Our Beloved Gary

He won his way into our hearts with his chubby cheeks, cute face, and charismatic,

"Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

I still remember the episode where he asked Willis to hang him on the pole in their bedroom closet so that he could grow a few more inches.

For eight years, actor Gary Coleman brought laughter into our homes each week as little Arnold Jackson on TV’s "Diff'rent Strokes."  On May 28, 2010, at the age of 42, Coleman passed away. On the surface, his life story reads like the script of a B-level movie, replete with the predictable child-star-gone-bad plot. But in this script, there’s a twist.

Like many child stars, Coleman struggled with his parents over money. He wanted to control it. They wanted to control it. They fought. They became estranged.  

And like many child stars (and some adult stars), Coleman felt trapped in the shadow of the TV character that made propelled him to fame. Decades of hearing fans yell out “Hey, Arnold!” or

"Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

kept Coleman in the past, never-ending reminders that to many people, he was a fictitious character who existed only in the past, with no present life and no future.

But unlike many child stars, the trait that catapulted him to fame is the trait that blocked continued fame. Yes, other child stars had to shed their cuteness and youthful personas to establish themselves as legitimate adult actors. (Drew Barrymore and

Ricky

Rick Schroeder are two examples.) But none of them had to overcome a persona resulting from a disease.

Coleman’s 4’8” frame resulted from a congenial kidney disease. And while it enabled him to play the role of child Arnold Jackson for several years without any “inconvenient” growth spurts, it’s his seemingly perennial youth that prevented us from seeing that like us, he too was aging, maturing. 

The show’s eight successful seasons and its years in syndication cemented him in our minds as our little Arnold. His body was ours to hug, his cheeks ours to pinch, and his being ours to photograph, at will. Perhaps this is what abraded Coleman the most—not just that he wasn’t allowed to have his own identity—but that he wasn’t allowed to be a man, the one that he had grown into once the cameras stopped rolling.