I rather suspect that Gary Coleman had long ago resigned himself to the fact that, on the event of his death, he would be forced to endure a series of obituaries which liberally utilized the adjectives “diminutive” and/or “pint-sized,” used the phrase “child star” as an obscenity, and found some way, no matter how desperately, to incorporate the words “whatchu talkin’ ’bout” into their text. Fair enough: the man had a legacy, and that legacy – for better or worse – inextricably revolved around his work as Arnold Jackson on the fondly-remembered-almost-exclusively-by-those-who-lived-through-the-’80s sitcom, “Diff’rent Strokes.” In that I resemble that remark, however, I do not deny that I mourn Coleman’s death.
Coleman, who died today at the age of 42 after suffering an intercranial hemorrhage, was as much a part of my childhood as any other pop culture icon. Despite the fact that my father hated “Diff’rent Strokes,” my sister and I forced him to endure it week after week, much as NBC forced me to endure a crossover with “Hello, Larry” just so that I could see how the crossover between the two series panned out. The character of Arnold Jackson was the classic example of the kid who was ostensibly saying everything that we were thinking, and Coleman played the role to perfection…so much so, in fact, that he parleyed the same characteristics into every other character he played for the next several years, be it a boy scout (“Scout’s Honor”), a baseball player (“The Kid from Left Field”), a brain (“The Kid with the 200 I.Q.”), or even an angel (“The Kid with the Broken Halo,” which was spun off into an animated series simply entitled “The Gary Coleman Show“). This served him well during the ’80s, but once “Diff’rent Strokes” ended, so for all practical purposes did Coleman’s career.
Oh, sure, he continued to make guest appearances in films and on television series, generally as himself…or, at the very least, someone who had a tendency to demand to know what people were talkin’ ’bout. Once reality television took off, he was able to pick up even more work, courtesy of shows like “Star Dates” and “The Surreal Life” (and, unfortunately for him, “Divorce Court”), and, lest we forget, he made a few memorable voiceover appearances on “The Simpsons,” too. For the most part, though, you tended to feel bad for him. His financial battles, many of which could be traced back to when his parents wreaked havoc on his “Diff’rent Strokes” money while he was still a minor, were almost as legendary as the health battles which kept him trapped at a height of 4’8″ into adulthood.
In the wake of Gary Coleman’s death, better we should forget all of the years we spent watching him painfully trying to wring a few more moments of fame (and, in turn, a few more paychecks) out of his past and, instead, focus on what made him famous in the first place. It might’ve been an albatross around his neck as often as not, but when I was 10 years old, I thought it was the funniest thing on earth to hear him say his signature line, so I think I’ll listen to it one more time and remember how much laughter he gave me back then.