Gary Coleman, who is best known for one of America’s most famous catch phrases, died today at the age of 42 from complications of a fall earlier in the week.
Coleman was known to utter the phrase “What’cha Talking About” on Diff’rent Strokes, a sitcom he starred in and ran on NBC from 1978-85 and ABC from 1985-86.
The Zion, IL native rose to fame at an early age, appearing on a number of commercials locally in Chicago in the 1970s, including one for Harris Bank, where he held a Hubert the Lion doll. He headed west to Hollywood by 1978 and after guest shots in a few shows, scored the role of Arnold Jackson in Diff’rent Strokes, a show set in New York City about a white millionaire adopting two black kids from Harlem after their mother died.
The series basically kept the lights on at NBC at a time when the network was deep in ratings trouble. In the 1980-81 season, Diff’rent Strokes was one of only three NBC shows in Nielsen’s Top 20, ranking at number 19 (the other two were Little House on the Prairie and Real People.)
Coleman also starred in a number of movies during Diff’rent Strokes’ run, including On The Right Track and headlined his own Saturday morning animated show in 1982-83.
When the network struck gold with The Cosby Show and other new shows in the 1984-85 season, NBC didn’t need Strokes anymore and cut the program at the end of the season. ABC picked up the series the following season, but was yanked from the network’s lineup in March 1986 and canceled shortly thereafter.
Coleman did not find much work after the series ended, reduced to guest shots in shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Married… With Children, and The Jamie Foxx Show.
Coleman also has had numerous health issues during his lifetime, including an operation that kept him out of several Diff’rent Strokes episodes in 1981. Recently, Coleman suffered a seizure on the set of The Insider.
His private life has also been tabloid fodder through the years, including a lawsuit against his parents and charges of domestic violence against his spouse. His troubles though, didn’t come close to the legal troubles his two other Diff’rent Strokes co-stars have had in the past: Todd Bridges was charged with attempted murder of a drug dealer in 1989 (he was acquitted) and Dana Plato was arrested for robbing a video store in Las Vegas in 1991 (and arrested again for robbery of Valium a few years later.) Numerous drug problems led to her death in 1999.
All of the three stars’ problems have led to a Diff’rent Strokes curse and jokes Mr. Drummond somehow didn’t have a grip on raising his kids. The stars’ troubles led to two made-for-television movies: Fox’s After Diff’rent Strokes: When The Laughter Stopped in 2000, and NBC’s 2006 TV-movie Behind The Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Diff’rent Strokes. Their troubles have also been featured on E!’s True Hollywood Story.