Gary Coleman: A Look Back
Coleman fell at his Utah home on Wednesday night and was rushed to a hospital. When it was discovered he had suffered a brain hemorrhage, he was transported to another hospital. Though he was actually awake and talking on Thursday, he became unconscious later in the day and was placed on life support. Because of his condition, he could not be operated on, and he died today, at 12:05PM Mountain Standard Time.
It's hard for younger people to understand how popular Coleman was all those years ago (though he still had a pop culture presence in the 90s and 00s, albeit in a completely different way). But Coleman wasn't just some guy who starred in an old sitcom -- he was part of that pop culture history. It's easy to pick out the high point: 'Diff'rent Strokes,' on which he starred as Arnold Jackson, the younger of two African American brothers adopted by rich white guy Arthur Drummond (Conrad Bain). The popular sitcom, which debuted on NBC in 1978 and ended on ABC in 1986, was a major hit for NBC and spawned a catchphrase that people still use today: "What'choo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"
'Diff'rent Strokes' might just seem like a sitcom that will one day be on TV Land, where some viewers will find it more dated than funny. But it had a huge impact in the late '70s; as a show about a white man with black kids, it was groundbreaking in its own way, dealing with issues of mixed-race families and race generally -- sometimes successfully, sometimes less so -- at a time when few other shows (or even people) did. And comedically, the sitcom succeeded much more on Coleman's charm and delivery than on witty writing. Coleman really was the whole show. Can you even imagine 'Diff'rent Strokes' without him or some other kid in the role? It's a testament to his skills as an actor that the show itself made as lasting an impression as it did.
Coleman had actually acted before 'Diff'rent Strokes.' He starred in episodes of 'The Jeffersons' and played a friend of Penny's (Janet Jackson) on 'Good Times.' While 'Diff'rent Strokes' was on, Coleman appeared in several big-screen and TV movies, including 'On The Right Track,' 'The Kid with the Broken Halo,' 'The Kid with the 200 I.Q.,' and 'The Kid From Left Field.' He also appeared in many TV shows during that time, including 'Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,' 'Silver Spoons,' and 'The Facts of Life.' He played his Arnold Jackson character on the latter two. He even played Stymie in an updated 'Little Rascals' pilot in the '70s, but it didn't go anywhere.
After 'Diff'rent Strokes' ended, like a lot of child stars, Coleman didn't find much success. That's not to say he didn't work a lot. He made appearances in a lot of different TV shows, from 'The Drew Carey Show' to 'The Simpsons,' but he never really found anything consistent, and for a time was even taking work as a security guard to make ends meet. He took roles here and there and made appearances, but it was often as an odd character or playing a version of himself. His last acting role was in the 2009 movie 'Midgets & Mascots,' and that title tells you all you need to know about that.
Things hadn't been going well for Coleman the past few years. He made an appearance on one of the TV wrestling shows in 2006; and he and his wife appeared on 'Divorce Court' in 2008, another weird low mark in his career. Then Coleman made a couple of appearances on the TV gossip show 'The Insider' earlier this year, sitting at a table and arguing with several people about his life and the problems he had with his wife. He had a seizure on the set and had to be taken to the hospital -- a very strange incident in so many ways.
What will Coleman be remembered for? It's easy to say that he hadn't done too much to be proud of the past several years, and that people will remember all of his legal problems and embarrassing roles he took. But that's not entirely fair, considering the age he was when fame came upon him and the family/medical problems he experienced. As a child star, he's far bigger than his stature, and there's a reason fans are mourning his passing: He was beloved. Watching him suffer through one tabloid scandal after another was like watching the troubles of a childhood friend.
Look at it this way -- he'll be remembered for being an iconic TV character of the '70s and '80s, one who immortalized one of the classic phrases in TV history. When all is said and done, that's not a bad legacy to have.
[For more on Gary's life and career, read our Gary Coleman timeline]