In the past year, we’ve seen a number of “former child star” narratives play out in very different tragic ways. Last June, of course, we mourned Michael Jackson, who spent his adult life trying to recreate the carefree youth his early stardom and abusive father never allowed him to have. In March, Corey Haim died of pneumonia (and not the overdose everyone had suspected), after decades of drug abuse that overrode the talent he’d shown at a very early age. And Friday, Gary Coleman passed away after what appeared to be, by most accounts, an incredibly difficult 42 years, many of which were spent in an unsuccessful attempt to stay out of the spotlight and live as normal a life as humanly possible.
Unlike many of his child-star brethren, including his Diff’rent Strokes TV siblings, Gary Coleman never had substance abuse issues that derailed his career. This did not mean, though, that he quietly assimilated back into the real world after Diff’rent Strokes went off the air in 1986. Every few years, it seemed, Coleman re-emerged with a new sad story—whether it was suing his parents and former manager for mishandling his trust fund in 1989, declaring bankruptcy a decade later, his tumultuous marriage to a woman 18 years his junior, or even the series of commercials he did for shady payday loan firm CashCall in 2008, where Coleman claimed that not even his own relatives would lend him money (but CashCall would!). Every time we saw him, it seemed, we were fundamentally re-reminded of how hard it must be to actually be Gary Coleman—a sentiment encapsulated in the Avenue Q song sung by the (fictional) Coleman, “It Sucks to Be Me.”
It’s impossible for most of us to imagine what life must be like as a 13-year-old with two TV series, a merchandising deal, and a weekly paycheck larger than most adults’ annual salary. It’s equally difficult to imagine what happens when that 13-year-old becomes a 20-year-old with limited job prospects and parents who have liberally helped themselves to your trust fund. But imagine navigating this transition while being 4’7, needing daily dialysis, and having one of the most quotable catchphrases of all time. It’s no wonder that Gary Coleman appeared to be an angry, cynical man in so many of his recent media appearances. Coleman stormed off the set of The Surreal Life in 2004, for example, when Vanilla Ice held him over a deep fryer after Coleman refused to ask Todd Bridges what he was “talkin’ bout”—a request he probably heard every time he left his house.
Gary Coleman’s biggest problem was that he could never stop being Gary Coleman. Some child stars can just slip away, re-enter the non-Hollywood world, and grow up quietly. Apparently, VICI from Small Wonder is now a nurse in Colorado, and Sixteen Candles heartthrob Jake Ryan makes furniture in small-town Pennsylvania. Both of them can almost certainly buy groceries without anyone talking in a robot voice or asking about Molly Ringwald’s underwear. But that was a luxury Gary Coleman probably never had, and it’s one that almost certainly wore on him. Part of the problem is that he was aesthetically distinctive; part of the problem, though, was that, for about a decade, he really entertained people—and he stuck with us, even though his career may not have.
Coleman became a laughingstock through no fault of his own. He was funny in 1983, he was out of work by 1993, and the “joke” seemed to be that Hollywood didn’t let him continue his career into adulthood. In my own dissertation, I chronicle the woes of the Diff’rent Strokes kids, and lump Gary Coleman’s string of bad luck and moderately poor choices in with Dana Plato’s overdose and Todd Bridges’s miles-long police record, which is ultimately unfair to him. Gary Coleman’s real tragedy is that, really, he did was he was supposed to. For almost a decade, he did his job well—and because of that, it became impossible for him to do anything else. It’s a shame he didn’t have more time to reinvent himself, and to rediscover the dignity he had, by all means, rightfully earned.