Skip to main content

Gary Coleman's death announcement, last Friday, aroused many an online poster to make the following riposte: "Whatchoo talkin' bout, news?"

This was, of course, Coleman's catchphrase as Arnold Jackson on Diff'rent Strokes (1978-1986), usually aimed at TV brother Willis. The show was very much of its time: a slight, sweet comedy. But it is awful in retrospect, strident and showy.

Worse, like many long-running sitcoms of its era, it delved, horribly, into stark TV vérité: Gordon Jump, known then as the beloved Maytag repairman, starred on one episode where his character tried to sexually molest Arnold's best friend Dudley; on another, a distinctly not-cute-any more Arnold sat down, somberly, to shave.

Story continues below advertisement

Known caustically as "very special" episodes, these shows were made all the more gruesome by TV's then-refusal to modify studio audience behaviour: as a result, when Arnold confessed that he and Dudley were given wine by the pedophile, Dudley's father declared they were "still babies!" and Willis riffed that the babies had gone from "the nipple straight to the Ripple!" Wild laughter ensued, issuing from a confused audience not quite ready for the disquieting punch line.

Enter the life and times of Gary Coleman, whom we - his thinned-out and disparate audience - are still laughing at, for being tiny, for his crazy Willis-talk, and for a lifetime of sad, wild antics the man himself never did find amusing.

He was an infantilized black man in a world that so often measures men of colour's masculinity by their size and strength.

Porn star and bon vivant Ron Jeremy gave an exclusive interview on the weekend, revealing that his co-star on both The Weakest Link and The Surreal Life despised his catchphrase. If anyone remembers Coleman's appearance on The Surreal Life, where he posed as a restaurant manager, one is not surprised. On this episode, a manic and hostile Vanilla Ice started screaming to Coleman, "Get in my belly!" (referencing Dr. Evil's line to Mini-Me) and then demanded a "Whatchoo talkin' bout" before firing the hapless child star halfway into the deep fryer.

Parenthetically, how do other seventies and eighties stars cope with the same dilemma? Is Joey Lawrence in an insane asylum writing "Whoa!" on the walls with his own tears? Is Jimmy Walker, in fact, stockpiling dynamite toward a terrifying Armageddon?

Because Coleman did not handle his young fame and limited cachet well at all. For many years now, he has been throwing well-documented fits; his fury seemed boundless and equal parts tragic and absurd.

One wanted to shake him and make him get over himself. The crybaby saga of the child actor with no real childhood (as they so often lament) is tedious: What is a "real" childhood? Do these tiny stars think every civilian kid is playing baseball or dollies with rainbow-coloured ponies and space cowboys?

Yet there was something authoritative about Coleman's anger, and it gave pause.

Story continues below advertisement

He was a 42-year-old man who was 4'8" and so youthful-looking that Dave Chappelle's show ran a segment about "Grown-Up Surgery" for him. But his development was arrested by focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a condition that caused the acute and painful kidney disease that plagued Coleman his whole life.

He was an infantilized black man in a world that so often measures men of colour's masculinity by their size and strength; he was a volatile, ill and lonely man (a self-proclaimed virgin until his late 30s, he was, happily one hopes, married at the time of his death) who had the great misfortune of looking adorable when he carried on.

Child actors get to grow up, at least, and no one finds their squalid lives cute: Can you imagine Vanilla Ice trying to carry the real-life badass Todd Bridges (formerly Willis) under his arm like a doll? Bridges was in the restaurant that day and, shamefully, did nothing to help Coleman. No one did, and his shame was palpable.

As to his anger, it seems justified. You have to look far and wide to find a respectful remark about Coleman, whose death, due, strangely, to a head injury, recalls the melancholy circumstances of his former co-star Dana Plato, who died in her sleep in 1999. The following month, her husband would start selling a recording he made of her laboured breathing, then death rattle. And this week her 25-year-old son, Tyler Lambert, killed himself with a shotgun, close to the anniversary of his mother's death, which he is said to have never recovered from.

"What is this world comin' to?" asks Arnold, with perfect comic timing, in the pedo episode. For so many, for the stars who merely grazed fame as it passed them by, there are so few happy endings.

I am surprised that average people are not more moved by such harsh deaths. Coleman's story is the story, on one level, of so many of us who dream and fail; who feel anger and pain more commonly than love.

Story continues below advertisement

Maybe we need to view him as an aberration because of a misguided belief in life and justice existing side by side. Maybe we simply don't care: There is not much glamour or intrigue available in Coleman's story - in his working-stiff jobs, stunt-cast acting work, or isolation (like forlorn men everywhere, Coleman had an abiding interest in model trains).

Surely, we never knew him. But Coleman was a beautiful child, and he grew to be a man who was sick and tired, and easily provoked. And people never stopped provoking him: When he blew up at an antagonistic attorney on The Insider, the show's go-to psychiatrist commented "What I just saw needs medicine."

Really? Because what I saw on the YouTube clip was a righteous butt-kicking, aimed at everyone who ever treated this strong black man as a boy. There were so many, but Coleman never stopped fighting. Here lies a man who truly deserves to rest in peace, dignity, and pride.

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.