Though he was the darling of 1980s television while playing the loveable Arnold Jackson on the hit sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes" (1978-1986), actor Gary Coleman struggled for decades to redefine his life and career after the series went off the air. As with co-stars Todd Bridges and Dana Plato, Coleman descended into a life of career mediocrity and seemingly non-stop trouble following his tenure on the show. Though he never succumbed to drugs like Bridges and Plato, Coleman nonetheless suffered the aftereffects of being a former child celebrity; even twice attempting suicide. Along the way, he tried to revamp his career with numerous television appearances and cameo roles as himself, even running for the governorship of California during the 2003 recall election. But time and again, Coleman found himself either in trouble with the law, as he did following a scuffle with an autograph seeker while forced to work as a security guard, or the butt of late night jokes for his numerous public embarrassments. Coleman managed to pull himself up by the bootstraps in an effort to restore some dignity to his life, though a turbulent and often violent marriage to Shannon Price only added to his public troubles that never seemed to end.
Born on Feb. 8, 1968 in Zion, IL, a small city on the shores of Lake Michigan, 40 miles south of Chicago, Coleman was raised by his adoptive parents, Willie, who worked for a pharmaceutical company, and Sue, a nurse. By the time he was five years old, Coleman suffered from Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, a congenital kidney defect that resulted in three operations and permanently stunting his growth, leaving him standing at 4'8" for the rest of his life. But his short stature worked to his advantage when he began appearing in Chicago-area commercials - at nine years old, Coleman could pass for five. In 1978, he auditioned for a television revival of "The Little Rascals." Though the project never made it off the ground, network executives were impressed with his talent and cast him in "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC/ABC, 1978-1986). Coleman played Arnold Jackson, a precocious eight-year-old who, along with his trouble-making brother, Willis (Todd Bridges), is adopted by a wealthy employer (Conrad Bain) and brought in to live in Manhattan with him and his teenage daughter (Dana Plato).
With Coleman's pudgy cheeks, ability to pout on cue, and his oft-repeated catchphrase, "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?", the show was an immediate hit. The series first aired on NBC in November 1978 and ran for six seasons, making its final appearance in August 1986 on rival network ABC. Throughout the show's run, Coleman capitalized on his saccharine image with several television movies, three of which co-starred distinguished actor Robert Guillaume. First was "The Kid from Left Field" (NBC, 1979), a remake of the 1953 movie with Dan Dailey and Anne Bancroft. Coleman played the son of a former baseball player-turned-refreshments vendor who leads the San Diego Padres from worst in the league to the World Series. After playing a homeless sh shine boy living in a train station locker in his feature film debut, "On the Right Track" (1981), he teamed up with Guillaume once again in "The Kid with the Broken Halo" (NBC, 1982), a schmaltzy children's fantasy about a child angel (Coleman) who returns to Earth to save three souls. Rounding out their creative partnership between Coleman and Guillaume was "The Kid with the 200 I.Q." (1983), a sappy melodrama about a precocious kid with a large IQ, but no confidence or maturity.
All three films, along with his six seasons on "Diff'rent Strokes," helped permanently solidify the wholesome kiddie image that dogged Coleman for the rest of his life. In fact, his life and career hit the skids once the show went off the air in 1986. The aging actor was no longer an adorable child and found increasing difficulty being cast in anything, due to his diminutive size. Much like his former co-stars Todd Bridges and Dana Plato, Coleman began making news for his various legal troubles, rather than the parts he played, which were few and far between. In 1989, Coleman entered a bitter court battle against his adoptive parents, who swindled most of the money he made from "Diff'rent Strokes." While his parents set up a trust fund, they structured the deal so that they were paid employees of his production company. The result was years of embezzlement, followed by the actor getting the shaft when a court dissolved the trust. After earning $18 million from the show, Coleman received a paltry $220,000 to his parents' $770,000. Coleman sued, forcing his parents and managers to cough up an additional $3.8 million. He managed to recover almost $1.3 million in 1993, though by the end of the decade he was forced to file bankruptcy.
