1. Headline
  1. Headline

Video: Bridges reclaims his life with ‘Killing Willis’

  1. Closed captioning of: Bridges reclaims his life with ‘Killing Willis’

    >>> back now at 8:10. for todd bridges , the role of willis on the sitcom "different strokes" could have led to a life of fame and fortune. instead he plunged into a life of drug abuse and crime. we'll talk to him in a moment. first, how his life spiraled out of control. * it takes different strokes to move the world *

    >> what you talkin' bout, willis ?

    >> for those who grew up watching todd bridges play gary coleman 's older brother, willis , the news may have come as a shock. the then 23-year-old actor was arrested on suspicion of shooting an accused drug dealer at a south central l.a. crack house .

    >> have you ever lived in a nonblack neighborhood before?

    >> just once when our landlord in harlem painted our building right.

    >> far cry to the responsible older brother that audiences loved for eight season.

    >> there's no privacy with you around. your nose is always where it doesn't belong.

    >> my nose is right where i left it.

    >> in "different strokes" a white, well-meaning millionaire adopts two street-wise brothers from harlem and raises them along with his biological daughter, kimberly. the calf of "different strokes" has come to epitomize star tragedy. made porn to support her drug habit and died at 34 from an overdose. coleman has had his own trouble with the law and bridges decade-making charges, concealing a firearm, making a bomb threat, armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon .

    >> on two occasions you appeared in this court. i suspected that you were under the influence of narcotics.

    >> at his worse, he has admitted to supporting a 14-gram a day habit.

    >> never in my worst nightmare did i dream i would come here to visit you.

    >> we bet the young bridges never did either. he joins us to speak about the dangers of drug abuse . his new book "killing willis ."

    >> good morning.

    >> i read this book over the weekend. it is a book of an account of someone whose life was full of so much promise and also so much pain, some of it brought on by others, some of it self inflicted.

    >> yeah.

    >> you call the book "killing willis ." why that title?

    >> i was trying to basically destroy myself and willis is part of me and i figured it would work very well. i was trying to take out myself, part of willis and destroy everything.

    >> willis represented hope for you really.

    >> it sure did.

    >> potential.

    >> willis represented safety. when i was on the set, i was safe. i wasn't at home, going through what i would go through with my dad or -- which really basically became a safe place for me.

    >> i'm going to get to that in a minute, what happened with your dad. chapter one is titled "suicide by cops," december 9 , 1992 , probably the lowest moment in your life. you were trying to get your life back together. a girl asked you to get drugs for her. you did. you were on your way back.

    >> yes.

    >> the police stopped you. you had been dealing drugs on and off since "different strokes" had gone off the air, addicted to cocaine, crack, meth, numerous run-ins with the law, spent almost a year in jail. vowed you would never go back. you have a gun in the car. you're trying to decide what to do. tell me about that moment.

    >> that moment, it was the lowest point of my life, first of all. i really felt i was just in a frame of mind that i didn't want to live anymore. i got tired of feeling that rejection, tired of feeling that sorrow, tired of feeling that pain that i was going through and i felt that i if i just would grab the gun and turn around without even firing a shot and let the cops kill me, it would take away all the pain. then i heard this voice tell me that it wasn't the right move. that literally not to do that and give myself a second chance, to really find some kind of happiness.

    >> such a far cry from that little boy who, at 5 years old, turned to his mom and said i know what i want to do.

    >> yeah.

    >> i want to be an actor and, more than that, i want to be a star.

    >> yeah.

    >> what made you think that you had that in you?

    >> i knew exactly what i wanted to be. growing up, i've been that preco cious kid who is outgoing, talkative and i knew at 5 years old what i wanted to do. i wanted to be in show business . i thought it was the life for me. it's funny, because show business really kept me and my mom away from the house. it kept us safe most of the time.

    >> most people didn't know while you were doing the commercials and tv shows before "different strokes" you're this cute kid on the air. what we don't realized is that at home your dad is physically abusing you.

    >> yeah.

    >> and mentally abusing you.

