Gary Coleman, the child star of the smash 1970s TV sitcom 'Diff’rent Strokes' whose later career was marred by medical and legal problems, died today at the age of 42 after suffering a brain haemorrhage.
Utah Valley Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Janet Frank said the actor’s life support machine was switched off and he died at 12.05pm MDT (6.05pm Irish Time).
Coleman, with his sparkling eyes and perfect comic timing, became a star after 'Diff’rent Strokes' debuted in 1978. He played the younger brother in a pair of African-American siblings adopted by a wealthy white man.
His popularity faded when the show ended after six seasons on the NBC network and two on ABC.
Coleman suffered continuing ill-health from the kidney disease which stunted his growth and also had a host of legal problems in recent years.
Coleman suffered the haemorrhage at his Santaquin home, 55 miles (90km) south of Salt Lake City, on Wednesday.
A statement from the family said he was conscious and lucid until midday yesterday, when his condition worsened and he slipped into unconsciousness.
Diff’rent Strokes drew most of its laughs from the tiny, 10-year-old Coleman.
Race and class relations became topics on the show as much as the typical trials of growing up.
Coleman was an immediate star, and his sceptical “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout?” - usually aimed at his brother, Willis – became a catchphrase.
In a 1979 Los Angeles Times profile, his mother, Edmonia Sue Coleman, said her son had always been a ham as a small child. He acted in some commercials before he was signed by TAT, the production company which created Diff’rent Strokes.
“Gary remembers everything. EVERYTHING,” co-producer and director Herb Kenwith told the newspaper. “His power of concentration is unlike any adult’s I know.”
Asked by Ebony magazine in 1979 how he learned his lines so easily, young Gary replied, “It’s easy!”
But the attention his starring role brought him could be a burden as well as a pleasure. Coleman told The Associated Press in 2001 that he would do a TV series again, but “only under the absolute condition that it be an ensemble cast and that everybody gets a chance to shine”.
“I certainly am not going to be the only person on the show working,” he said. “I’ve done that. I didn’t like it.”
The series lived on after it left television thanks to DVDs and YouTube. But its equally enduring legacy became the former child stars’ troubles in adulthood, including the 1999 suicide of Dana Plato, who played the boys’ white, teenage sister Kimberly.
Todd Bridges, who played Coleman’s brother, was tried and acquitted of attempted murder.
Coleman had financial and legal problems in addition to continuing ill-health from the kidney disease which required dialysis and at least two transplants. As an adult, his height reached only 4ft 8in (1.42m).
He continued to get credits for TV guest shots and other small roles over the years. But he told the AP in 2001 that he preferred earning money from celebrity endorsements.
“Now that I’m 33, I can call the shots... And if anybody has a problem with that, I guess they don’t have to work with me.”
Coleman was among 135 candidates who ran in California’s bizarre 2003 recall election to replace then Governor Gray Davis, whom voters ousted in favour of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Coleman, who advocated drastic steps for California’s faltering economy such as lowering income taxes and raising sales tax, came in eighth place with 12,488 votes, or 0.2%, just behind Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.
Running for office gave him a chance to show another side of himself, he told The Associated Press at the time.
“This is really interesting and cool and I’ve been enjoying the heck out of it because I get to be intelligent, which is something I don’t get to do very often,” he said.
Coleman told The New York Times at the time that “I want to escape that legacy of Arnold Jackson. I’m someone more. It would be nice if the world thought of me as something more.”
But legal disputes dogged him repeatedly. In 1989, when Coleman was 21, his mother filed a court request trying to gain control of her son’s 6 million dollar fortune, saying he was incapable of handling his affairs. He said the move “obviously stems from her frustration at not being able to control my life”.
In a 1993 television interview, he said he had twice tried to kill himself by overdosing on pills.
He moved to Utah in autumn 2005 and, according to a tally in early 2010, officers were called to assist or intervene with Coleman more than 20 times in the following years. They included a call where Coleman said he had taken dozens of Oxycontin pills and “wanted to die”. Some of the disputes involved his wife, Shannon Price, whom he met on the set of the 2006 comedy Church Ball and married in 2007.
In September 2008, a dust-up with a fan at a Utah bowling alley led Coleman to plead guilty to disorderly conduct. The fan also sued him, claiming the actor punched him and ran into him with his truck.
Coleman was born on February 8, 1968, in Zion, Illinois, near Chicago. His mother told Ebony his kidney disease was diagnosed when he was two. He underwent his first transplant at the age of five.
He attracted attention when he took part in some local fashion shows and people suggested he should get work performing in commercials, which he then did, she said.