Growing up, I loved Different Strokes in reruns. Gary Coleman as Arnold was indeed the centerpiece of the show and his cuteness and comedic timing is what made it a success. These thoughts on Gary Coleman might seem melodramatic, but I did feel a sense of pity for Gary Coleman as a public figure, and a wish that he would be able to gain a level of respect for what he was doing.
Gary Coleman’s life had a trajectory that was similar to his TV siblings, Todd Bridges and Dana Plato. He was hugely successful, famous and adored at a very young age, and once the vehicle for his success (the show) ended, there was no where really to go but down. For the rest of his life he could not get a break, and was the butt of many jokes. His small stature didn’t help. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see that his life following his television fame was confused and depressed. What becomes of someone whose only success was during childhood? Hollywood and the community of the famous and beautiful can be cruel. If you’re among it but not a part of it you’re nothing. But if you are a part of it and suddenly no longer a part of it, you may feel worse than nothing. It can also be deeply damaging for everyone in the whole world to expect you to be a perpetual child, and for more powerful people in show business to exploit that for reality TV and gonzo style programming. He said when he was running for Governor of California, "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 the press and the public had a hard time doing that.
I remember some kind of “where are they now” feature on VH1 several years ago, and one of the topics was David Lee Roth. He was preparing to be interviewed and the cameras captured him realizing that the show was not a mechanism for praise, but rather a collection of nostalgia. He said something along the lines of, “Oh, this is one of those things about people who are old and washed up?” And upon realizing that, even though it may have been an exaggeration, he was out. End of interview, mic removed, walking off stage. It was a telling moment, as if to say, Even if I’m not a superstar anymore, I’ll be damned if you’re not going to treat me like one. Roth went on in recent years to find success on radio and even as a medic, and I do think he’s found his place and a comfort level many years after his run as a rock star.
I think Gary tried to reach that point too. He had some regular jobs, but was always lured back by gigs that were inevitably going to mock him as the man-child, forever attached to the phrase “Whatchoo talkin’ about Willis?”
I think that his appearance on The Surreal Life gave a real glimpse into who he was and what he went through in his life after Different Strokes. In one episode, his co-star on the series, Vanilla Ice, is imploring him to say that famous catch phrase when Todd Bridges is spotted in the restaurant where they are working as part of the show. Vanilla Ice gets more and more animated, egging the crowd on to engage in the mockery of Gary, and growing increasingly mean spirited about it. (Deflect much?) Gary stayed calm, tried to brush it off and let the engagement die down, but Vanilla Ice wouldn’t let up. I don’t recall if Gary gave in and did it in the end just to shut him up, but I think he did.
During the whole thing I felt angered for Gary Coleman. I wanted him to express some of that legendary anger that he was said to have exhibited in his adulthood. I wanted him to remind Vanilla Ice that HE IS HAS BEEN TOO and that at least Gary, whatever he was, was never a phony and a fraud.
But that’s not what happened and with his life ending young I don’t think he ever got a chance to express what it was really like to go from 0 to 42 being Gary. I do hope that those who knew and loved him find comfort, and I hope that his moments of self worth and confidence outweighed the moments of feeling failed.
These are just my thoughts on Gary Coleman. RIP.