By Bob Meadows
In the 24 years since Diff’rent Strokes went off the air, Gary Coleman never once seemed happy.
That’s a real shame, because in the late 1970s, his TV guest appearances brought me so much joy. Really, they were something I couldn’t wait for. Good Times in 1978 was as stale as 10-day-old bread until Gary stormed in. There, he appeared in a couple episodes playing this whirlwind in a pint-sized body, Gary James.
He would say anything, do anything, insult anyone. Called people idiots and morons, and sidle up to Janet Jackson’s Penny or Thelma with a suave Hey mama. He pulled the same shtick on The Jeffersons, proving himself a match for J.J. or George or whoever else got in his way.
So it was only natural that he got his own show.
I watched Diff’rent Strokes–for a while. Gary was his usual funny self, albeit more reliant on a single catchphrase than the smart-aleck remarks that had endeared him to me. The rest of the show, however, was pretty hokey, so by the end of the first season, I had moved on. I missed Janet as Charlene, Dudley, visits from Mr. T and Nancy Reagan, and the show’s departure from the airways in 1986 didn’t even register with me.
But I knew Gary would have a hard road. At his peak, he was everywhere, in theaters, TV movies, even a cartoon. But those cherubic cheeks, so cute at 9, didn’t translate at 19. Or 29. Or 39. And behind the scenes, his life was harder still. While Emmanuel Lewis, the other black ’80s star with stunted growth, at least got to be a member of Michael Jackson’s strange posse, Gary was dealing with parents and lawyers who squandered his fortune. He had serious health issues that dogged him his entire life, and along with his Strokes co-stars, the ill-fated Dana Plato and recovering addict Todd Bridges, Coleman became a punchline, a joke, a warning.
He battled autograph seekers, the paparazzi, and seemingly, his own wife–the first woman he’d been with, he once said. And yet, no matter when he guest-starred on television–on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Jamie Foxx Show, Married With Children–his appearance would elicit a huge roar from a knowing audience that remembered him when.
I will miss Gary. I’m sorry his life took such bad turns. I don’t know how he’d feel about this, I don’t know whether it would have made him happy, but I will bestow on him this honor, straight from The Peoples News: For a while, however short, he truly and honestly made me laugh.
And that’s what I’m talking about.
© 2010 The Peoples News