This morning, I wrote about how the “Sex and the City” movies have made me retroactively dislike the TV show, which I once enjoyed. And in hearing the sad news about the death of Gary Coleman at 42, I again can’t help but think of the issue of legacy and how dark later years can overshadow beloved earlier ones.
If you’re around my age or older, you remember Coleman from those first few years of “Diff’rent Strokes.” People talk about how he was much older than he looked because of his kidney condition, but he was still only 10 when that show started. Ten. I’ve seen sitcom stars with several more decades of training and experience not possess a fraction of the timing and camera presence Coleman had at 10.
The show’s premise (noble white millionaire takes in the black orphaned sons of his deceased employees) hasn’t aged well, but Coleman’s performance still holds up as one of the best Cute Sitcom Kids ever. It wasn’t that he seemed natural, because you were always aware that this was a (little) actor who was very aware of how the audience was responding to him, but he was so confident that the calculated nature of what he did only made him seem more likable.
But as Coleman aged but did not grow, there was nothing but sadness and humiliation for him and his co-stars. The show’s ratings decline in its later years (including a one-season move from to ABC after NBC canceled it) were blamed on the notion that Coleman wasn’t cute enough to be funny anymore. His managers and parents ripped off most of the money he’d earned on the show. Because of his size, the audience’s intense identification with him in this one role, and his erratic personal behavior, he became unemployable as an actor. Meanwhile, his on-screen siblings Todd Bridges and Dana Plato fell in and out of trouble with drugs and other crime, and Plato died a decade ago from a prescription overdose.
Coleman ultimately spent more of his life as the butt of jokes then as the actor who delivered them And that makes me sad. A lot of people younger than me know him only as a cautionary tale and tabloid punchline, and I suspect even a lot of my contemporaries immediately think of his post-show misfortune and missteps before they remember how quick he was to deliver a comeback to Willis or Mr. D.
Rest in peace, Gary Coleman.