Birthplace: Zion, IL
You Know Him As: Arnold Jackson of Diff’rent Strokes. Made famous the phrase, “Whatchu talkin’ bout Willis?”
You Know Him As: Arnold on the classic sitcom, “Diff’rent Strokes.”
Gary was born in Zion, Ill., on February 8, 1968. As an infant, he was put up for adoption and was adopted by Willie and Sue Coleman. His adoptive father worked for a pharmaceutical firm, and his adoptive mother worked as a nurse. He was born with a congenital kidney defect known as Nephritis, which caused him to need three operations before he was five years old. This autoimmune destruction of the kidney halted his growth at an early age, leading to his small stature- 4’8”- which is his most distinguishing feature. He has gone through two kidney transplants since then, one in 1973 and one in 1984, and still requires constant dialysis.
Coleman’s small stature, however, served as an aid in his professional career. He first entered showbiz at a young age, appearing in Chicagoland TV commercials. Because he was so small, at nine years old he could still portray a precocious 5-year-old. It was in these commercials that Coleman was discovered by talent scout Norman Lear, who later helped him get an audition for a possible TV revival of “Little Rascals” in 1978. He impressed enough people that he was hired; three episodes of “The Little Rascals” were filmed with Gary playing the role of Stymie, but the project fell through after the show failed to be purchased.
Despite this, Coleman still made enough of an impression on ABC Chief Executive Fred Silverman that when the proposed series “Diff’rent Strokes,” came up he, was cast as little Arnold Jackson. In 1978, at only 10 years old, Coleman began this show, which would enjoy an eight year run, ending in 1986.
Arnold Jackson, his character, was a cute and mischievous black child adopted by a wealthy white Manhattan family. During these years Coleman was launched into star status as the loveable, chipmunk-cheeked boy. One day, instead of reading his line, “What are you talking about, Willis?” he said, “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout Willis?”- which immediately became a huge catch-phrase that will always be associated with Coleman. It has indeed given him a minor cult-figure.
While filming the TV series, he was also involved in several sappy TV movies that portrayed him in the same light as Arnold did, such as “The Kid From Left Field” (1979), “Scout’s Honor” (1980), “The Kid With the Broken Halo” (1982) and “The Kid With the 200 IQ” (1984). There was even an animated series launched after the success of “The Kid With a Broken Halo” called “The Gary Coleman Show,” where he reprised the same character, Andy.
The series only lasted 14 episodes before it was over for good. This talented comic performer soon grew bored with playing Arnold Jackson on the show, “I got tired of the doing the show.“ he says on www.imdb.com. “I didn’t wanna do it anymore. But there was nothing I could do about that, because the contract was already signed. So I was a little bitter about that because I didn’t wanna be there. The character wasn’t growing, he wasn’t interesting to me anymore.” At age 18, the show finally ended for Coleman- he had received his wish, “when ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ got cancelled, I was enormously thrilled and was very much looking forward to starting the rest of my life.”
However, the show Coleman had grown to despise would be the high point of his career, that nothing else he did could over-shadow. At 18, he was no longer the same cutesy kid, and he was no longer marketable- he could not be typecast as the wholesome little boy anymore. Finding work grew tough for him, as he was not hired easily for movies and found little success in the TV shows he guest-starred in. He began to work odd jobs for money, and just to be doing something. Coleman was trained as a security guard and worked mall security.
Always into trains, he even spent time working in specialty train hobby stores. “You can involve yourself in electronics, computers, puzzles… there’s a lot of creativity and brain-working,” says Coleman on thecelebritycafe.com. “There’s a lot to model trains that people don’t realize.”
In 1993, Coleman opened the Gary Coleman Game Parlor, a video game entertainment center, in Fisherman’s Village in Fisherman‘s Village in Marina del Rey, Calif. The motto of the GCGP was “Our games are easier, so you can play longer”. It went out of business in 1994. “…that’s where I gained a lot of my knowledge and interest in the video game business,” Coleman told sitcomsonline.com.
Coleman sued his parents and business manager, Anita D. Thomas, in 1992 for misappropriation of his trust fund. At the peak of his career, he made as much as $70,000 per episode, a total earnings of around $18 million. Coleman’s parents had set up a trust fund for his money yet structured the arrangement to name themselves as paid employees of Coleman’s production company. The result was years of embezzlement. When the court finally dissolved the trust, the parents’ share was worth $770,000, while Coleman himself had only $220,000. Coleman successfully sued his parents and managers, but for nowhere near the amount he had actually earned during the course of the show; reports of the settlement were near $3.8 million. Trouble with money followed Coleman, who ended up filing for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in 1999.
Unfortunately, Coleman did not retire to a life of peace in his post-“Diff’rent Strokes” days, nor did he leave the unforgiving limelight.
“I still have the desire to do the job of acting. It’s just a matter of whether I’ll be allowed to do the job of acting that remains to be seen. There are only so many brick walls that I’m willing to beat my head on,” announces Coleman on thecelebritycafe.com.
An unfortunate incident occurred in 1998 while Coleman was shopping for a bulletproof vest at a suburban Los Angeles shopping center. He was approached by a fan seeking an autograph. He signed his name, but the woman pressed him for a longer, more personal message. What occurred next is unclear and disputed, but a loud verbal fight ensued, with both parties claiming the other was being insulted. Coleman allegedly ended up hitting the woman in the face and knocking her down, and continuing hitting her after she fell. The woman, a bus driver, towered over him at 5-foot-6 inches and over 200 pounds. Coleman claims she became rude and aggressive, frightening him and provoking the attack.
“She was getting scary,” Coleman testified in court, “I’m 4-foot-8 inches, 86 pounds of nothing. I was getting scared, and she was getting ugly.”
