Gary Coleman just turned 40 and he recently announced his marriage to 22-year-old Shannon Price. So now, more than ever, the former “Diff’rent Strokes” child star doesn’t like “talkin’ ’bout” his past.
“It’s not the same world,” Coleman told TODAY’s Al Roker on Tuesday.
Yet Coleman can’t seem to avoid the ever-present topic of troubled young television stars, since he had his own personal struggles in the past and his “Diff’rent Strokes” co-stars faced even greater demons.
Coleman, also promoting his involvement in an “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” online trivia game, wants to distance himself from the tag he’s carried for so many years now.
“I get so embarrassed,” he said, referring to his trademark “What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?” line that is most associated with his role on the show. “I’m ashamed to be a member of the business. It just irritates me.”
Like it or not, Coleman has not been able to escape hisimage as a child star.
Coleman is best known for his role as the cherubic and quick-witted Arnold Jackson in the NBC sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” which aired from 1978 to 1986.
But despite the instant recognition he still receives today for his portrayal of the cute adopted child, Coleman’s life has been filled with health and financial issues.
Coleman suffers from nephritis, a congenital kidney disease that compromises the autoimmunity of the organ. It halted his height at an early age — he is 4-foot-8 — and he has endured two kidney transplants and requires daily dialysis.
Coleman opts not to discuss his dialysis because he feels it hurts his chances to get acting work.
Dana Plato, who played sister Kimberly, appeared in pornographic films and struggled with drugs before committing suicide in 1999 at age 34. Todd Bridges, who played brother Willis, also had multiple run-ins with the law and has acknowledged his own addiction to drugs.
“I know people who have an addictive personality or addictive genes in their body,” Coleman said. “I got lucky. I’m addicted to trains. I’m not an experimenter.”
Coleman’s post-show problems were mostly of the financial variety. At the height of his fame, he was making $70,000 per episode of “Diff’rent Strokes.” But in 1989, he sued his parents and former manager over misappropriation of his $8.3 million trust fund. He won a ruling for $1.28 million four years later. Also in 1993, Coleman admitted he had twice attempted suicide with sleeping pills.
Despite bit parts and cameos, Coleman filed for bankruptcy in 1999, attributing his financial woes to mismanagement of his trust fund. Last month, he auctioned off an autographed pair of his pants on eBay for $400,000 to help pay medical bills.
Legacy and matrimony
Coleman said he has difficulty accepting that he’ll mostly be known for his “Diff’rent Strokes” work because “I know I can always do something better.”
And what of the positives of being part of a popular show that brought laughs for many fans?
“It’s not so bad, but it’s not so good either — especially if you want to have a career,” he said. “You know, if you want to be a regular, working actor, you have to do a lot of different, various, unique things.”
Wife Shannon told Roker that she had never watched “Diff’rent Strokes.” The couple met on the set of the 2006 comedy “Church Ball.”
“My friends were like, it’s so cool you’re dating a superstar, a celebrity or whatever,” she said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know him that way.’ ”
Shannon claims she first proposed to Coleman, but he surprised her on her birthday last Aug. 28 by whisking her to a mountaintop in the Valley of Fire State Park for an impromptu wedding.
“I didn’t want to do a cheesy chapel wedding, because that’s cheesy,” he said. “Doesn’t mean anything.”
Coleman also told “The Insider” last week that he and Shannon have yet to consummate their marriage and that he, in fact, is still a virgin.
Like the next step in his career, Coleman is willing to wait.