    >> yeah. that was really unfortunate as a kid growing up to where you never heard your father say he loves you. his idea of taking you somewhere was to drop you off and he would go in the bar and go drinking. everything i learned was from my mom, my brothers, my uncles. i never learned anything from my dad. the only thing i can say to his defense is that i learned how to be a hard worker from him. i would rather have had a father who told me he loved me and was a terrible worker than a father who was a great worker but never told me he loved me.

    >> he introduced you to an agent that ended up sexually abusing you.

    >> yeah.

    >> and when he told your dad shall, he told you --

    >> my father took his side and said todd is lying. my mother wanted to kill him and my dad wouldn't let her. my dad stayed friends with the guy, which made it even worse . if something happened to my child -- first of all, i don't know how long the guy is going to survive, but the other thing is there's no way i could not take my son's side. how do you do that? how do you not really understand that your child is crying out and telling you the pain that he's going through, that this guy inflicted on him and you take his side?

    >> it was right after that, that you got the role in "different strokes."

    >> yeah.

    >> it was a huge success. you begin a sexual relationship with your older co-star, dana plateau. how did that go on?

    >> the whole time "different strokes" lasted. but she actually came at a very pivotal point in my life where i was fighting whether or not i was homosexual or not.

    >> because you had been sexually abused by your agent?

    >> publicist.

    >> publicist, i'm sorry.

    >> i didn't know what i was. and then when i experienced stuff with her, i realized i liked women and i didn't feel dirty. i didn't feel less than and i didn't feel wrong.

    >> she also introduced you to drug zpls yeah.

    >> pot and alcohol. you talk in the book one time nancy reagan was on the set for an episode promoting her just say no campaign. at that point, were you high?

    >> no, i was never high on the set ever. it was always the weekend. i was that kind of user. when nancy reagan -- that whole just say no didn't really work for too many people in america.

    >> certainly didn't work for you ordaina.

    >> didn't work for me.

    >> your relationship with gary coleman started out really well and disintegrated. you blame his father for that.

    >> his father made him hate himself and on top of that, made him hate everyone else around him that had a different skin color than white people . he wanted gary coleman only to have white friends and not black friends. we used to hang out together as kids. we used to put these boxes together as children and play in the boxes all the time and do different things together. the minute his father came down on the third season, it changed everything. he walked in that year with -- on top of some big guy 's shoulders, bodyguard. everyone had to stay away . it was no longer talking to gary , talk to somebody else to get to gary .

    >> you weren't even in the finale of the series.

    >> no.

    >> in '86. do you think colemans purposely kept you out?

    >> yeah, they purposely did. that's been a known fact that they did. but like i said, the great part about it is that i've forgiven all of them for that and even today i'm willing to help gary to get out of this anger. learn how to be happy.

    >> you have no relationship with him at this point?

    >> no. i talk to him through somebody else. i go through somebody else who talks to him.

    >> after "different strokes" you picked up a new habit, cocaine.

    >> oh, yeah.

    >> that led to crack and then you lost most of your money in an accounting scam. you're an addict, you're broke.

    >> yeah.

    >> you become a drug dealer yourself. how fast did all of this happen?

    >> it seemed like overnight. it really seemed like that. but it's a transformation. you go from -- see, people, when i became a drug dealer basically it was to supply my habit because, you know, the money wasn't there to take care of the habit. i had to supply my habit. basically i was doing what scarface said, don't get high on your own supply, i was doing that. i kept my habit, kept spinning out of control, because i stayed high the whole entire time and that process just went around like a vicious circle . and everything is detailed in "killing willis ." it really explains how the life i led, why i led that life. killing willis , to me, is a great illustration of whatnot to do. at the same time there's a lot of redemption in there of how to redeem yourself.

    >> why do you think it was so easy to fall into that life?

    >> because i hated myself. i really hated myself. i couldn't stand who i was at that point in my life and it was a lot of things, the fact that i had been molested, the police were harassing me on a continual basis. they started harassing me at an early age. no safety net at home because my father was out of control. i had no place that was safe but on the set of "different strokes."

    >> when you left that, there was no place to go?

    >> no place to be safe.

    >> you were arrested for attempted murder of another drug dealer . you sit in jail for a year. lyle menendez , who killed his mom and dad and serial rapist richard ramirez as well?

