Gary Coleman’s career in the public eye introduced nearly as many tangled issues as his “Diff’rent Strokes” character Arnold Jackson grappled with amid laughs. The 42-year-old actor died due to an intracranial hemorrhage Friday (May 28) after being taken off life support at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, and he left behind one of television’s most iconic characters, as well as an adult life that reflected the problems he carried away from his experiences as a child actor.
Coleman’s recent appearances in works like the documentary “Midgets vs. Mascots” and the TV show “Divorce Court” demonstrated the personal issues he dealt with in the shadow of a young role that defined him for many and the public displays of anger he became known for later on in life. As an actor whose early television work brought discussions about race relations and class into homes across the country, his legacy will also encompass the 1989 lawsuit he filed against his real-life adopted parents for mismanaging his money and the parodies his role as Arnold spawned, both in Coleman’s own work and elsewhere.
“Diff’rent Strokes” hit on dramatic real-world topics during its run, notably inviting Nancy Reagan on during an episode focused on drugs. The show also took a stand against racism in a story where Arnold’s adopted father, Mr. Drummond, tried to get him and his brother Willis (played by Todd Bridges) into his exclusive prep-school alma mater. In that case, the criteria in the school’s entrance exam became part of the issue. During its run, “Diff’rent Strokes” revisited such themes, though, including an episode where Willis encountered more overt discrimination while trying to take a white girl to a dance.
Coleman’s signature catchphrase from the 1980s — “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” — cemented his prominent place in pop culture but also followed him throughout the rest of his life into works like the musical “Avenue Q,” where Coleman didn’t collaborate or necessarily approve, but was presented as a puppet landlord in the song “It Sucks to Be Me.”
Coleman left his mark on video games as well, though, voice-acting the part of lemonade seller Kenny Falmouth in the cult-classic LucasArts game “The Curse of Monkey Island.” Even there, the exaggerated pouting attitude he exhibited on “Diff’rent Strokes” became part of his charm.
Even the sketches and Arnold’s frequently quoted quips at his onscreen brother are a testament to the affection that still exists now for Coleman’s character. Few performers ever achieve the lasting presence in the public consciousness that Coleman grabbed playing Arnold Jackson, and his work at the age of 10 will undoubtedly outlast his talk-show and reality-television appearances later in life as he is remembered.
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