Little Person, Big Catchphrase


Gary Coleman has died at 42, is first to report.

Coleman had been hospitalized in Provo, Utah since Wednesday, May 26, after suffering what his family called “a serious medical problem.”

As previously reported, Coleman had slipped into a coma and was on life support after suffering an intracranial hemorrhage.

He was pulled of life support Friday morning and later passed away. His wife Shannon Price and her father were at the hospital Friday.

Josh Green:

As someone who grew up loving “Diff’rent Strokes” (yeah, I admit it) and also took guilty pleasure in the vaguely sad antics of the more recent, post-ironic Gary Coleman, his death today of a brain hemorrhage at age 42 came as more of a shock than I would have guessed. Coleman obviously was never a picture of good health, but still…

Victorino Matus at The Weekly Standard:

I actually wrote about Coleman on this site in 2003 when I gave the actor my official endorsement during his run for governor of California. (Somehow that endorsement had little effect.) But more recently I had mentioned him in my review of the Todd Bridges memoir (partly a how-to for crack-dealers), Killing Willis. I admit I got my cheap shots in there, including my reference to the Dana Plato erotic film Different Strokes. And yes, this latest turn of events gives “Different Strokes” yet another whole new meaning. (Sorry.) But the week the review was published, Plato’s son committed suicide. And now Coleman is dead. One reader called me the Angel of Death today.

I’m not overly superstitious but I do admit the timing is uncanny. In fact, this hasn’t happened to me since I profiled the cast of Poltergeist.

James Poniewozik at Time:

Coleman, who suffered from congenital kidney disease that limited his growth, was also figuratively preserved in his fans’ minds as that pudgy-faced kid. But he’ll also be remembered for his well-publicized life as a former child actor, with everything that “former child actor” signifies in pop culture and on E! specials—in his case including run-ins with the law, numerous health problems, a stint working as a security guard and a lawsuit against his own parents and manager over their use and handling of his fortune.Just as we saw when Corey Haim died (or for that matter, Coleman’s Strokes co-star Dana Plato in 1999), there’s a kind of ritual fascination with the stories of troubled former child stars. Part of it is garden-variety voyeurism. But another part is what they, and the contrast with their idealized characters, tell us about our lives.

Mourning celebrities is always to some extent about mourning yourself. That’s how celebrity nostalgia works. When you mourn the passing of a celebrity who died at an advanced age, you’re remembering them, but you’re also remembering your own mortality. When a child star like Coleman or Haim dies, though, it’s also about how the hopes of childhood turn into the realities of adulthood.

Troy Patterson at Slate:

Here was a pair of fantasies about class and money. A critic with an eye for ’80s sitcoms more dispassionate than mine ought out to write about their complicated relationships with Hollywood Reaganomics. The Diff’rent Strokes half of the essay should begin by finding a more elegant way to state the following: Eight-year-old Arnold and older brother Willis, two black kids from Harlem, move into a fancy Park Avenue apartment formerly cleaned by their late mother. Even before their mother’s untimely death, the boys were struggling, sociologically speaking, as evidenced by Willis’ surly attitude and their inability to buy another E for the word “diff’rent.” Paternal and paternalistically liberal, Mr. Drummond interceded and raised the kids as his own and bought the kids some fancy new bootstraps. Dana Plato was pretty cute. To be perfectly frank, Mrs. Garrett was a richer and more complex character as portrayed on The Facts of Life.

Coleman sold the show and owned his scenes, as no one has described better than the critic Donald Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television, calling him “a hip, modern, savvy, sepia Little Lord Fauntleroy—brazenly independent and aggressive, a born survivor.” Bogle comes to praise Coleman and to cast a glance at the show’s problematic racial subtexts and, finally, to venture what went wrong with the career: “As Coleman grew older on the series, it was sometimes painful to watch him. Because of his health problems … his growth had been stunted and his face often looked puffy and worn. The scripts tried maturing him. But it never worked.” This is a short-person joke that isn’t funny.

Alan Sepinwall:

The show’s premise (noble white millionaire takes in the black orphaned sons of his deceased employees) hasn’t aged well, but Coleman’s performance still holds up as one of the best Cute Sitcom Kids ever. It wasn’t that he seemed natural, because you were always aware that this was a (little) actor who was very aware of how the audience was responding to him, but he was so confident that the calculated nature of what he did only made him seem more likable.

But as Coleman aged but did not grow, there was nothing but sadness and humiliation for him and his co-stars. The show’s ratings decline in its later years (including a one-season move from to ABC after NBC canceled it) were blamed on the notion that Coleman wasn’t cute enough to be funny anymore. His managers and parents ripped off most of the money he’d earned on the show. Because of his size, the audience’s intense identification with him in this one role, and his erratic personal behavior, he became unemployable as an actor. Meanwhile, his on-screen siblings Todd Bridges and Dana Plato fell in and out of trouble with drugs and other crime, and Plato died a decade ago from a prescription overdose.

Coleman ultimately spent more of his life as the butt of jokes then as the actor who delivered them And that makes me sad. A lot of people younger than me know him only as a cautionary tale and tabloid punchline, and I suspect even a lot of my contemporaries immediately think of his post-show misfortune and missteps before they remember how quick he was to deliver a comeback to Willis or Mr. D.

Jon Bershad at Mediaite:

While many wonder what the actor’s legacy will be (in this nice article, TV critic Alan Sepinwall hopes that he will be remembered for his amazing talent and not his off-camera struggles), part of him will live on tonight in performances of the hit musical Avenue Q. The show, which features a parodic version of Coleman as a character, has vowed not to change the show following his death. The question now is, how will audiences respond?The popular show, which has run on and off Broadway and all over the world since 2003, has a fictional version of Gary Coleman (traditionally played by a woman) as a supporting character, the landlord for the rest of the cast. Coleman himself has gone on record as saying he’s not a fan of the show or the depiction. In fact, in this video, he says that he “wishes there was a lawyer on earth who would sue them” for him. While he didn’t like it, the show and the character were beloved by both critics and fans.

Many wondered, following Coleman’s death, whether or not the show would keep the Coleman character. There are versions of the script without him in it for the West End production, so there is precedent. However, the questions were answered with this tweet from the producers:

So “Gary Coleman” will live on even though Gary Coleman has left us. But will audiences still be able to laugh?


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