Fame has its price

Child­hood fame rarely makes happy adults, writes Dar­ren Devlyn

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Front Page -

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.

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