Gary Coleman, ’80’s Sensation, Deserved Better

From Jewish World Review

by Heather Robinson

As I started to write about the death, last weekend, of Gary Coleman, my pen leaked all over my hand. It seems fitting that, writing about this pop culture icon, I got a taste–albeit a tiny one–of bad luck.

In this age of psychology, when diagnoses substitute for myth in our efforts to explain tragedy, occasionally one comes across a story that underscores the inadequacy of all these theories to explain the inexplicable. Such is the story of Gary Coleman’s life.

Like all kids of the ’80’s, I loved him. Who could forget that first episode of Diff’rent Strokes, when a chubby-cheeked, angelic Coleman calls big sister Kimberly (Dana Plato) “metal mouth”? Or the episode where he and brother Willis (Todd Bridges), who played two black brothers adopted by a wealthy white man, protectively spy on Kimberly, tossing popcorn on her and her date at the movies?

I remember sitting with my own brothers on bean bag chairs in our basement in the 80’s and watching the episode in which Arnold, Gary Coleman’s character, meets his new friend Kathy, a little girl in a wheelchair (the fact that this episode and several others were written by Marshall Goldberg, a family friend who attained mythic stature in our minds for having quit his job as an Ivy-educated attorney to “make it” as a Hollywood sitcom writer, only enhanced the Diff’rent Strokes mystique for us).

How wonderful to remember Coleman’s gap-toothed smile and the joy and irreverence (“Whachoo talkin’ ’bout Willis?”) that radiated from him. I also remember the first creeping signs on that face of a bitterness that seemed to coincide with the fading of that utterly adorable, plump-cheeked countenance.

Life after Diff’rent Strokes was hard for Gary Coleman. Like Christian Darling, the college football star in Irwin Shaw’s classic short story, “The 80 Yard Run,” he peaked early. Or is that just an easy way of explaining what happened? Is it more accurate, maybe, to admit that we, the fickle, ungrateful public, simply lost interest in his great gifts after the bloom of his youth was gone?

Plagued with that most outrageous of misfortunes, poor health, Gary Coleman, who had been diagnosed at age 2 with a kidney disease, underwent dialysis all of his life–and remained ill (He had two transplants before he was 14, which stunted his growth).

(From 20/20, 1999)

As Arnold Jackson, he brought joy and entertainment to millions. But after the curtain came down, he was often alone. The New York Post reports, “after the show ended Coleman struggled to find work, landing only bit parts in low-budget projects as he toiled in the long shadow of his star role. Increasingly bitter, he bristled at his continued association with the part of Arnold Jackson, but at the same time, continued to capitalize off the role by appearing in minor reality shows and other programs.”

It seems that he tried to stay productive and remain relevant. But as a short, physically unattractive man, he did not have the cache he had as a tiny, adorable boy.

And perhaps there is more. Gary Coleman reminded us of our own youth, of laughter and good times. We didn’t want to see him age and struggle. It was just too real.Gary Coleman knew what the shallow world wanted from him. Like a faded beauty or a crippled racehorse, he had outlived his prime star years. Perhaps worse still, his parents took control of most of his fortune and allegedly took advantage of him (in 2000, he was forced to take a job as a mall security guard).

There is no word in our reflexively upbeat, self-help, psychology-oriented culture for what happened to Gary Coleman. To convey the tragic aspects of his life, it’s best to go to Yiddish, a language of humor, of resigned strength, and of suffering. Gary Coleman simply had no mazl (luck). At least not in health, or in family, those two most important blessings. If we can take a lesson from his life, it is this: do not take those blessings for granted.

It is, simply, tragic and unfair that someone who brought so much joy and laughter to so many got such hardship in return.

Let us hope he gets better treatment in the Next World.

Rest in Peace.

This entry was written by and posted on June 3, 2010 at 2:04 pm and filed under Commentary.