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.)

There are a few precious moments in this book, in which the reader wishes the story simply ended there. For instance, even before Diff’rent Strokes, Bridges was popular enough to be included in the Hollywood Teen Tour: “The whole group of us would make appearances at malls and amusement parks, and packs of girls would crowd around us, screaming and trying to rip off our clothes,” he writes. And Bridges had a blast, with the exception of an occasional heckler who yelled obscenities like, “Get off the stage, nigger!” This occurred a few times and rattled him badly. But Bridges was in good company: Along for the ride were Scott Baio, Willie Ames of Eight Is Enough, and Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk.

Yes, Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk.

Alas, the story does not end there. Killing Willis is primarily about a young black actor who was on his way to becoming a major star: Prior to Diff’rent Strokes Bridges appeared in commercials, on The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, Roots, and was a regular character on the Barney Miller spinoff, Fish. He also starred with O.J. Simpson in a movie called, fittingly, A Killing Affair. But blocking his path to stardom were a heavy drinking, physically abusive father, a child-molesting publicist, embezzling accountants, racist cops, and worst of all, drugs.

Not long after Diff’rent Strokes was cancelled in 1986, Bridges’s dabbling in narcotics turned into a full-time occupation. As he puts it, “I was just going out, going out, going out, clubbing, doing drugs, doing more drugs, having sex with women, and then more drugs, and women, and drugs, over and over, until I went under.” And did he ever. Finding that he couldn’t get high enough from cocaine, Bridges eventually transitioned to crack.

“The thing about crack,” he explains, “is it’s possible to smoke a lot of it, which meant I could stay high all the time. I definitely wanted to be high all the time.” Of course, maintaining this state of bliss also required money, of which he had little left. At the height of his career Bridges was pulling in $30,000 per episode of Diff’rent Strokes. By the end of the 1980s, he had resorted to dealing crack in order to feed his addiction, which was something fierce: “It would have been hard as hell to snort fourteen grams of coke a day without my nose falling off. But I could smoke fourteen grams easy.”

Bridges finally hits rock bottom when he starts using methamphetamines:

I was hanging out at one of these meth houses when one of the girls leaned over toward me and slid her hand up my thigh in a way that told me exactly what she had in mind. I took one look at her. Teeth all ground down. Skin covered in acne. The bones of her skull looked like they were about to poke through her face. The girls who were on meth, those were some beat-down-looking girls. Even I didn’t want to get with them.

And yet he does “get with them”—which is a far cry from his heyday surrounded by NFL cheerleaders and the like. But even then, there were warning signs that such reckless behavior came with consequences: “When we went out,” Bridges remembers, “there were these different groups—the actors, the football players, and the singers—and the girls kind of went around from group to group. So we all ended up sharing the same girls. That’s why, when Magic Johnson got sick, all of us guys who used to hang out back then were really worried.”

Killing Willis makes clear how the temptations of celebrity life can lead down a vicious path, resulting in pain and humiliation. (And could there be anything more humiliating than being strapped down at the CPC Westwood rehab center wearing nothing but an adult diaper for several days?) But of course, it’s nothing new. Child actors from Carl Switzer (Alfalfa of Our Gang fame, shot dead at 31 in an argument over money) to ’80s teen heartthrob Corey Haim (dead of an overdose two months ago) have all faced similar perils. 

Some, like Ron Howard and Leonardo DiCaprio, have been luckier than others.

Count Bridges among the lucky ones: He is still alive, sober, married with children, and running a small film company with his brother. And he owes it all to his mother and to God—Who, he says, spoke to him. Indeed, for Bridges to have survived not only drug addiction but also temporary imprisonment in a cell block that included “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez and Lyle Menendez, is nothing short of a miracle.

This is a cautionary tale as well as a work in progress: Although the subtitle of Killing Willis is From Diff’rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted, Bridges doesn’t actually get to that life he always wanted until page 253. But you get the sense that he is serious this time about turning his life around and that, with continued assistance from his family and the Almighty, Todd Bridges will be able to stay on the path of sobriety. 

Unless, of course, he gets invited to reappear on Circus of the Stars. Then all bets are off.

Victorino Matus is deputy managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

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