I was nine years old when Diff’rent Strokes debuted on NBC in the fall of 1978, only a couple of years older than Arnold, the precocious, pint-sized main character of the show who often seemed older than his age. Being an undersized, precocious kid whose words often belied his age myself I found, in Arnold, a character I could truly relate to. Little did I know, back then, that Gary Coleman, the actor who played Arnold, was actually a year older than me.
Still, I watched the show religiously, and not just because I had a big crush on Dana Plato. In Arnold, I found a fictional compatriot—a child forced to grow up too soon because of family tragedy, forced into adult decisions when he should just have to worry about being a child. I envied his life in many ways. After all, he got to live with a rich benefactor. I was still stuck with my drug addict mom who would send me & my siblings to the store with a food stamp to buy a ten-cent popsicle so she could use the change to buy cigarettes.
By the final episode in the spring of 1986 I had long outgrown the show. Gary’s perpetual cuteness had cracked; and Sam, Arnold’s little stepbrother, wasn’t cutting it—Buster Brown hairdo notwithstanding. Besides, by that point everyone had transitioned over to the Cosby Show where black people could actually be doctors and lawyers.
Gary Coleman’s death affects another level, as well. He was only 42. I’ll turn 41 in July. If I make it to 42 I will have outlived my own mother who died a few months before her 42nd birthday. That already has had me feeling very, very mortal. Now, with Gary’s passing, I feel even more mortal. Thankfully, I don’t suffer from the health issues he lived his entire life with. However, that doesn’t change the fact that life feels fragile, including my own.
Anyway, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer some kind of homage to the man who portrayed one of the most influential role models of my youth. Sadly, after the show, Gary Coleman’s career fizzled out, and he was forced to take shit jobs. Like many former child actors—including Todd Bridges, who played his TV brother Willis, and the long-deceased Dana Plato—Gary had his problems in adulthood. But none of that takes away the power of what he offered me in his youth. Thank you Gary. I hope you rest in peace.