It’s 9:18 pm, and I just learned that Gary Coleman died.
No sarcasm. I’m truly, truly shocked. And sad. When I was a kid, I loved Gary Coleman. His work—on Diff’rent Strokes and in a bevy of made-for-TV movies—meant something to me. I vividly recall the early 1980s, my brother and I excitedly plopping down in front of the television every Saturday night for the back-to-back joy that was Diff’rent Strokes and Silver Spoons. Sure, Diff’rent Strokes wasn’t solely Coleman’s show—he shared the bill with Todd Bridges, Dana Plato, Conrad Bain and—when the program hit the crapper—Danny Cooksey and Dixie Carter (Arnold’s step-mom who, ironically, just passed a month ago). But, when push came to shove, Coleman was the headliner. He was cute and short and quick with a quip. Everyone remembers “What you talkin’ about Willis!” But when Mr. T guest starred, Coleman sported a mohawk. When Nancy Reagan arrived at his school, Coleman greeted the first lady. When Dudley was molested by the station manager from WKRP (played by Gordon Jump), Coleman comforted him.
He also was, for a brief span, The Man when it came to those cheesy made-for-TV flicks. Coleman played the manager of the San Diego Padres in The Kid from Left Field, a guardian angel in The Kid With the Broken Halo (featuring Georg Stanford Brown playing Rudy Desautel—my favorite all-time movie character name), a Scout who saves his friends in Scout’s Honor. Was he a particularly skilled thespian? To quote my friend Jeanne Hawkins, “He was the best small-statured actor ever.” Which is the equivalent of being the best chef at Burger King. But, hey, who’s keeping score?
Sadly, Coleman grew up. And with that, he became a punchline. A mean, lazy punchline. About short people. About faded stars. About virgins. He came off as angry and, to be honest, sort of pathetic. He ran for governor of California and worked as a security guard. The hit play Avenue Q literally has a character, Gary Coleman, who works as the landlord of a low-income housing development.
Somewhat ironically, I just pondered Coleman the other day. I was walking through a mall with my children. Someone working a SEARCHING FOR STARS kiosk approached … asked if I had any interest in getting the kids into show biz.
I thought of Coleman. Literally, I thought about him. About his post-TV life. About the jokes and the comments and the sadness.
“No,” I said. “No thank you.”
R.I.P. Gary. You didn’t deserve what you received.