    >> yeah. he told me something interesting, if you had to do it over again, what would you do different? he was like, it wouldn't be old ladies. i was like, wow, you're going to burn, dude. they thought i was going to go down. i was really the only person who was not guilty at that time.

    >> you were acquitted and your lawyer was johnny cochran .

    >> yeah.

    >> you couldn't stay out of trouble. addicted to meth. you tried to clean up your act. leading to that day in 1992 .

    >> just because you go to jail, see -- just because you go to jail does not mean you're going to stop using drugs if you don't get the proper help you need.

    >> you finally did get the proper help.

    >> yeah.

    >> we're running out of time . there's so much i could ask you. you've been sober almost 17 years.

    >> 17 years, yeah.

    >> how are you doing today?

    >> doing great. i love myself and i say i love myself six days a week. the seventh day it's wishy washy. the good part is that i really don't care about the seventh day as long as i get around to the first day.

    >> you'll be back in our next hour to talk some more. different. * are you

TODAY books
updated 3/15/2010 10:05:16 AM ET 2010-03-15T14:05:16

In his memoir “Killing Willis,” the actor who played Willis on the sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” writes about hitting his lowest point — selling crack and meth and getting busted by the police. An excerpt.

Chapter one
Suicide by cop. It was my only way out. I couldn’t see any other solution. I didn’t care enough about myself or anything else to find another answer. Officers from the Burbank Police Department had pulled me over on a residential street. I was on my way back from scoring drugs for a girl I knew, and I had a sixteenth of speed in the hiding place in my car. Their squad cars were parked close behind my Mercedes, with their lights flashing, sirens blaring. They were out of their cars now, coming up on me, their weapons drawn and held steady, right at my head.

I reached for my gun.

This was December 29, 1992, and I was worn out. It’d been a long time coming. I’d been using and dealing on and off for six years, and even though I’d been trying to get my act cleaned up, it clearly wasn’t working. I decided to give the cops what I knew they wanted, the chance to say they’d taken down Todd Bridges, the former child star turned drug dealer, whether they got me with bullets or with bars.

I never would have let myself get caught with drugs in my car before. When I was a serious dealer of crack and methamphetamine, I dealt to supply my own addiction to both. Being high made me more alert, and I was high all the time. Sometimes things got real weird, and I felt like I was living in one of the movies I had acted in during my old life. But I always knew when the cops were watching me, and I kept my stuff well hidden.

The drugs and dealing had been exciting for a while. But more importantly, they had kept me numb. They made me forget all of the bad things that had happened to me as a child. On the outside, I’d had it all, living the life I’d always dreamed of as a TV star with a lead part on the hit shows “Fish” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” But that wasn’t the whole story.

On the inside, I’d been left with dark memories that overpowered the good. I didn’t want to feel the pain I’d carried with me from my childhood into adulthood, and so I didn’t want to stop using drugs. But I couldn’t keep on going like I was. I kept trying to do the right thing, like my mom had taught me, like I had been told in church when I was growing up, like I knew I should. But my life was so crazy that any attempt I made to be a decent human being only seemed to land me in another whole mess of trouble.

A few months before my run-in with the Burbank Police, I’d met this girl, Tiffany. With me, there was always a girl involved somehow. There was something nice, almost normal, about this particular girl. She was mulatto, medium height, and curvy. She had this reddish hair that she wore short and spiked. She started hanging around, and pretty soon we were dating. I guess that’s what you’d call it. I wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who sent flowers back then. But we were together a lot, just doing whatever. And even though she was using drugs herself, she was supportive, in her own way, of the fact that I was trying to get my life together.

I was done with how crazy the drugs made me: the paranoia, the hallucinations, the feeling that maybe if I had to draw my gun on somebody, and then, if he drew his gun and shot me to death, it’d be for the best. I didn’t think my mind or my spirit could take much more.

I quit meth. I quit crack. I basically quit selling drugs. I had a little money that my mom had kept safe for me during the years I had gotten heavily into drugs, and I just tried to live something like a normal life.

