. And I feel if they strong parents, and strong relationships within their families, they'll be fine."

But the movie shows that the three stars did not have those strong relationships. Coleman's parents, especially his dad Willy, were more involved in the business end than the actual care of their child. Dana's mom was an irresponsible lush. And, while Bridges had a strong mother, his dad was an abusive addict. "I'm hoping that people will see that we're not what the media made us out to be," said Bridges. "The media has a sense of just like, 'Hey, these kids had too much,' and that was it. They'll realize that It has nothing to do with having to do with having too much, it has everything to do with having parents who are not completely crazy. I had a strong mom; that's why I made it back."

Bridges, 41, has been sober for 13 years, and he's still a working actor -- he just finished a picture called Big Ball'n and is starting work on a picture he's producing and starring in called Frankie D. But he's primarily a family man; he and his wife Dori have two kids; son Spencer, 8, and daughter Bo, 10. Spencer has followed in his dad's footsteps; Todd was very proud to report that his son has just started working on a movie with Cuba Gooding Jr. called Camp Kid.

What I wasn't hearing on the call, though, was a question about something that had me curious: How freaky was it for Todd to have his sister (Verda Bridges) play his mother? When it got to my turn to ask a question, I asked Brooks and Bridges about the unusual casting choice. "I got a phone call from the casting director and (she) said, 'You're not gonna believe this, but we just got submitted Todd's sister to play his mom,'" said Brooks. "And I said, 'If she's halfway decent we should cast her,' because who's going to be able to bring more to that role than someone who lived it? And it turned out that she was by far the best for the part, even if she wasn't Todd's sister."

Brooks and Bridges both mentioned that Verda helped the director make adjustments during scenes that would more accurately reflect how Todd and his mom related to one another. For instance, according to Bridges, "She knew I wouldn't yell at my mom, because my mom would kill me." But Bridges really felt that Verda did a great job protraying their mother, and so did another important member of the family. "We didn't know how my mom was going to like it," said Todd, "because we stayed true to the story. But when my mom saw it she thought it was fantastic and thought my sister did a fantastic job playing her. So she was OK with it, which made us feel even better."

Since I was feeling cocky, I decided to toss Todd a somewhat off-topic question about his penchant for doing reality shows like Celebrity Boxing. His answer was refreshingly frank: "The unfortunate part about today's actors is that we have to do reality shows (chuckles), because they're there. And they pay you so much money, that it's ridiculous to turn them down. I work a lot as an actor in other moivies, but everything works for the benefit of taking care of your family." The only type of reality show he won't do is one where a camera follows him around all the time, a la his fellow child star Danny Bonaduce. "I don't have any personal life as it is, and the last thing I want to do is involve my family in it (with) a camera following them around torturing them as well," he chuckled.

When the call was over, I was happy I got my questions in (there were only about 5-6 reporters on the call, mostly from newspaper outlets), but I kind of wish we had a little more time. What were the mistakes the stars themselves, especially Todd and Dana, made to contribute to their problems? Why did Todd think he was being harrassed by the L.A. cops? Was he surprised that Dana Plato killed herself? There was plenty I wanted to ask. Oh, well.

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I had the opportunity of interviewing Todd two weeks ago. He is well grounded and still has a bright future in front of him. If you want to check out my headline on Todd, go to this address: http://powerofpress.blogspot.com/

January 19 2007 at 7:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Patricia Edwards

I was the stage manager during the first season of 'Strokes,under the direction of Herb Kenwith. Todd's mom, Betty, and I grew up together in San Diego. I knew him from a baby to his work on television. During my tenure with the show,Todd,Gary and Dana were respectful, mannerable & a joy to work with.
I miss them all and will always remember the great times on the set!

September 05 2006 at 11:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My young life was a complete mess too. I wasn't an actress or in show biz, just in the mainstream of life. My parents were a nightmare...parenting is what makes the difference. I spent most of my life with alcohol and some drugs trying to kill the pain of neclect and abuse. I made it throught the shit, but had I had responsible, supportive parents, my life wouldn't have been so sad. Responsible, good parenting is everything.

September 05 2006 at 9:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Interesting that Todd Bridges makes the same point about strong parents as Robbie Rist made in the post below about his life as Cousin Oliver.

Makes sense, though.

September 01 2006 at 3:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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