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Video: Is there a ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ curse?

  1. Transcript of: Is there a ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ curse?

    AMY ROBACH, co-host: Former child star Gary Coleman , who shot to fame on TV sitcom "Diff'rent_Strokes," died in a Utah hospital on Friday after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He was 42. NBC 's Lee Cowan takes a look at Gary Coleman 's life and troubled times.

    LEE COWAN reporting: His chubby cheeks were as recognizable as the catchphrase that made him famous.

    Mr. GARY COLEMAN: What you talking about, Willis ?

    COWAN: Gary Coleman was praised for his role in "Diff'rent_Strokes." His comedic timing seemed so advanced for someone so young.

    COWAN: He brought fans a lot of laughs, and that, in turn, brought him a lot of money. But it also brought him a lot of problems.

    Mr. KEN BAKER (E! Chief News Correspondent): He wasn't able to ever really recover and find success in any other line of work.

    COWAN: Eventually declared bankruptcy, his childhood fortune gone. And then there were the arrests. One after another, including one for assaulting a bus driver.

    Mr. COLEMAN: So I hit her.

    COWAN: His downfall lasted decades -- until the final blow.

    Ms. JANET FRANK (Hospital Spokesperson): Gary Coleman passed away at approximately 12:05 PM Mountain Standard time .

    COWAN: He had suffered a brain hemorrhage and was taken off life support , another example, some say, of what's been called the "Diff'rent_Strokes" curse. Dana Plato , who played Kimberly Drummond , died in 1999 at age 35 from a drug overdose. Coleman 's other sitcom sibling, Todd Bridges , battled cocaine addiction himself and was acquitted of murder charges.

    Mr. BAKER: In Hollywood , child stars often have trouble moving on from having great success as children. Rarely are they able to transition into a successful career as adults.

    COWAN: None of it, of course, was helped by Coleman 's illness. He had a chronic kidney disease that stunted his growth and kept him in and out of hospitals for the better part of his life.

    Ms. MELANIE BROMLEY (Us Weekly): This is the third time that Gary 's been in hospital this year. He was actually admitted in January for seizures and the same in February.

    COWAN: It was a bumpy end to a life that showed so much promise. A boy who once made so many people laugh had also endured a lifetime of pain and embarrassment. For TODAY, Lee Cowan, NBC News, Los Angeles .

Image: Gary Coleman, Dana Plato, Todd Bridges
AP file
Gary Coleman, left, who played Arnold, talks with Dana Plato, as Kimberly, and Todd Bridges, as Willis, in an episode of "Diff'rent Strokes."
updated 5/31/2010 7:46:12 PM ET 2010-05-31T23:46:12

If only real life for the child stars of "Diff'rent Strokes" was anything like the fictional Park Avenue life of luxury they inhabited on television.

The death of pint-sized star Gary Coleman on Friday at age 42 underscored the troubled lives of the sitcom's stars after the television lights went out in 1986 after eight seasons. Some have even talked about the "curse of 'Diff'rent Strokes.'"

Two of the young stars, Coleman and Dana Plato, are dead. The third, Todd Bridges, went through years of drug abuse and was tried and acquitted of murder in 1988. The actor who played their dad, Conrad Bain, is alive at 87, out of show business and living quietly in the Los Angeles area.

The fate of the "Diff'rent Strokes" cast is a concentrated example of the difficulties faced by many young people chewed up by the entertainment industry, forced to mature while living a life of fame and luxury. For every Jodie Foster who navigated the transition to adulthood with aplomb, there's a Lindsay Lohan or a Britney Spears still struggling.

Later in life, Coleman talked bitterly of his early Hollywood experience.

"I would not give my first 15 years to my worst enemy, and I don't even have a worst enemy," Coleman told The Associated Press in a 2001 interview.

Coleman, who remained small throughout his life from a kidney disease that stunted his growth, died estranged from his parents . He had several minor run-ins with the law, and his attempts to stay in show business often forced sad roles upon him: a stint in "The Surreal Life" and an appearance on "Divorce Court" with his wife trying to solve some of their marital problems.

In need of money, he once worked as a security guard in a Los Angeles shopping mall.

Even with that, he fared better than Plato, who died of a drug overdose in 1999.

In "Diff'rent Strokes," she played the daughter of Bain's character, whose lives were enlivened when two brothers from Harlem, played by Coleman and Bridges, came to live with them. She stumbled into drugs early; Bridges wrote in his autobiography that she introduced him to marijuana when he was 14.

Her post-TV stardom life was a blur of alcohol and drugs. She was arrested for shoplifting and forging a Valium prescription. She posed nude for Playboy and appeared in a softcore porn movie that traded on her sitcom stardom.

