By Gloria Dulan-Wilson
Such a sad ending for (“little”) Gary Coleman. I was so shocked to learn of his passing on the news. It really caught me, as I’m sure it did his family, off guard.
Gary was really a sweet kid, with a great deal of good luck, wrapped inside an odd-mixture of misfortune. Kind of like a Dickensian dilemma, only this time the character is Black.
I lived on the “left coast” for nine years, as the result of a marriage that relocated my family from New York to California (a/k/a LaLa Land).
The primary industries are movie making and TV production -- from practically every aspect. I worked in Hollywierd for a while, when I couldn't get a position in education. At the time they were hiring people to work with Norman Lear‘s Tandem Productions. My typing skills really came in handy, because I knew absolutely nothing about TV production at the time. And as far as I know, I had no marketable talent (except for the fact that I loved to talk -- but there were no opps for Black/female/talk radio show hosts at that time -- not even with KJLH-FM, the Black station.
So I started out as a lowly script typist. Actually it was a lot of fun, and a lot of hard work, because it was back in the days of IBM Correcting Selectrics (typewriters to you kids)-- i.e., no computers. When you had to make changes, or add new lines in a script, you had to type the whole thing over on a different color paper, and have it delivered to the artists, directors and producers in time for rehearsal the following day.
I had the pleasure and honor of working for none other than the great Norman Lear at Metro Media when Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges were starring in Diff’rent Strokes. Back in the day (30 years ago - wow!) it was one of the top rated shows on TV. Norman Lear had a record of having more sit-coms (situation comedies) with African American artists or themes.
“The Jeffersons“ and “The Facts of Life” were also staples at Metro Media, as well as “One Day At A Time“. “All In The Family” and “Good Times” had ceased production, and you only saw Bill Macy, from “Maude” on occasion when he came to represent a new talent he had “discovered.” Metro Media in those days was jumping. In fact, most of the stores and deli's in the area catered to the production crew and writers, who were some there over night working on a script. In fact, the Denny’s in the area was the only Denny’s at the time that was 24 hours and actually served grits -- because of Sherman Helmsley, Isabel Sanford, and the other African American artists. They were the only Denny’s also that served breakfast 24 hours, and provide take out and deliveries.
Though I had the title of “associate producer” I really only was a glorified script typist. Sometimes, though, I could make a suggestion and they’d actually include it in the script! Norman Lear was on a roll. Not only did he have Diff’rent Strokes, and The Jeffersons, and "The Fats of Life", but he was making forays into reality TV, as well.
Unfortunately, he was at least 15 to 20 years ahead of his time with the “Baxters” - the show I worked with. It was a show that dealt with real problems, using a comical setting, and then had a live studio audience weigh in on what was or was not appropriate or doable. Now you just use real people, who are real ignorant, have no sense of propriety or decency, or discretion, who will get on the camera and say anything under the guise of "keeping it real," while a live audience hoots, hollers, yells obscenities and eggs them on. I think they call it "Jerry Springer", or is it "Maury Povich"? Don't think Norman Lear could have come up with a reality show like that; his high moral character wouldn't let him sink that low. He loved people too much.
Almost all Norman Lear's productions took place under the Tandem/TAT logo. I admit that I was in 7th Heaven working for Norman. He used to stop at my desk which was up front to chat occasionally, or bum a cigarette from me. I had a great deal of respect for Lear and his avant garde concepts of comedy. He was a Connecticut Yankee who had a father very much like the character Carroll O’Connor played (Archie Bunker); but Norman was a fantastic human being. All of his productions shared the same studios for rehearsal; with tapings on different days, so we all crossed each other’s paths frequently. Particularly two young, precocious little artists who had the run of the entire studio.
“Little” Gary Coleman was somewhat of a phenomenon on the set. He was tiny, articulate, precocious, and mischievous, all at the same time. And he was most definitely spoiled. How could he not be? His parents appeared to be very nice people, who were totally in awe of the fact that their baby, who had nearly died because of his kidney problem, had not only landed a starring role in a national production, but was succeeding very well at it. They were thankful for what truly had to be a gift from God. I don’t think I ever heard either his mother or dad forbid him anything. If they were hesitant about something, “Little” Gary would cross his arms, put on that pouty face, with those cute little chubby cheeks of his, and threaten not to do the show. The producers would cajole him (while quietly freaking out), and he would get his way. Gary and Todd Bridges, because they were the youngest on the set, practically dominated the production studios.
Even at 10, Gary kind of knew that he was the “boss” of his family. If he didn’t get his way, he wouldn’t perform right on camera, or he would conveniently forget his lines until he got his way. So he was not a kid you could discipline. His mother also thought that consequences might somehow set off kidney problems or a reaction of some sort. They were always between the proverbial rock and the hard place in raising him.
Gary and Todd were always trying new things when they were between rehearsals (a euphemism for getting into mischief). They used to Xerox their faces to see if it would print. So you had sheets and sheets of papers with images of their ears, lips, noses, full faces on them scattered every where. At that time, Todd was the “well behaved” kid, who seemed to have had a slightly more professional background, and Gary was all over the place. By California State Law, they had teachers and social workers and were schooled on the set. But it wasn't always easy to get them to sit through their education sessions. They were like two worms in hot ashes! Wriggling in and out of everything.
When Diff'rent Strokes did the show with Muhammad Ali, Gary tried to give him directions on what to do in front of the camera. The Champ was busy playing pranks on the crew and would forget his place. He was amazed at how anyone as small as Gary could be so smart, and speak so well. He was really a fun loving kids who had amazing talents.
Since I was working on a different series, “The Baxters”, which failed in the ratings, I moved on to another production company, and lost track of the Metro Media crew. The incident of Todd Bridges, as an adolescent and his run in with the law, ending up incarcerated, totally blew my mind, because he was a very polite, well spoken kid when I knew him. But, you never know what’s in the back of anyone’s mind. Dana Plato, whom I did not know very well, likewise had her woes, as chronicled by the tabloids.
But the assumption was, that with his success in the show, Gary would be set for life. So it was really sad to hear about Gary’s break up with his parents. Initially, I kind of shrugged it off with my usual comment: “Oh well, that’s hollywierd.” I was happily back in New York 3,000 miles away from the plasticity of it all.
But it’s clear from the news reports and other incidences that “Little” Gary never really enjoyed his life after Diff’rent Strokes ended. I always thought his parents loved him very much, but felt very intimidated by him. True, in some measure they depended on him. But they were so grateful that he was alive, that he probably could have gotten away with murder, and they would have done nothing to stop it. That’s why it was extremely sad to learn that he had sued them for having “stolen” his money. Since they were deeply religious, I seriously doubted the veracity of that allegation.
Over the years as the news would sporadically come up with some new story about Gary, I would say a little prayer for him. My mother really loved Gary. As she had with Michael Jackson, she quietly mentioned his passing, “Well, the little guy didn’t make it. So sad.“ I knew instantly she was talking about “Little” Gary. She always loved precocious children (she had to, she raise four of us - talk about a handful!) She always enjoyed the show, and Gary’s acting ability fascinated her. My Mom who has battled some life and death issues of her own, is alive and well at 87. Though he was 42 when he died, to her he was still “the little guy.”
But, despite his talent and his hard work, the little genius that was Gary Coleman, never found peace in life. May he rest in peace now that he’s made his transition. Regardless of the crap the tabloids continue to try and dredge up, he’s beyond all that pain now.
Stay Blessed &