Rife with troubling racial subtexts, “Different Stokes” was a Reagan era offering that showcased the cherubic Gary Coleman. Promoting a myth of the beneficence of the ruling class, the show saw the wealthy Mr. Drummond—as bland a paradigm of liberal virtue as imaginable—adopt Arnold and Willis, the Harlem kids of his deceased maid.
We can learn from one another, you know!
Coleman, who never grew beyond 4 ft 8 in, was the undisputed star. Like a little adult baby, he projected a persona that was simultaneously cagey and vulnerable. He was a street-wise innocent, a survivor who won the lottery, landing softly into a cushy Park Avenue address. Although it was this role the catapulted Coleman to the status of cultural icon, it also confined him to an infantilizing celebrity in which he existed as little more than a t-shirt catch phrase.
For all his fame, his life did not appear to have been a happy one.
He suffered from congenital kidney disease that halted his growth at a very young age. Not only did this contribute to the impish appearance that fueled his celebrity, but the condition also necessitated two kidney transplants and daily dialysis. Independent of that misery, he was also estranged from his parents, whom he eventually sued for misappropriation of his earnings as a child. In his lifetime, he also suffered the declaration of bankruptcy, a humiliating appearance on “Divorce Court,” an assault charge, life in a professional wasteland, attempted suicide, and a continual parade of domestic abuse charges—both against him and against his wife—before dying last week from a brain hemorrhage after an accident.
Sadly, when I consider Coleman’s legacy, I think of the adult with the crumbling life and not the boy with a limitless future. In particular I think of a clip of him working as a security guard and attempting to stop a car full of paparazzi from entering an area to take photographs of Pamela Anderson.
What’s so poignant in this video is not that Coleman had been relegated to working security in a parking lot (although that didn’t help), but that by virtue of who he was, he was completely ineffectual in the job. When the photographers saw that it was Gary Coleman who was the security guard trying to shoo them off the property, they laughed their asses off. Coleman was wholly impotent and the only thing he could do was to place himself in harm’s way by hopping up on the hood of the car, and like a stubborn child, refusing to leave.
The result was that the photographers were handsomely rewarded for the video they shot of Coleman’s surreal humiliation, with the video, of course, becoming grist for the pitiless tabloid TV mill.
Coleman’s descent continued.
At some point he decided it was in his best interest to appear on the show “The Insider,” in order to defend himself against charges of domestic abuse against his wife.
A talking head, as thin and delicate as a twig, sat pinkly in perfect Barbie Doll glory. Coleman, in contrast, looked puffy and tired, truculent even, like a boxer who had been in the ring too long. She asked him about his relationship with his wife and Coleman gave some bland denial, the sort of insufficient response that most celebrities get away with.
After making a lazily sexist remark, one that revealed disquieting bitterness and anger, Coleman then faced questions from Lisa Bloom, an attorney that had been placed on the panel for just this occasion. Dressed in predatory red and equipped with the brio and confidence of the big city, she turned the overmatched Coleman inside out.
Coleman, as if bound by some adherence to the truth that seems to elude most celebrities, refused to unequivocally say that he had never hit his wife, leading everybody watching to the inevitable conclusion that yes, he had indeed hit his wife. Bloom, with blood in the water, banged her finger on the table, demanding that Coleman come clean, and he, flustered and ill-equipped to handle such a polished and unexpected force, simply lost his shit. He raged, telling her he hoped she drowned to death and that she should just Fuck Off. He looked like a complete asshole, and as his fury rose, it became clear exactly how a domestic fight between he and his wife might unfold. Completely undone, he stalked off the set, in spite of the pretty girl voice that Bloom suddenly employed, imploring, “Gary, come back!”
Yes, come back so I can destroy you further. The visual contrast between the two people was striking, even cruel, and for a minute it was easy to empathize with Coleman, who had spent his life looking up at people, people who would always be taken seriously and treated with respect, while he, well, he was just trying to survive.
It was a strange and complicated bit of theater, and at it’s ridiculous conclusion, after an utterly imbecilic behavioral psychologist made his TV diagnosis, I was pretty sure that Gary Coleman was not long for this world. There was a despair and frustration in him that radiated right out of the TV, and it was heartbreaking to see such a symbol of innocence (even if falsely established) so fatally corrupted.
Celebrity must surely be a curse. At first blush it seems appealing, offering a life of unlimited sexual opportunity, glamour, and grand wealth, but it always seems to make monsters out of people, more and often than not seeming to completely destroy those who are afflicted with the curse as children. Can you imagine becoming a commodity and resource before your identity has even been shaped, before you’ve even experienced your first dance in a school gym? It must mess you up, and Coleman well, he seemed pretty messed up.
Coleman clearly felt taken advantage of in his life— by his family, by the industry that discarded him, by the women in his life and by the interview panel on “The Insider.” In that interview Coleman made reference to a mark on his head, suggesting, that people might blame his wife for it (well, not until he brought it up), for she was almost a foot taller than him and could have hit him, but the truth, he said, was that he fell down the stairs. And then he got a look on his face, as if to suggest that he had scored a winning point AND proved some sort of loyalty to his wife, although all he had done by bringing the matter up was raise the possibility rather than refute it.
And now Coleman is dead, and all we know is that his death was caused from a wound sustained in an accident.
Perhaps he fell down the stairs again, or perhaps not.
Like everybody, I feel badly for Gary Coleman and the crappy way that his life unfolded. But in particular I feel sorry that nobody ever seemed to listen to him or treat him as person, and whatever dignity he strove for, even as a security guard fighting the paparazzi or a washed-up child star on a sleazy tabloid, eluded him, because we the public seemed to need it to elude him.