But getting out wasn’t that easy. Not after I’d been so deeply involved for as long as I had been. On the day of my run-in with the Burbank Police, I was in my house in Sun Valley when I got a phone call from this other girl, Joelle, I’d hung around with for a month or so, about seven months earlier. I knew I shouldn’t be taking calls from other girls when I was seeing someone, so I went into the other room to keep Tiffany from hearing my conversation.

  1. Stories from
    1. Craig Strickland's Widow on Their Last Conversation: 'He Walked Out the Door, Looked at Me and Said, "I Love You"'
    2. Joe Jonas Packs on PDA with Former Top Model Contestant Jessica Serfaty
    3. White House Responds to Petition to Pardon Making a Murderer Subjects Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey
    4. Family of Sandy Hook Victim Commends Florida Atlantic University for Firing Professor Who Questioned Massacre
    5. Kylie Jenner's Lip Kit Is Ruining Lives (According to the Internet, Anyway)

There was no way I was going to not take this call. Joelle was something else. She was the one who got me hooked on methamphetamine. The first time she ever shot me up with meth, the high was so good, I came. I was hooked on the drug, and I was hooked on her. She was a pretty girl — blond and very voluptuous, with a great body for a drug addict — and very wild, sexually, just nasty and crazy. It was always real intense with her, real on the edge, and I never knew what was going to happen next. So when I heard her voice on the phone that day, all sexy and suggestive, that’s all it took to get me excited.

I knew Joelle was dangerous, but I wasn’t thinking too clear right then.

“Can you get me a sixteenth of speed?” she asked.

“No, I’m not doing that anymore,” I said, keeping my voice down.

“Well, can you just go find somebody to get it for me?”

Her voice was real flirty-like. I knew if I did her a favor, I’d get something good in return. Girls who needed drugs would do anything. That’s how I liked it.

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “Where do you want me to meet you at?”

We worked out a plan where I would meet her in Burbank to get the cash to buy the drugs, go buy them, and then hook back up with her in Burbank. If there was one thing I had learned, it was to never buy drugs for someone without getting the money up front. People were always trying to pull something. And if she didn’t pay me for the speed once I bought it, it would be worthless for me to hold out on giving it to her, since I wasn’t using anymore. What I cared about was how she was planning to say thank you. I had a few ideas in mind.

Like I’ve already said, I wasn’t really dealing anymore, so I didn’t have any drugs on me. I called a friend of mine and arranged to meet him at his place in North Hollywood to get some speed for Joelle. Then I drove from my house to meet her, and then, from there, to my buddy’s house. While I was driving, I totally forgot about the cops who were following me.

This was not easy to do. The cops had been a constant force in my life since I was fifteen. That’s when my family moved to the San Fernando Valley. The police force started harassing me, pulling me over, calling me a nigger, and finding any excuse they could to hassle me until I came to hate the color of my own skin, almost as much as I hated the police. They’d arrested me plenty of times since I’d gotten into drugs, and they’d been following me pretty much nonstop for the past two years. In fact, my good friend Shawn Giani, who was my neighbor in Sun Valley for many years, had called me and tipped me off that the cops had asked if they could watch my house from his bushes.

At the height of my meth use, I got so messed up on drugs that I went out to their undercover van and started banging on it, shouting, “I know you’re in there!” There was a guy in there, all right. He took one look at me, climbed up into the driver’s seat, and drove away. But that wasn’t the last I saw of him.

Whatever I was doing, I could count on the fact that there was always a cop somewhere nearby. When I was on meth, no matter how high I was, I knew the police were out there. And I was always able to avoid them. Even when I was doing fourteen grams of meth a day, and so high I was having hallucinations, driving around with drugs and loaded guns in my car, dropping off and picking up the girls I had working the streets for me, the cops never caught me.

But on that day in December, I smoked some pot, and pot made me stupid, real stupid. It was the only thing I was doing since I’d quit crack and meth. It should have been an improvement, right? It would have been, except for the fact that on pot, I was a total moron. That made me an easy target. I didn’t care that the cops were following me because I didn’t know. I had forgotten that cops even existed.

Get this, though. Even though I was driving around in the stupidest marijuana haze possible, the cops somehow managed to lose me. Maybe that says something about all of the times the police didn’t catch me when I was doing something illegal. After they got separated from my Mercedes, they pulled their squad car off the road and two officers ran into a Ralph’s grocery store, looking for any sign of me.