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Tragedy even outlasted her: Her son, Tyler Lambert, had his own alcohol and drug problems trying to cope with his mother's death, and he took his own life at age 25 this year shortly before Mother's Day.

Bridges seemed on an even tougher path than his two fellow actors. He became a crack addict after the series ended, immersed in Los Angeles' seedy underworld. When someone from Bridges' drug dealer's gang was shot and killed, Bridges was charged with the crime but was acquitted. It took several more years of drug use before he cleaned up.

He's since lectured to young people about the dangers of drug and alcohol and has done some minor Hollywood work: roles in "The Young and the Restless" and "Everybody Hates Chris."

"The bottom line is I've made stupid choices," Bridges told Entertainment Weekly in 2000. "But I got my life together and that's the difference. I'm not the same idiot I used to be."

Bridges titled his autobiography "Killing Willis," a reference to his character's name in "Diff'rent Strokes."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Gary Coleman

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  1. Star's sad goodbye

    Actor Gary Coleman arrives for 6th Annual TV Land Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 8, 2008. The former "Diff'rent Strokes" child star died May 28, 2010, at a Utah hospital after suffering an intracranial hemorrhage in a fall at his home. He was 42 years old. (Chris Pizzello / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Trouble with the law

    Coleman is shown in a booking photo provided by the Utah County jail on Jan. 24, 2010. The actor was arrested in Utah on a warrant for failing to appear in court, police said. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. One tall order

    Coleman joins a couple pals at the the premiere of "Midgets vs. Mascots" during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival at AMC Village VII in New York on April 25, 2009. The film is a mockumentury about five little people and five mascots who compete against one another in 30 absurdly ridiculous events to win a million dollars. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Riding high

    Coleman exits his truck to enter court in Payson, Utah, on Dec. 2, 2008. He pleaded no contest to a disorderly conduct charge stemming from a September incident at a bowling alley in Payson, about 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. (Stuart Johnson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. New bride

    Coleman and his wife Shannon Price appear on the TODAY show in New York on Feb. 26, 2008. Coleman secretly wed his girlfriend of five months on Aug. 28, 2007. They met on the set of the 2006 comedy film "Church Ball." (Richard Drew / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Our man in the field

    Demonstrators who suggest that pop icon Michael Jackson is guilty of child abuse confront Coleman, center, as he works for a comedy radio show while Jackson is in court on the first day of opening statements for his child molestation trial in Santa Maria, Calif., on Feb. 28, 2005. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An actor? As governor? Ridiculous

    Coleman, a candidate for governor in California's recall election, poses after a news conference announcing the Game Show Network's new show titled "Who Wants To Be Governor of California? The Debating Game" in Los Angeles on Aug. 15, 2003. (Carlo Allegri / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Money woes

    Coleman announces that he is filing for bankruptcy in federal court in Los Angeles on Sept. 6, 1999. "This is the last step in 10 years of steps to mitigate and eliminate the dead weight of the past and is the day I have been looking forward to," Coleman said. The actor said mismanagement of his income as a child star led to his financial troubles. (James Peterson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Run with it

    Coleman, center, stars with Michael Lembeck and Lisa Eilbacher in the 1981 film "On the Right Track." Coleman plays Lester, a homeless shoeshine boy who has a knack for picking winning horses out of the newspaper. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Space cadet

    Coleman and Gil Gerard star in the television series "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" which aired from 1979-1981. Coleman played a child genius from the 20th century named Hieronymous Fox. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Big fame for little stars

    Coleman, left, and French actor Herve Villechaize pose together at the Fifth Annual Emmy Awards Banquet, in Pasadena, Calif., on Sept. 8, 1979. Coleman was starring in in "Diff'rent Strokes" as Arnold and Villechaize in "Fantasy Island" as Tattoo at the time. Villechaize died in 1993. (Frank Edwards / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?

    Coleman, right, starred with Todd Bridges, left, and Conrad Bain in the series "Diff'rent Strokes" from 1978-86. Coleman played Arnold Jackson and Bridges was his older brother, Willis. Bain was Mr. Drummond, a rich widower who adopted the boys. (NBC via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Fits to a T

    Coleman and Mr. T square off in the "Diff'rent Stokes" episode "Mr. T and mr. t" in 1983. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mr. October's pal

    In a undated photo, Coleman gets a lift from former New York Yankees star Reggie Jackson. (Lennox Mclendon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Couple of comedians

    Coleman poses with actress Lucille Ball during a break in filming "The Lucille Ball Special" in Hollywood, Calif., on Nov. 19, 1979. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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