A few months ago, The Insider interviewed Gary Coleman. It became a momentary brouhaha. Show staffers and crew noted aloud that Coleman was, essentially, “the most negative person we’ve ever had the displeasure to meet.” He may very well have been, but in our modern media society, showing how you really feel at any given moment is a greater transgression than cheating on your significant other, and at the same time, few celebrities had the right to be as negative as Coleman. He was, to me, justified in his less than rosy worldview.
Born in 1968, Coleman suffered through congenital kidney disease, something that stunted his growth in more ways than anyone could possibly imagine, but I’ll touch on that in a moment. Fortune seemed to momentarily dawn on him when he was cast as spunky Arnold Jackson on the ’70s television show Diff’rent Strokes. He was surrounded by co-stars who would befall tragedies of their own: Todd Bridges played older brother Willis and would spend a good part of his adulthood on the wrong side of the law. Dana Plato, who played Kimberly Drummond, the daughter of their adopted father, died of her drug addiction and was also a repeat offender legally. Her son took his own life only a few weeks ago. While that would have left Coleman being “the lucky one” under most circumstances, his fame would devolve into a heartbreaking drama worthy of Greek playwrights.
He was hired for his wisecracking attitude and his pudgy cheeks, and a producer could see in Coleman’s ailment a solution to a problem that bedeviled television shows before: what do you do with the cute kid when he’s no longer a kid anymore? It worked for awhile and Coleman made the most of it, starring in TV movies, guest spots on other shows and extending his Diff’rent Strokes run much longer than the average child star could hope to. He could play other characters and his frozen physical stature gave him a few extra years others of his age didn’t have. He also had parents that claimed the lion’s share of his earnings. He won back slightly more than a million of a 3.8 million dollar trust fund, squandered by them and his former manager.
That was not the most tragic part about Gary Coleman. Neither was filing for bankruptcy in 1999, an assault charge filed against him in 1998, or having to work as a security guard just to live during those times. The fabled back-end of being on a hugely successful sitcom was also mangled in the machinery created by parents and manager. He could been seen on TV every minute of every day somewhere in the world but never receive money for it, and when he did, it was a pittance compared to what it could have, or should have been. While he had every right to feel like life had dealt him a bum hand, his troubles with domestic violence against wife Shannon cannot be dismissed. Neither can his other incidents of violence, so do not misconstrue the next few paragraphs as any sort of justification for these indefensible actions.
Gary Coleman is still very much a lost soul, and for those things that were done to him that were beyond his control, only sadness can fill that void, that absence of hope, for inside Coleman was a man stuck inside the body of Gary Coleman. Around him were other child actors running wild, then pulling themselves up from their personal gutters and moving on to better things. They could get new roles, different roles, things to put on a resume. They had a shot at reinvention. From the last seconds of puberty to his head injury which would prove fatal, Coleman was in stasis, no longer the pudgy little kid but neither the tall young man graduating to parts suited to tall young men. He could get by for a little while but, eventually, Coleman stopped getting parts other than being Gary Coleman. He became a punchline of sorts, the very things that gave him a lucrative present stripped him of any viable future. He couldn’t grow anymore, not just as a physical person, but as an artist, and the frustrations he surely felt stunted his ability to grow emotionally. You can fault Coleman for the terrible mistakes he made consciously, but understand that it would be impossible for anyone to go through these things and not feel set up by fate, by God, or the indifference of the human race.
And that brings us back to The Insider and the statement that he was “the most negative person we’ve ever had the displeasure to meet.” It is so easy for those outside of the storm to criticize those tossed around within it, to denigrate their depression after it all, to assign tags like “sad-sack” or “Debbie Downer” because they simply haven’t a clue what it’s like to live in that cold, unblinking eye. Gary Coleman never got the chance at redemption, to accept the award for outstanding work, to say how the struggles and turmoil of his past fueled greatness in the future – mostly because he was Gary Coleman. Those options were never given to him. Maybe he wouldn’t have been up to the task, but maybe he would have; we wouldn’t have known either way. Hollywood entertains us, but the dark side is that, even in their miseries, Hollywood is still forced to entertain us, albeit with the gaping wounds of possibilities denied. We love them when they’re up, but we also love when they’re down, and when they have to slap on the plastic grin and squeeze those lemons, we’re ready to drink in the schadenfreude, myself included. I’m not proud to see marble idols revealed with feet of clay and get a thrill of come-uppance, but it’s there in all of us to some degree.
“The most negative person we’ve ever had the displeasure to meet.” Look in your heart and ask yourself, how could he not be… and keep a kind thought to the man inside the small body. If there’s an afterlife, may he finally and truly be free in it.