Gary Coleman, best-known for his performance as a child actor as Arnold Jackson in Diff’rent Strokes, died today of a brain hemorrhage. He was 42.
Coleman will be remembered by people who grew up with his catchphrase (“Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”) and his portrayal of a spunky kid from Harlem who, with his brother, was adopted by rich, genial white guy Phillip Drummond after their mother died. Arnold embodied the audience’s fantasies: that a good kid with a hard life could get the security he deserved, and that–as the show and its title sentimentally suggested–white and black, rich and poor Americans could live together as something like family. And like it or not, they’ll remember the adult Coleman, who embodied a too-familiar kind of Hollywood reality.
Coleman was the quintessential ’70s/’80s TV kid: a figure of exaggerated childishness (in his height and chubby cheeks), with a standup pro’s confidence, timing and comic delivery. And not to overrate Diff’rent Strokes as a TV show—Coleman played the role far better than it was ever written—but there was just the slightest touch of a serious shading to the way he played Arnold. He was resilient and sunny, but there was that canny and suspicious element to him–Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout?–that hinted he’d been through harder times. It was a savvy, sharp comic performance for a kid who started the role at age 10. The show aired for eight seasons, on NBC and briefly ABC, and Coleman’s appeal was far and away the biggest reason for its longevity.
People will remember him, in other words, as a kid. Coleman, who suffered from congenital kidney disease that limited his growth, was also figuratively preserved in his fans’ minds as that pudgy-faced kid. But he’ll also be remembered for his well-publicized life as a former child actor, with everything that “former child actor” signifies in pop culture and on E! specials—in his case including run-ins with the law, numerous health problems, a stint working as a security guard and a lawsuit against his own parents and manager over their use and handling of his fortune.
Just as we saw when Corey Haim died (or for that matter, Coleman’s Strokes co-star Dana Plato in 1999), there’s a kind of ritual fascination with the stories of troubled former child stars. Part of it is garden-variety voyeurism. But another part is what they, and the contrast with their idealized characters, tell us about our lives.
Mourning celebrities is always to some extent about mourning yourself. That’s how celebrity nostalgia works. When you mourn the passing of a celebrity who died at an advanced age, you’re remembering them, but you’re also remembering your own mortality. When a child star like Coleman or Haim dies, though, it’s also about how the hopes of childhood turn into the realities of adulthood.
The musical Avenue Q used Gary Coleman as a character in the song “It Sucks to Be Me,” in which the various characters lament how they’ve become adults and none of their dreams—career, romantic—have come true. And then enters “Gary Coleman,” a former TV child star who’s now working as their apartment-building super. Upon which the other characters admit that yes–“You win!”–it sucked to be him, worse than anyone.
Did it? Not for me to say. Coleman reportedly hated the characterization, and said that he wanted to sue the makers of the musical. (Not that he was completely humorless about his past; he played himself in David Spade’s 2003 Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, for instance, and used his where-are-they-now status to make a quixotic run for California governor.) Which is understandable, but the number was saying as much about the other characters–and really, the audience–as it was saying about Coleman. As a co-creator of the musical said: “One of the most important themes in Avenue Q is that life isn’t as easy as we’ve been led to believe… who better to symbolize the oh-so-special-as-a-kid/but-not-so-special-as-an-adult thing we all were faced with than Gary Coleman?” The characters in Avenue Q, after all, look at Coleman to feel better about themselves; but they haven’t even had success to outlive or fortunes to lose.
Coleman did, and when people remember him they will inevitably remember what he lost. But it’s also worth remembering what he had, and what—in one of TV’s memorable sitcom character creations—he gave his fans. RIP.