Coleman tried in earnest to restart his career, appearing in episodes of "227" (NBC, 1985-1990), "Married with Children" (Fox, 1987-1997) and "Martin" (Fox, 1992-97). He even reprised Arnold Jackson alongside Conrad Bain's Phillip Drummond for the final episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" (NBC, 1990-96), in which they arrive at the Banks' mansion as prospective buyers. Despite such efforts, Coleman's personal troubles continued to mount. While broke, he was forced to take odd jobs, including one as a security guard, much to the delight of the tabloid media. Adding insult to injury, he landed in trouble with the law while trying to purchase a bulletproof vest for his job in 1998. A bus driver named Tracy Fields asked Coleman to sign an autograph for her. While he obliged, she wanted more, which resulted in a heated argument that included Fields mocking Coleman for his failed career. The fight degraded into physical violence when Coleman punched Fields several times, claiming later that he felt threatened by her and acted in self-defense. Though the charge of assault and battery was reduced to disturbing the peace, to which he pleaded no contest and received a suspended sentence, Coleman nevertheless endured his own figurative beating at the hands of the media, including a parody on "Chappelle's Show" (Comedy Central, 2003-06).
Coleman soldiered on, all the while managing to retain his trademark humor and charm, though he often was forced to lapse into self-parody in order to land acting jobs. Over the years, he made numerous appearances as himself, including a cameo on season two of "The Surreal Life" (The WB/VH1, 2003-06) and appearance in several music videos. After serving as an intern at KRQ Radio in Tucson, AZ, which later turned into a paying gig, he began writing Coleman Confidential for UGO.com, a weekly advice column driven by readers' questions. In a bizarre twist, Coleman entered the California recall election in 2003 after agreeing to run when his name was put into the race by East Bay Express, a Oakland newspaper looking to satirize and protest the recall election. One of 135 aspirants, which included eventual winner Arnold Schwarzenegger, Coleman finished just behind Hustler publisher Larry Flynt in 8th place with over 14,000 votes.
Immediately following the election, Coleman's campaign resulted in a new job as the political analyst for the fledgling Hollywood-based All Comedy Radio network. In 2006, he stooped to self-parody as the pitchman for the cash-advance loan company, CashCall, filming a series of commercials that even included a take on his famous "Diff'rent Strokes" catchphrase. But while he seemed to enjoy a bit of resurgence, his personal troubles once again began to mount. In 2007, Coleman was cited for disorderly conduct in Provo, UT, after a police officer spotted him having a heated argument with a woman, Shannon Price, who turned out to be his future wife, whom he married just a month later in a secretive ceremony. Coleman later acknowledged the marriage in February 2008, while also confirming that Price had been his first-ever romantic partner. Meanwhile, their beleaguered relationship was front and center on a 2008 episode of "Divorce Court" (syndicated, 1999- ), though the two were on the program in an effort to save, rather than dissolve the marriage.
Also that year, Coleman was involved in an auto accident in Utah, when he backed up his truck at a bowling alley and struck patron Colt Rushton, hitting his knee and pulling him underneath. Though rushed to the hospital, Rushton was soon released with minor injuries. According to witnesses, the accident evolved from an argument over Rushton wanting to take a photograph and Coleman refusing the request. Coleman pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct and reckless driving, and paid a $100 fine while fending off a personal injury lawsuit filed by Rushton. Back on screen in 2009, he briefly appeared as himself in an episode of "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" (Showtime, 2003- ), in which he was introduced as a brown dwarf star that was going to destroy the Earth in 2012.
Also in 2009, he made an appearance on the reality show "Shark Tank" (ABC, 2009- ), on which he was promptly dismissed for pitching a Gary Coleman Bobble-head. Meanwhile, his problems with wife Shannon Price continued when the Santaquin police were called to the couple's home, where they found her screaming expletives on their front lawn and claiming she had ransacked Coleman's room. Police arrested Price on suspicion of domestic violence and disorderly conduct. She was released two hours later after posting a $1200 bond. In January 2010, Coleman had a bit of a health scare when he was taken to the hospital after feeling faint and vomiting at a hotel room in Los Angeles, where he was in town to meet with producers about his latest film, "Midgets vs. Mascots." Apparently, he had wanted them to remove a brief frontal nude scene he did not authorize them to use. Coleman was released from the hospital in less than a day in fine spirits and good health after suffering what his agent called a slight seizure. Only five months later, Coleman was again rushed to the hospital, this time for a fall he had taken at his Utah home. It was determined by doctors that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage. Only two days after the incident, the decision was made to remove the actor from life support. He was 42 years old.