By Kellie B. Gormly,
How “diff’rent” real-life performers can be from the characters they portray on television shows. In the hit NBC show Diff’rent Strokes, which ran from 1978 to 1986, we viewers fell in love with the all-American child characters who served as role models and teachers for viewers. There was Willis (Todd Bridges), the girl magnet and devoted big brother. There was Kimberly (Dana Plato), the beautiful, sweet and squeaky-clean daddy’s girl. And then there was Arnold (Gary Coleman) — unmistakably the show-stealing star of Diff’rent Strokes. His angelic face with the adorable and highly pinchable cheeks looked all the more endearing on the pint-size character when it scrunched up as he said his catchphrase, “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”
The sitcom’s premise was as warm and fuzzy as it was totally unrealistic: wealthy, widowed Manhattanite Philip Drummond adopts his late housekeeper’s two poor African-American sons from Harlem. Blended families are difficult under any circumstances, so the boys’ instant, drama-free bond with their adoptive sister Kimberly wasn’t very believable, nor was Mr. Drummond’s willingness to adopt. Still, the show — like The Jeffersons, a leading sitcom that portrayed interracial relationships — gave us the warmth of an ideal fictionalized family based on unconditional love.
Sadly, the key word here is fictionalized — and in the case of Diff’rent Strokes, radically. While child stars from other classic sitcoms like The Brady Bunch and The Facts of Life had reasonably happy childhoods and went on to become reasonably healthy adults, the happy characters on Diff’rent Strokes were a front for the pain in the young performers‘ lives. Once the show ended in the mid ’80s, the child stars spun out of control with highly publicized acts of self-destruction.
Fans have come to know this tragedy as the “Diff’rent Strokes Curse,” which touched the three beloved youths on the show. The most heartbreaking story is that of Dana Plato, who got pregnant during the series and was dismissed from the show at the end of the sixth season. After that, Plato turned to roles in softcore pornography and sunk deeply into drug and alcohol abuse. Living in Las Vegas, she robbed a video store for cash in a rock-bottom moment. In 1999, at age 34, Plato’s tragic life ended in a drug overdose, which was ruled a suicide.
Gary Coleman (Arnold), whose growth was stunted and health compromised by a lifelong kidney condition, had public battles with his parents over money. He got arrested on domestic violence charges and died embittered and angry in 2010 from a head injury after a fall. He was 42.
Todd Bridges, who played Willis, is the only Diff’rent Strokes kid still alive, and he is doing well. But, for years, he struggled with severe drug addiction and had many scrapes with the law. In his memoir Killing Willis: From Diff’rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted, Bridges talks about how, behind the scenes, the child stars already were having serious struggles during the series.
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