The first time I saw Gary Coleman on TV, he was appearing on "Fernwood 2-Night," the parody talk show (later known as "America 2-Night") with Northeast Ohio's own Martin Mull and Fred Willard. Coleman played a young man being adopted by Mull's character, Barth Gimble (spun out of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"), a would-be Johnny Carson/Mike Douglas figure paired with the idiotic sidekick Jerry Hubbard (Willard). At one point, there was an attempt to launch a kiddie version of the talk show, with Coleman as the host and Corey Feldman playing his sidekick; they were hilarious, perfectly capturing the tone of their adult counterparts, especially Coleman, playing a kid mature way beyond his years. Coleman presented himself as someone well worth watching in the years ahead.
And not long after, "Diff'rent Strokes" happened ...
That show, of course, is what made Coleman an enormous TV star -- certainly the biggest thing NBC had going for it at the time, and the network milked his success not only through the TV show but through casting Coleman in frequent TV-movies. Like the series, the movies depended a great deal on Coleman's charm, humor and intelligence; he didn't play dumb kids. But it appears that he and his family did not play smart in real life. Todd Bridges, in his memoir "Killing Willis," fondly recalls the early years with Coleman, and less fondly the later times. "Gary was always a great kid, and I wouldn't say the fame went to his head so much as it went to his parents' heads." Still, he adds, eventually Coleman "started acting like he was better than everybody. It didn't take much for him to get nasty."
Still, nastiness does not by itself ruin an actor's career. Far more dangerous to young stars is the inevitable fact of getting older, and figuring out how to have a career as an adult. Could he have directed instead? I don't know. I also don't know if Coleman was a good enough actor to have succeeded in more challenging roles, although he was certainly promising when young. What was clear was that his unchanging small stature was an almost impossible roadblock to more acting -- and that he carried the burden of great anger into adulthood.
To be sure, for a time he had the kind of success that many actors long for and never get. (I have never forgotten how very funny he was on "Fernwood.") But for some, and I count Coleman among them, it was probably worse to have become such a big star and then have it taken away -- especially when you realize there's no way to get it back.
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