They happened to stop a lady who knew my mother.

“Have you seen Todd Bridges in here?” they asked her, thinking she’d be able to recognize me from TV, not knowing she was a family friend.

“No,” she said. “He hasn’t been here.”

After checking the store, the officers jumped back into their squad car and drove away. As soon as they were out of sight, that lady ran to a pay phone and called my mom. “They’re looking for your son,” she told my mom.

My mom wasn’t at all surprised to receive a call like that. She’d prayed, and cried. She’d come to family therapy sessions when I was in rehab. She’d bailed me out of jail when she could, and visited me in jail when I was denied bail. But nothing had done anything to turn me around. At the time, I was so far gone that I couldn’t register anything beyond how low I was feeling about myself, and how the drugs — whether it was crack or speed or pot — made this pain go away. I couldn’t hear what she was saying when she begged me to get sober, and I certainly couldn’t understand how much I was hurting her. But no matter how dark my life got, my mom never gave up on me. When she learned that the cops were after me, she called my house. And when she got the machine, she left a message for me.

“Whatever you’re doing, stop it now. The police are looking for you.”

I didn’t ever get that message.

By that point I was on the way back from my friend’s house with a sixteenth of speed, totally ignorant of all of the excitement I’d been causing across the San Fernando Valley. I had the drugs, and I was going to see a sexy girl who would be very glad to get them. That’s all that mattered to me. My gun was in the secret hiding place I’d made in the dashboard of my car. It was right below the radio. There was a button that looked like it controlled the car alarm, but when you pushed it, a secret compartment dropped down. I was good at hiding places. There were plenty of times the police searched different cars I owned over the years, but they never found my drugs or my gun.

The police hadn’t given up searching for me. Far from it. They picked me back up. As soon as I heard the siren, I knew they had me. I pulled over. They came out of everywhere. And they made it clear — they weren’t playing.

“Get out of the car, right now!” one of the officers yelled at me, his gun drawn.

Behind him, the officers from the other squad cars and the undercover van stood at the ready, legs wide, guns drawn. A drug dog barked and tugged at its leash. I had been through this before. My trial for attempted murder in ’89 was big news. The headlines that ran on TV and in the tabloids were plenty nasty. I’d had to go through it again a year later, when they retried the case.

I couldn’t face it all over again. I was totally demoralized.

I hit the button and opened the secret compartment where my gun was hidden. I had a 9mm Beretta in there, and I put my hand on the grip.

“Forget it,” I thought. “Just kill me now, because I’m tired of this life anyway.”

I was ready for it all to end. I was done with the hurt and the shame I felt over the abuse and racism I had experienced as a child, the feeling I had that my life wasn’t worth anything, and that because I was a drug addict, I didn’t deserve any better anyhow.

The cops were ready, too. They watched me closely.

But then something spoke to me from deep inside of myself, maybe God, maybe some part of me that had somehow managed to survive all of the bad stuff I had been through and wasn’t ready to give up, no matter how much pain I was in.

“Don’t reach for it,” the voice said. “Just let it go.”

It was a hard choice. Suicide by cop was easy compared to what I had in front of me. I had gone from being a teen idol to a tabloid joke. I was broke, and I didn’t have any prospects of getting my career back. I had been to rehab five times. I usually didn’t last more than a few days. It never once stuck for longer than a few months. I had spent almost a year in jail while awaiting trial and vowed I would never go back. I had tried, and failed, to block out all of the things that had been written about me in the press before. I had felt pain and self-hatred so deep and raw that the only way to silence it was with drugs.

But this was not how I wanted to end it. I wanted to live. I let go of my gun and closed up the secret compartment.

Now that I didn’t want to die, I was scared that they were going to kill me. The cops in the San Fernando Valley had abused me so much as a teenager that I finally filed a police harassment lawsuit in the mid-’80s. It only made them hate me more. And now they had their guns drawn and plenty of reasons to use them.

I kept my hands visible as I opened the car door slowly, careful not to spook them. I got out of the car, trying to act cool. Everything went crazy after that. The sirens ripped through my skull. The drug dog leaped toward me, barking even louder. I rested my hands on the back of my head to show I was cooperating and backed up toward them, trying not to imagine being shot in the back. The police were all over me. They rushed up, shouting orders, their guns at close range.

