Fame has its price
Childhood fame rarely makes happy adults, writes Darren Devlyn
HOLLYWOOD is littered with the names of actors cursed by childhood stardom. In TV, The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, The Wonder Years and many more shows produced actors who suffered psychological trauma after finding fame at a young age.
The cast of Diff’rent Strokes, one of the most successful sitcoms in history, is almost in a league of its own when it comes to the potentially tragic price of celebrity.
Todd Bridges, who played Willis, battled drug addiction. ‘‘Fame is like a needle in your arm,’’ Bridges once said. ‘‘When it is withdrawn, life is brutal.’’
Dana Plato, who played Kimberley, made porn to support her drug habit and died at 34 from an overdose.
And pint-sized Gary Coleman, renowned for playing cherub-faced Arnold, divorced his parents, tried to fight depression by taking sleeping pills and has for years battled for equilibrium in his private and professional lives.
Twenty-two years have passed since the curtain dropped on Diff’rent Strokes and the 1.42m Coleman still speaks in those famous highpitched tones. His days of playing cute, however, are well behind him.
He and his wife Shannon last year went on a US reality TV show to try to fix their fractured marriage.
Shannon said Coleman was prone to dropping his toys — throwing huge tantrums. Coleman responded to the accusation by saying he was dealing with his inner demons and had trouble just getting up in the morning to negotiate everyday life.
Coleman, who at 10 rose to international fame with his Diff’rent Strokes catchphrase, ‘‘What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis’’, confesses there have been times his life seemed on a one-way downward spiral. You’ve made some films lately? An American Carol, I did a bit in that. I get bit parts to make sure I can pay the mortgage. You turned 40 this year, correct? I forget. How old am I this year . . . I’m 41 next birthday, so yeah, I try not to remember the fact I’ve turned 40. I don’t celebrate my birthdays for the very reason I hate getting older. There have been some extraordinary things written about you. Are you aware a paper recently said you were a virgin and attributed this quote to you: ‘‘I don’t choose to be (a virgin), I just am. I have love in my heart. I have desire . . .’’ Well, I didn’t run with groupies and I’ve always been too old for the women I was interested in, so that’s kind of how that happened. And it still happens. I amjust too old for my own generation, if you can figure that. You went on TV with your wife last year to try to sort out your marriage. Marriage is tough, and it’s probably just going to get tougher the older I get and the older she gets. As long as there’s love and respect, everything else should work out. What keeps you fulfilled these days? My wife keeps me fulfilled. I love to work. I’ve set up several businesses online. There’s also entertainme.com.au which keeps me busy. I’m doing a bit of promotion for them, bringing classic (TV) programming to their site. I do little things (film and TV) whenever somebody needs me or thinks about me. Have there been times when you’ve thought, ‘‘I’ve had enough of this showbiz game, I’m going to do something else’’? I’m still hoping I’ll get that dream job, whatever that may be. To make me feel proud to be a member of the industry again. Politics (he ran for governor of California in 2003) didn’t last long because I was too honest. I was too practical, too realistic. What other jobs have you had? I used to carry a licence as a security officer. Not any more. There have been times in your life when you’ve desperately wanted closure on the Diff’rentStrokes phase of your life. I hope this round of DVD sales (through entertainme.com.au) will be closure. It’s possible in TV for an unhappy cast to make a great show, as difficult as it must be to go to work sometimes . . . If your house burns down, you still have to show up for work, if you want to get paid. How do you look back on Diff’rent Strokes as an experience? I don’t have any memories of doing Diff’rent Strokes. It was a job that was fun for three years and it was a job that was not fun for five years after that. For whatever reason, everybody internationally loves the show. How do you look back on the tragedies that afflicted the people who worked on the show? You lost Dana, Todd had his problems . . . Their problems are not my problems. I hate it when people make their problems my problems. They do whatever the hell they want. If they want to screw up their lives, that’s their business. I didn’t want to screw up my life (in the past). To my detriment, that’s probably why I’m not such a big thing in Hollywood because I don’t make friends with people who are party animals and who want to do drugs and stay up all night. I want to hang with people who are really into the craft of acting. And I’m not lucky enough to be around those people. And it kills me. I would love to work with Harrison Ford or Denzel Washington, but what’s the likelihood of that? How would you describe your relationship with Todd and Dana during and after the show? There wasn’t any, there isn’t any (relationship). I’m a recluse. You must have thought it sad what happened to Dana and Todd? The only emotion I had was, ‘‘Oh, God, my phone’s going to ring off the hook’’. That was the only emotion I had because people think I ran with them (Plato and Bridges) and I didn’t, that I socialised with them, and I didn’t. And that Dana’s death was going to affect me, and it didn’t. They are people who I used to know and who I worked with. That’s it. It may sound cold, but that’s the truth. How do you think you’ve negotiated fame? If I could give you fame for one day, you’d probably want to give it back to me in about five minutes. Are you serious? Oh, yeah. I don’t feel special being famous. My bank account doesn’t look famous to me! You said you took sleeping pills and that just dealing with life day to day can be a challenge for you. If you’re human, you’re going to have your day of doubt, your day of joy. That might go along with being a little bit manic. How do you pull yourself out of a situation when you think sleeping pills are a way to fix things? There is no way to pull out of or avoid those kinds of thoughts, especially if you’re at all human or creative or artistic. You try to live each day as it comes, hope your wife and friends will be there to support you. How is your health (Coleman had kidney transplants in 1973 and 1984)? I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you if I wasn’t (healthy). Got to move on now, dude.