As an actor Gary Coleman is finally receiving the props and respect he was always due. With his sudden passing on May 28th at age 42, people are reexamining Gary’s career peak which spanned nearly a decade. The Diff’rent Strokes star is now being recognized by the mass media and TV fans young and old as a television icon who made groundbreaking strides in the entertainment industry, helped to further popularize family sitcoms and who laid the blueprint for the careers of successful child stars today.
Soon after making scene stealing guest appearances on 70s sitcoms Good Times and The Jeffersons Coleman, all cuddly cute and cherub cheeked, became the star of Strokes in 1978 at the age of 10. Coleman’s catchphrase, ‘Whatchoo talking bout, Willis?’ became America’s favorite question, and critics compared his comedic timing to Richard Pryor. Gary was not only the star of this unconventional, interracial family sitcom; he commanded one of the highest paid salaries in television at the time— between $64,000-100,000 an episode. After conquering television, Coleman broke out on the big screen in 1981’s On The Right Track and 1982’s Jimmy The Kid. But the intimate format of TV was always his home base. So several TV movies were also made, including 1982’s The Kid With The Broken Halo which spun Coleman off into his own cartoon, The Gary Coleman Show, where Gary played an angel who helped children solve their problems.
Unfortunately in later years there was no one around who could truly help Gary solve all of his. His kidney-related health issues plagued him until his death, and Coleman’s troubles— arrests, bankruptcies and suicide attempts got more attention than his recent bit acting roles. For a time in life, it seemed he was only destined to be the poster boy for the tragic child star.
But he was much more than that, to put it simply, Gary Wayne Coleman was ‘The Grandaddy’ of modern-day child stars. Coleman’s early career achievements far surpassed that of any child actor before him black or white. And the heights of his success helped to show an entire industry what limitless possibilities could exist for future child actors. Let’s just connect the dots and put it this way, the groundbreaking strides of Gary Coleman probably helped along the TV career paths of Emmanuel Lewis (Webster), Keisha Knight-Pulliam (The Cosby Show) and Jaleel White (Family Matters.) And Coleman’s large payday so early in his career, most likely paved the way for former child stars The Olsen Twins, Raven-Symone or Miley Cyrus to command bigger salaries and transition into multi-million dollar media moguls. Coleman was indeed a true ‘star’; one who shined brilliantly for a brief time before fading away. But through his best career work he will never be forgotten. —Ronke Idowu Reeves