The Magazine

His Cautionary Tale

A (child) star is reborn.

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Killing Willis

From Diff’rent Strokes
to the Mean Streets
to the Life I Always Wanted
by Todd Bridges
with Sarah Tomlinson
Touchstone, 288 pp., $26

You may be wondering: Why, exactly, in such a magazine as this, is there a review about the life and times of former child actor Todd Bridges, who played older brother Willis Jackson to the adorable Arnold (Gary Coleman) in the late 1970s/early ’80s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes? The answer can be found on page 104:

When I was sixteen, I got to be a guest on the sixth season of Circus of the Stars. .  .  . So I got to appear with the hot young stars of the day, like my good friend Scott Baio, and one of the most beautiful girls at the time, Brooke Shields.

My event was trapeze, and that was the best, because I got to work with a bunch of sexy women in leotards. .  .  . Well, we were shooting one day, and I looked over and Brooke Shields was on the trampoline. .  .  . So I rolled up on her, and I tried to be all smooth.

[Bridges’s Diff’rent Strokes costar Dana Plato] was on Circus of the Stars that season, too, and she came up right then and pulled me aside.

“My friend wants you to go to my house with us,” she said.

“Can’t you see I’m talking to Brooke?” I said. “I’m trying to get her number.”

“But my friend wants you to go to my house with us,” she said again.

Obviously I wasn’t getting her meaning, so she broke it down for me.

“My friend wants to have sex with you and me at the same time,” she said.

That was all it took. I was out of there.

I remember as a kid watching Circus of the Stars—I can even recall Todd Bridges on the trapeze. But I’d always wondered what the show was like behind the scenes. Who knew it was one giant Roman orgy?

Regarding Diff’rent Strokes, Bridges has fond memories of the early seasons, in which he and Coleman really did behave like close siblings. (The sitcom centered around two black brothers who are adopted by a white tycoon named Philip Drummond, played by Conrad Bain, after their mother dies; the mother was also Drummond’s maid. The boys then spend their new lives in a Park Avenue penthouse along with stepsister Kimberly, played by Dana Plato.) But it was only a matter of time before off-camera tensions began to spill over.

The diminutive Coleman, whose growth was stunted by kidney ailments, emerged as the star of the show. But as Bridges notes, Coleman’s parents—
particularly his father Willie—were notorious control freaks, carefully monitoring their son’s activities, inflating his ego, and belittling the rest of the cast. Coleman himself underwent a change in attitude that culminated in a heated argument between the boys, ending with Coleman slapping Bridges in the face and Bridges responding in kind.

 But Bridges was also sympathetic to Coleman, due to his ill health and the enormous pressures to which he was subjected. “Gary was so sick after one of his operations,” he recalls, “that he was throwing up everywhere on the set. Willie was right there, but he wasn’t comforting Gary.” Instead the father tells the son, “You need to go back to work, because people are depending on you.” Years later, Coleman sued his parents over the mishandling of his trust fund.

 As for Dana Plato, who was responsible for Bridges’s first sexual experience with a woman, addiction to various narcotics took a toll on her work. Not only would she space out and forget her lines, but she would also wander off the set. On one occasion, Plato attempted to drive her car through the Universal Studios spinning tunnel prop.

I guess she didn’t realize that there was a special mechanism that pulled the trams through. Once she got her car into the tunnel, she ended up getting stuck. She couldn’t get her car to move and, I guess because of the spinning sensation, she started throwing up all over the place. It was a mess. They had to stop the tours for the day and figure out a way to pull her car out.

When Plato became pregnant, her character was phased out. She had difficulty finding work thereafter, and her drug use continued until she died of an overdose in 1999. (Bridges leaves Plato some dignity, however, by not mentioning the time she was arrested for robbing a video store, or when she starred in a pornographic film entitled, you guessed it, Different Strokes.)

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