The undercover officer whose van I’d ambushed when I was out of my mind on drugs came up and put his gun to my head.

“I’ve got you now, mother------,” he said.

I wasn’t exactly in a position to argue.

They grabbed me, got me onto the ground, and held me there. They patted me down and let the dog go over me. I was wearing baggy Cross Colours clothes, which young black men were really into at the time, and they checked all of the pockets for weapons and drugs. When they cuffed my arms behind my back, I knew it was all over. As they put me in the back of a squad car, I actually felt a sense of relief. I hated my old way of living so much that I had been ready to die. And now I had a chance at something better, if I could only hold it together this time.

I didn’t realize it then, but it was ironic that the Burbank Police Department was the one to arrest me and, ultimately, save my life. When I was at the height of my career as one of the stars of “Diff’rent Strokes,” I received a plaque on October 13, 1979, “In Appreciation for Services Rendered to the Burbank Police Officers’ Association.” Nothing could be a clearer symbol of how far I’d fallen since then. Gone was the cute kid who had made people laugh on TV and used his fame for good by visiting veterans, children’s hospitals, and public schools. In his place was a shell of a man who was so sick in body and mind that he had almost given the officers who had honored him a good reason to shoot him to death.

When the cops searched my Mercedes, they found my gun and the speed. They knew right where to look. Not too many people were aware of my secret hiding place. But Joelle knew. I was sure she had set me up.

I wanted to kill her. I would have, too, if I’d seen her right then. My mind was still all screwed up from the drugs and everything I’d been through.

But I was tired of feeling like that, of living in a world of drugs and guns, where surviving meant getting the other person before he could get me. I felt lucky that I had made it out alive. I was going to at least try to stay that way. I basically told the officer everything. Ironically, there wasn’t much to tell, not like if they had arrested me a year earlier. Since I had quit using hard drugs, and pretty much quit dealing, my life was fairly tame. But there was enough to keep me in jail.

I called up my lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, who went on to make his name defending O. J. Simpson during his murder trial. Johnnie came down and sat next to me in the cell. He rolled his ring around on his finger, thinking, before he spoke.

“I’m going to tell you what,” he said. “This is the last time I’m going to help you with anything. If you don’t straighten your life out, I’m done. Don’t call me. Don’t be my friend. I don’t need you in my life if you can’t straighten yourself out.”

Johnnie had always been there for me. My family and I first hired him to represent me in my lawsuit against the LAPD. This was after their years of discrimination came to a head when they tried to arrest me for supposedly stealing my own car. He had represented me in my attempted-murder trial in ’89. And when my own father didn’t visit me, even once, while I was in jail for nine months leading up to that trial, Johnnie had been like a father to me. The thought of not having him there to help me anymore filled me with panic.

“You know, Johnnie,” I said, “I’m ready to stop. I just need to know how.”

“Well, you need to figure out how to do it,” he said.

That was the problem. I didn’t even know how to start.

I was bailed out of jail a few hours later. I went home, and even though I had the desire to turn my life around, I couldn’t. I started getting high again right away, and not only on marijuana either. I was back on meth and crack. Like I had told Johnnie: I didn’t know how to stop. I stayed high for the next few months, until I had to go back to court. I probably would have felt bad about letting Johnnie down, and about letting myself down, and about letting my mother and everyone else in my life down. But when I was high, I didn’t feel anything. That was the whole point.

Excerpted from "Killing Willis" by Todd Bridges. Copyright (c) 2010. Reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. @HillaryClinton/twitter

    Hillary Clinton: Granddaughter led me 'to speed up' political plans

    4/10/2015 3:58:42 PM +00:00 2015-04-10T15:58:42
  1. Courtesy Bryan Morseman

    Marathon dad's victories help raise money for son with spina bifida

    4/10/2015 5:54:50 PM +00:00 2015-04-10T17:54:50
  1. YouTube

    8 great celebrity impressions of other celebrities

    4/10/2015 6:44:22 PM +00:00 2015-04-10T18:44:22