Gary Coleman has died. He was 42. He suffered an intracranial hemorrhage after a fall in Utah earlier this week and had been on life support since Thursday.
The back alleyways of Hollywood — not to mention the back pages of the gossip rags — are filled with tales of child stars whose adult lives go off the rails. Unable to accept a diminished career once they grow out of the cuteness that made them famous, the punishing life of an out-of-work actor or perhaps unprepared to control a child-like id that was once given everything it asked for — some child stars grow up — or into — wreckages of adult lives, scarred by drugs, criminality, or some combination of the two. And we’re not surprised when their story ends with an untimely obituary and an eventual coroner’s report.
But that wasn’t Gary Coleman. The diminutive, apple-cheeked child star who played Arnold Jackson on NBC’s massively popular “Diff’rent Strokes” wasn’t a drug addict. There aren’t any tales of debauchery, no grainy footage of him robbing a convenience store, no inquest report into a death caused by a life of misadventure.
Gary Coleman just grew up. He accepted it. Unfortunately, the rest of us didn’t. He tried to make the best of it, but we wouldn’t let him.
Born in 1968, Coleman suffered from a chronic kidney disease that attacked his auto-immune system — it necessitated daily dialysis treatments and two kidney transplants during his life — and the medications he took stunted his growth at an early age. At a perpetual 4′ 8″, Coleman always looked younger than he was, but had the delivery and comic timing of a more mature actor. The combination — he looked like a child and sassed like an adult — brought him fame and fortune as a child star during the surprisingly long run of “Diff’rent Strokes” (1978 to 1986). But as Coleman became an adult (he was 18 when the show ended), work dried up. People only loved Gary Coleman the child.
He sued his parents and former manager in 1989 for misappropriating the vast fortune he’d earned as a minor — and he won, but it wasn’t enough. He filed for bankruptcy in 1999. At different points, he supported himself with work as a mall security guard in Los Angeles and a video arcade manager.
Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, Coleman popped up every now and then in a sitcom or a TV movie. Sometimes he played himself. Sometimes he played a character — but even when he did, he was just playing himself — or a parody of the unfortunate turns his life had taken. Being “Gary Coleman” was the only work he could get. Audiences would laugh when he showed up, but we didn’t laugh with him anymore; we laughed at him — at what he once was and what he didn’t become and how he looked and how his life had fallen apart. He played along, I assume, because he was getting paid.
He certainly played along in 2003, when an alternative newspaper suggested — and then supported — his candidacy for governor of California in the free-for-all recall election. It started as a joke — and people treated it that way — but Coleman saw it as an opportunity. He told The New York Times:
I want to escape that legacy of Arnold Jackson… I’m someone more. It would be nice if the world thought of me as something more.
But we didn’t. We all wanted Gary Coleman, the chubby-cheeked kid who tossed out zingers and comebacks on TV. We wanted to hear him say “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” over and over and over again. What’s it like when the world won’t accept you as you are, but only as you once were?
It’s the wrong kind of attention, and the evidence tells us Coleman didn’t like it. He hit a woman in 1998 and was charged with assault when, as he told it, he refused her an autograph and she began to make fun of him and his career. And in 2008, after marrying and moving to Utah, Coleman and his wife argued with a man in a bowling alley who tried to take Coleman’s picture. Coleman said he tried to drive away and accidentally hit the man — the man said Coleman tried to run him over. He pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct and reckless driving and settled a civil suit out of court.
By this point, anger had taken over Coleman. Arguments with his wife resulted in a handful of arrests for disorderly conduct and domestic violence.
Unlike other child stars whose celebrity lives fall off a cliff, Coleman didn’t die from drugs or wild living or an out-of-control ego. He just grew up — an unfunny fact of life we never fully accepted.