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Child Actor Gary Coleman Dies

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Former child star Gary Coleman has died in a Utah hospital, following a brain hemorrhage. He was 42. Coleman is best known for playing the fast-talking Arnold on the hit TV series "Diff'rent Strokes."

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: With his tiny body and puckish sense of humor, young Gary Wayne Coleman hit the big time in 1978, when he and costar Todd Bridges appeared on "Diff'rent Strokes." They played orphaned brothers from Harlem who were adopted by their mother's wealthy, widowed employer.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Diff'rent Strokes")

Mr. GARY COLEMAN (Actor): (as Arnold Jackson) Did you see me warming up out there?

CONRAD BAIN (As Mr. Drummond): I sure did, son. Hey, you really seem to be up for this game.

BATES: For a country traumatized by the racially stratified '60s, the happy, multiracial family was welcome balm, and "Diff'rent Strokes" became a hit for several years. Coleman was its most popular character. This line appeared at least once in every show.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Diff'rent Strokes")

Mr. COLEMAN: (As Arnold Jackson) What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BATES: Coleman's signature size was a legacy of a serious illness. By the time he was 5, he'd had three surgeries for a congenital kidney defect. The operations and medicines stunted his growth.

Because his short height made him looked younger than his 10 years, he was cast as 5-year-old Arnold Jackson in 1978 and became a celebrity, but Coleman was more than ready for the series to end in 1986.

Todd Bridges told talk show host Wendy Williams: Coleman was finished with every aspect of the show.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Wendy Williams Show")

Ms. WENDY WILLIAMS (Talk Show Host, "The Wendy Williams Show"): Gary Coleman today, everybody, we've been seeing it on...

Mr. TODD BRIDGES (Actor): Oh, yeah.

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...in all the tabloids and on TV. He's a bit of a mess.

Mr. BRIDGES: Yeah.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Are you close with him?

Mr. BRIDGES: No, he won't talk to me at all right now. He's very - like -anything about "Diff'rent Strokes," he wants nothing to do with it.

BATES: The mess Williams referred to was a string of legal problems and public embarrassments for Coleman. He sued his parents and manager in 1989 for misappropriating several hundred-thousand dollars of his "Diff'rent Strokes" earnings.

In 1999, he declared bankruptcy. He became a security guard to make ends meet and ended up in court after punching a bus driver who he says was harassing him for an autograph. He'd also been charged in a domestic violence incident last year. Coleman's financial problems were well enough known that he was tapped to shill for a loan company.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Mr. COLEMAN: I love you, CashCall. Cash wired right into my account. No one would lend me any money.

BATES: In 2003, he became one of 135 Californians seeking to replace Governor Gray Davis in a recall election. Here, candidate Coleman tells NPR's Mandalit Del Barco how he'd deal with the state's budget deficit if elected.

(Soundbite of archived NPR broadcast)

Mr. COLEMAN: I would be absolutely ruthless. You know, I would find every person that, you know, if their job is just to answer the phone for somebody, that person would have to go. The first salary I want to cut is my own.

BATES: Coleman didn't win, but he did go on to do occasional film and TV work. Poor health continued to plague him, though. He'd had two kidney transplants in 10 years and underwent dialysis regularly, and had heart surgery last year.

On Wednesday, he fell and hit his head at home and was rushed to a local hospital. By Thursday, he'd been placed on life support.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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