“Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” is a phrase that has become part of our culture. Gary Coleman, the adorable child star who made those words famous, was besieged with health and personal problems throughout his life. He passed away on Friday at the age of 42, after being admitted to the hospital with a brain hemorrhage.
Coleman is best known for his role as Arnold Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes. The TV show follows a rich widower, Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), who lives in a Manhattan penthouse with his teenage daughter (Dana Plato) and housekeeper, Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae). Following the death of Drummond’s previous housekeeper, her children — Arnold and his older brother, Willis (Todd Bridges) — move uptown to join the Drummond family.
In real life, Coleman was also adopted. He was also born with congenital kidney disease, which led to two separate kidney transplants in his lifetime, and also stunted his growth at less than five feet tall. Because of the kidney problems, he had to endure daily dialysis. Because of his stunted growth, Coleman looked much younger than his actual age. When he started working on Diff’rent Strokes, he looked to be eight but was actually 11 years old.
After becoming one of the biggest stars on television and starring on a network show for eight seasons, Coleman expected to have plenty of money as an adult. He was shocked to learn that much of it was gone. He sued his adopted parents and business adviser over misappropriations of his $3.8 million trust fund. He eventually won the suit and was awarded more than $1.2 million in 1993. Some 10 years later, he filed for bankruptcy.
Coleman also had several widely publicized run-ins with the law over the years. While working as a security guard, a woman asked him for his autograph. When he declined, she mocked his career. He claimed he felt physically threatened and punched her to get away. He ultimately plead guilty and agreed to pay her hospital bill. In the last couple years, Coleman was sited for reckless driving and domestic disputes with Shannon Price, his wife since 2007.
Earlier this year, Coleman had a seizure while on the set of The Insider. Luckily, Dr. Drew Pinsky was also on the set and aided Coleman until paramedics arrived. On Wednesday, he fell and hit his head at his home in Utah, suffering an epidural hematoma. He was admitted to the hospital, his condition got progressively worse and he fell unconscious. In critical condition, he was placed on life support until he passed away.
Sadly, he’s not the only Diff’rent Strokes child actor to suffer difficulties in later years. Bridges dealt with a drug addiction and was arrested numerous times but is now a commentator on The Smoking Gun television series. Plato became pregnant while still on the series and was let go, then appeared in Playboy. Like Bridges, she also battled drug addiction and eventually died via an overdose. Earlier this month, Plato’s son took his own life — 11 years to the day after his mother’s own suicide.