Like so many other child actors that went before and have gone after him, Gary Coleman never seemed able to adjust to the responsibilities of adulthood that came after his television star had faded. Although he was once one of the most popular actors on television, Coleman spent the rest of his life battling the image that the public had of him and the expectations for him to remain the cute seven-year-old that the country fell in love with over thirty years ago.
Although he once commanded over $100,000 an episode, financial woes dogged him throughout his life. Shortly after the conclusion of Diff'rent Strokes, Coleman sued his parents for mismanagement of his money. Although he was awarded over one million dollars in the settlement, he had lost several million dollars of his earnings that his parents either spent or lost. At one point he had to file for bankruptcy.
He also dealt with health issues from childhood up until his death. His kidney problems, which led to his small size, caused challenges for him both in life and his work. After the television and movie offers dried up, Coleman had a number of run-ins with the law. Like his co-stars on the show, Dana Plato and Todd Bridges, Diff'rent Strokes was likely more of a curse than a blessing Coleman. Plato had a history of drug problems and tragically took her own life in 1999. Bridges also battled drug problems and legal troubles but appears to be on the road to recovery.
I'm sure that dealing with a society that didn't want him to grow up was hard for Gary Coleman. He was raised by parents that seem to have been more concerned with the money he made for them than for his own well-being. He was thrust into a national spotlight at an age that was way too young to handle that kind of attention and likely had to deal with requests to say, "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" nearly every day of his life.
The sad story of Gary Coleman should serve as a reminder that television, movie and music stars are real people. Especially for those that are children when they become famous, we need to remember that these individuals are real people with real feelings that will be experiencing a real future. They are not the characters that we see on screen. As Coleman once shared,
"I parody myself every chance I get," he said. "I try to make fun of myself and let people know that I'm a human being, and these things that have happened to me are real. I'm not just some cartoon who exists and suddenly doesn't exist."The rich and famous deal with the same sort of things that we all deal with and have to do so under a microscope. For those like Coleman who were forced into celebrity without really having a choice in the matter, we should attempt to put ourselves in their shoes before demanding that autograph or expecting a photo when we run into them on the street.
Perhaps Coleman found some peace and happiness at some point in his life but that is not what appeared to have happened. In recent years Coleman appeared to be angry and bitter on the television shows in which he appeared or in the interviews he gave. Perhaps his desire to be viewed as an adult is what led him to run for governor of California in 2003. In any case, the story of Gary Coleman should serve as a reminder that children are to be nurtured and cared for and not used for our financial gain. Although Coleman brought a lot of laughter to millions of others, it is sad to think of the price that he paid to do so.