Wednesday was quite an historic day.
While America was cheering in its first ever African-American president, I was talking down the phone to Gary Coleman, former child star of 1970’s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes.
Coleman was on the line to spruik a new DVD website enterprise, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the significance of the day.
In the ’70’s he had played a kid from Harlem adopted by a rich white family and living the good life. With his comic timing, precocious cheek, and memorable catchphrase, Coleman’s character ‘Arnold’ became a household name. But could a young, adopted Arnold ever have envisioned a day when America would vote in an African-American President?
“If Jesse Jackson hadn’t bowed out twice, maybe he could have been the first African-American President,” says Coleman. “People always forget that Jesse Jackson did run twice. The first time he was doing very well. So there’s no telling what our history might be right now.”
Despite putting his hand up to run as Governor of California many years ago, Coleman admits, “I’ve been pretty disappointed with politics in America.”
Coleman’s fame has extended, even haunted him, from the long-running success of Diff’rent Strokes (1978 – 1986). These days he only has to make one wrong move in public and it’s all over the tabloids. Like many former child stars, he’s had more than his share of headlines and legal battles.
He started in show biz as a child model, when he was spotted by an agent.
“Norman Lear who had produced Sanford and Son became interested in me through a talent scout,” he explains. “He put me on The Jeffersons and Good Times twice. Conrad Bain (who played the rich Phillip Drummond) had a TV show deal with what was NBC Television at the time and they put two and two together and came up with Diff’rent Strokes.”
But Coleman denies the show was built around his comedy skills.
“No, absolutely not and I wish people would quit printing that. They did not build the show around me. It was Conrad’s show on paper as in reality. Conrad was the one that had first choice on the concept. Todd and I were picked to be the kids, as well as Dana.
“It was supposed to be a family show based on the family, not on ‘Arnold Jackson.’ That’s one of the things that really bugged me about the show because I knew that. And it really bugged Conrad too because that’s what he wanted. He wanted a more ensemble piece, as opposed to a one or two star piece. None of us wanted that, but that’s what it evolved into.”
While the show is remembered for the antics of the child characters, it actually touched upon a number of social issues, including bulimia, anti-drug campaigns, sexual molestation and epilepsy, particularly in its early years. But later episodes dropped such sensitive themes for comedy fodder.
“That’s what happened to it in the last five years of it’s life,” says Coleman. “It didn’t focus on anything, and it didn’t try to encourage people to be better or to encourage people to make different choices. That’s why I say the first three years of Diff’rent Strokes are always going to be the best.
“The show just got old, lost its charm and was boring to do. That’s just the truth of the matter as far as the last five years are concerned.”
Coleman says new writers and directors forgot the show’s focus.
“If you have people come in that completely negate the history of the project that you’re working on, you lose your focus and you lose your audience.”
While he has since played numerous guest roles in other programmes, Coleman concedes he is jealous of film actors now working on the small screen.
“They come with a fanbase that knows their work and knows their name. And knows what kind of entertainment to expect out of that person. That’s wonderful. I am so jealous of that. I come from a generation, and it’s still pervasive today, where you start on TV and that’s all you’re known for. And that character is all you’re known for. And that’s ‘typecasting’ as it is written in the dictionary. That’s hard to shake. I’ve been trying to shake it for 32 years now.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he admits. “A double edged-sword that I deal with everyday of my life.”
He also admits to having difficulty trying to embrace the past.
“There’s not much in my past that I look back on fondly. I look with very bright eyes upon the future.”
These days Coleman lives in Utah to avoid paparazzi who are keen to file his every erroneous move. He is a spokesperson for Sony’s new Aussie DVD site, entertainme.com.au along with a number of internet retail sites where he has more control.
“I’m kind of focussing on that because I can control my income and how fast it grows. It’s my business and I don’t have to worry about ten people’s opinions. I don’t have to worry about good press, bad press, no press. I’m just out there in the internet and I’m just doing my thing.”
Unless more tabloid stories upstage his years as the sprightly, bug-eyed Arnold Jackson, Coleman will surely forever be known as the cheeky kid with the snappy catchphrase. After all, he’s even made it onto The Simpsons.
“Everybody’s got to be immortalised on The Simpsons at least once,” he laughs. “I got it twice!”
Entertainme.com.au is about to launch a television portal which includes Diff’rent Strokes DVDs.