The Kid with the Broken Halo

Gary Coleman became a running joke of sorts in the last half of his life, but the fist half gave many of us laughs that we've carried throughout our entire lives. A lot of us grew up on "Diff'rent Strokes" and the line "What'chu talkin' 'bout Willis?" has been in our lexicon for nearly 30 years, but the sideshow that became his life has overshadowed his contributions as a child.

As Arnold Jackson, Coleman played one of two Black kids adopted by a wealthy Caucasian after their parents pass away and four nine seasons the show highlighted various social problems through comedy and at times dramatic moments. Aside from the obvious interracial subtext, there were "very special episodes" that took the time to introduce and examine societal issues that varied from bulimia to race/class inequalities to drug use and the episode when Dudley was violated by the perv with the bike shop, not to mention Arnold getting his butt kicked by "The Gooch" more than a few times. There was also the episode that touched on Coleman's real-life circumstances as they explored the reality of him never growing to be tall, which struck a chord with me, because at the time I consistently the shortest kid in class and wondered if I would too never grow.

After the show was cancelled in 1986, his TV siblings Todd Bridges and Dana Plato fought publicized battles with drug addiction with Plato's ending with her suicide in 1999 at age 34. Coleman's life saw its ups and downs stemming from a lack of work, his parents squandering his fortune (he made $100,000 per episode at one point) and apparent anger issues resulting in various arrests and run-ins with fans. I couldn't imagine the pain and the hurt of knowing that the best days of your life passed when you were a child or just who you are being a punchline in jokes, all while carrying the burden of knowing you're different because decreased kidney function stunted your growth.

We'd ostracized him for so long, that the outpouring of love in the wake of his death almost seems phony, but I understand that's who we are. It's almost as if he fed the lunacy by running for governor of California, punching fans, working as a mall security guard and taking guest appearances in which he was simply the butt of jokes. The irony of his death yesterday at age 42 after suffering a brain hemorrhage from a fall is not lost on me, as his fall from grace started the day the set of "Diff'rent Strokes" went dark.

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