He originally faced up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for battery, but wound up pleading no contest to a charge of disturbing the peace. Coleman received a 90-day suspended sentence with orders to take anger management classes, as well as a $1,580 fine.
Another incident occurred in 2001 when Coleman was employed as a shopping mall security guard in the Los Angeles area. A surveillance video captures Coleman trying to stop a vehicle from entering the mall, while the driver (a member of the paparazzi) ridicules him. This recording has been broadcast on numerous television shows and has followed Coleman like a cloud over his head.
Since “Diff’rent Strokes,” Coleman has become a sort of professional celebrity. He has made several cameo appearances in movies throughout the years as himself, for example “S.F.W” (1994), “Dirty Work” (1998) and “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” (2003). In 2003 he even appeared on E!’s short-lived celebrity dating show, “Star Dates,” in which former celebrities went on blind dates with average people. Other former celebrities who appeared on the show included Jimmie Walker (“Good Times”), Butch Patrick (“The Munsters”), and Susan Olsen (“The Brady Bunch”). Coleman also was featured in the 2004 season of VH1’s “The Surreal Life,” where he managed the restaurant at which the cast members worked.
Coleman has also dabbled in the music industry with several guest appearances in music videos. This began in 1998, when appeared in the music video for Kid Rock’s “Cowboy.” The video culminates with a showdown between Rock’s 3-foot-9″ sidekick Joe C. and Coleman. That same year he also appeared in ‘NSync’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” video as Santa’s elf, who calls on ‘NSync to deliver Christmas presents. In addition, he appeared in Moby’s “We Are All Made Of Stars” music video (2001), which Moby wrote because of the 9/11 attacks. Also featured in the video were Angelyne, Sean Bean, Thora Birch, Todd Bridges, J.C. Chasez, Robert Evans, Cory Feldman, Ron Jeremy, Kato Kaelin, Tommy Lee, Dave Navarro, Molly Sims, Dominque Swain, Verne Troyer, Toxie and Moby himself. Most recently Coleman was in wrestler John Cena’s music video, “Bad, Bad Man” in 2005. According to Cena on MTV News, “The whole concept of the video is that Gary Coleman finds out the ’80s [have been] captured. Since he is the ’80s staple, he’s worried about it. He calls in the Chain Gang to save the ’80s. By the time we get to the hideout to save the ’80s, he just wants to capture us and destroy the ’80s so he could get on with his life and doesn’t have to hear ‘Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout Willis?’ ”
Still in the spotlight, but in a new way, Coleman was hired as the spokesperson for a California restaurant and arcade called HoloWorld Café (a restaurant with laser-tag and video games) in 1999. Today, he is spokesperson and director of promotions for HoloWorld Cafe in Pasadena, Calif. The following year he began writing an advice column called “Coleman Confidential” for the UnderGroundOnline website, the entertainment Mecca for 18-34-year-old males on the Web.
“It’s a column in which I answer questions on anything from bestiality to auto repair,” describes Coleman to thecelebritycafe.com, who is happy to give his best, honest advice to every question.
Just in 2003, Coleman played a controversial supporting role in the computer game Postal² by Running With Scissors, Inc. He played himself and appeared at a shopping mall, where one of the game’s objectives was to secure his autograph. Coleman’s role was almost certainly based on the 1998 incident with a fan at a shopping mall. Once the player gets the autograph, police storm the mall to arrest him for an unknown crime, which leads to a violent shootout. He was also featured in the 2005 expansion pack to Postal², Apocalypse Weekend.
Coleman says on brainyquote.com, “I parody myself every chance I get. I try to make fun of myself and let people know that I’m a human being, and these things that have happened to me are real. I’m not just some cartoon who exists and suddenly doesn’t exist.”
Not only has Coleman been involved in many facets of showbiz, security and trains- but he has an interest in politics as well. In 2000, Gary announced that he was running for the U.S. Senate against present California Senator Diane Feinstein on the HECK (Homelessness, Education, Crime, and Killers) platform. Three years later he announced his candidacy for Governor of California in the recall election. One of the things he proposed was a universal health insurance system based on a $30 flat monthly fee. An alternative newspaper in the San Francisco Bay area paid the required $3,500 filing fee for him to enter the race. He ended up finishing in eighth place, receiving more votes than fellow celebrity candidates Mary Carey, Gallagher and Angelyne, but lost to fellow actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In recent years, Coleman has become a character portrayed in the 2003 hit Broadway Musical “Avenue Q.” The role is currently played on Broadway by actress/singer Haneefah Wood and in London’s West End by actor/singer Giles Terera. Avenue Q has won a Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score; it also garnered nominations for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Performance From a Lead Actor and Actress. Coleman’s character works as the superintendent of the apartment complex where the musical takes place. In the song, “What do you do with a B.A in English (It sucks to be me)”, he states: “I’m Gary Coleman from TV’s ‘Diff’rent Strokes’/I made a lot of money that got stolen by my folks/now I’m broke, and I’m the butt of everyone’s jokes/but I’m here, the superintendent of Avenue Q!…Try having people stopping you to ask you ask you ‘what’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?’/it gets old.”
Coleman lived in Santaquin, Utah, which he moved to when he left California in 2005. On the possibility of marriage and family, Coleman tells sitcomsonline.com, “No, I don’t have any plans for marriage! None at all! I’ve known since I was 12 I’m not going to get married. I’m not actively seeking a wife, but I’m actively seeking a companion, someone who actually likes me for ME, and doesn’t care about my abilities or the things I can do or bring or provide. Someone to play backgammon with — someone to share a hug with — someone who has no selfish interest other than to just care, and hang out with me.”