Diff’rent Strokes proved an instant hit with TV audiences in September of 1978. The Norman Lear sitcom about Harlem orphans falling into the lap of luxury was anchored by veteran stage actor Conrad Bain, and featured promising child stars Todd Bridges and Dana Plato. But the breakout star of the fledgling show was an adorably precocious chubby-cheeked Gary Coleman, whose shameless mugging and hilarious catchphrase, Whatchootalkinbout, blurred the line between funny and precious.
For a time, Diff’rent Strokes was a cultural phenomenon. There were spinoffs both successful and unsuccessful–The Facts of Life and Hello Larry, respectively. A variety of high-profile guest stars appeared on the set, including Knight Rider and KITT, Mr. T and an only slightly punchy Muhammad Ali. Nancy Reagan even made an appearance in an very-special 1983 episode, where she made famous the line, Just Say No, which would within a few months completely eradicate America’s drug problem. It seemed there was no place too remote to escape the ubiquitous images of cherubic Gary Coleman and the rest of the gang. The future was indeed bright.
But by the time Diff’rent Strokes limped off the air in 1986, things had changed. The venerable show had outlasted everyone’s expectations, but the cracks were beginning to show. Cast members left, and improbable new ones were added. Worst of all, while puberty had done nothing for Coleman’s stumpy physique, it had cruelly robbed him of his last vestiges of cuteness, leaving him a troll. Even by the time the cameras had stopped rolling, people had begun to whisper about a curse.
Todd Bridges/Willis Jackson: Of the show’s three principal child stars, Todd Bridges has fared the best in that he remains alive as of this writing. In the early 1990s, it seemed almost a certainty that the actor would have been long dead by now. Life after Diff’rent Strokes may not have been easy for Todd, but it wasn’t boring.
Bridges traces his downfall to the diabolical troika of Sex, Drugs and Dana Plato. Already an up-and-coming child star by the time of Diff’rent Strokes, Todd was thrust too quickly into a world with which he couldn’t cope. Todd’s burgeoning crack addiction contributed to his legal problems, including a 1988 arrest for shooting a man while on a drug-binge. Bridges had both the wherewithal and resources to enlist the aid of Johnnie Cochran, and was able to beat the charges.
Today, it is possible to be optimistic about Todd’s future. He has been sober for several years, and has made inroads to rebuilding his shattered career. Todd furthered his redemption in 2002 when he beat the shit out of Vanilla Ice on Fox’s vile Celebrity Boxing.
Dana Plato/Kimberly Drummond: Dana Plato began to unravel a few years before the show took its final bow. When she became pregnant with her only child in 1984, the show’s producers wrote her out, bringing her back for a few appearances in the final season, including a very special episode about bulimia. Even before her dismissal, rumors had begun to swirl about possible drug use and difficulties on the set.
It was difficult for Dana to find work, although she found in Playboy a showcase for her newly augmented breasts in 1989. Sadly, her pre-Brazillian ‘spread’ may constitute the last high point in an existence which would drag on for another ten years. During this time she would endure a number of personal setbacks–the death of her adoptive mother, abandonment by her husband and losing custody of her son, as well as some legal hassles. The most embarrassing of these, a video-store robbery, culminated in a 911 caller exclaiming, “I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes!”
Dana tried to revive her acting career, appearing in soft-core films and even claiming (although she would later recant) to be a lesbian. Dana died alone in a Winnebago on Mother’s Day 1999, parked outside her boyfriend’s mom’s house in Moore, Oklahoma. Almost eleven years later to the day, her son Tyler would kill himself, a second-generation victim of the curse.
Gary Coleman/Arnold Jackson: Gary Coleman’s recent death is still fresh in the public’s mind. But the pitiably pint-sized punchline endured much in the twenty-four years between his untimely death and the cancellation of Diff’rent Strokes, and given the heights he once reached, his must have been the most dizzying fall.
Gary had always had health problems, which along with his medication, contributed to his runtiness. Then there were the legal troubles with his parents, whom Gary sued for misappropriation of his millions. Gary was profligate with money himself, indulging his habit for model trains. Sadly, the tiny has-been never thought to invest his resources into finding a cure for his virginity, which persisted throughout his life.
Whether it was as a money-lending pitchman, ‘Where Are They Now?’ TV cameo or as viral video laughingstock, Gary always found a way to entertain us. It seemed that Gary had finally found love in the form of confirmed cooze Shannon Price. Some experts have claimed that Price was the human personification of the Diff’rent Strokes Curse, or at the very least its dark avatar. Gary gave her his heart and in return she fiddled while he died, and in what is the greatest indignity of all, never in their several months of matrimony bestowed her marital favors on the virginal troll.
Conrad Bain/Phillip Drummond: A number of theories abound as to why Conrad Bain, who along with Coleman and Bridges was with the show for its entire run, has been allowed to live for almost 88 years. Popular explanations for this seeming immunity range from the plausible (“Bain’s Canadianness somehow inures him from the effects of the curse”) to the frankly ridiculous (“The cast members of Diff’rent Strokes aren’t the victims of a hex at all, but rather the twin factors of stardom at an early age and coincidence). Conrad attributes his longevity to nothing more than pure luck, clean thoughts and a half-pint of his own urine every morning.
Danny Cooksey/Sam McKinney: Whether Danny Cooksey is subject to the curse is a matter of some controversy among Diff’rent Strokes academicians, as the delightful, country-singing moppet only appeared in three seasons after Coleman’s cuteness began rapidly to wane. However, considering that those three seasons comprised the show’s pitiful last gasp and that Cooksey was at least partly to blame for the show’s demise, as the introduction of his character marked the veteran show’s “jump the shark” moment, many feel that Cooksey’s continuing existence is an affront to God Almighty. Since then, the sassy ginger is best remembered for being shoved into a video game by Bad Terminator in Terminator 2.
Housekeepers: Likewise, the show’s three regular housekeepers, perhaps because none served more than four seasons, also appear to be free of the curse’s effects.
Charlotte Rae, who appeared through the first season as Mrs. Garrett, was miraculously allowed to escape via spinoff.
Nedra Volz, who played the antiquated Adelaide Brubaker, lasted a few seasons. Her career never suffered, and she died in 2003, well into her ninth decade.
Mary Jo Catlett was the last actress to play housekeeper to the Drummonds. Like Sam McKinney, her tenure included the series’ sputtering demise. However, as she was replacing an existing supporting character while McKinney was a new and unpleasant major character, the comparison is not valid. Catlett has enjoyed a steady, if unremarkable career.
THE CURSE IN REVERSE!
Melanie Watson/Kathy Gordon: Melanie Watson is best remembered for portraying the wheelchair-bound Kathy in several episodes. In one notable appearance, Kathy denies that she is handicapped, and insists instead, “I’m handi-CAPABLE, turkey!” Melanie, who suffers from a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, seems to have carved out a nice life for herself, even starting a company to train helper dogs.
It would appear that the Diff’rent Strokes Curse has run its course. There will be those desperate few who hold out hope that the curse continue, perhaps branching out to claim performers with a more tenuous tie to the series than had “the big three.” But wishing fervently for a thing will not make it come to pass. The grim specter of death has lifted its pitiless hand from those involved with Diff’rent Strokes, and we will have to learn to live with it.
Everybody’s got a special kind of story/Everybody finds a way to shine,/It don’t matter that you got not a lot/So what?/They’ll have theirs, you’ll have yours and I’ll have mine/And together we’ll be fine.