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His Cautionary Tale

A (child) star is reborn.

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

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