Diff’rent Strokes taught me that the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum, which was an important life lesson that carried me far. The show, which featured two brothers from Harlem that were taken in by a rich businessman, aired on NBC from November 3, 1978, to May 4, 1985, and on ABC from September 27, 1985, to March 7, 1986. Just as a disclaimer, I’m totally not going to recap on “legendary hated character” Sam, the redhead who was brought on to the cast near the end of the show. (And that’s not because I already recapped what happened to him over here. Okay, maybe it is.)
Diff’rent Strokes was notorious for having a few “very special episodes” that touched on some really serious topics – for example, I remember hiding in my sister’s closet after the episode aired where Arnold and Kimberly were kidnapped after accepting a ride with a stranger, and nearly molested. That’s heavy stuff. Important, but heavy.
While you might already be familiar with the tragic endings of both Gary Coleman and Dana Plato, I think it’s important to revisit their careers. On that note…
…what happened to them?
Conrad Bain as Philip Drummond
Conrad actually played the character of Philip in three shows outside of Diff’rent Strokes: The Facts of Life (which was a spin-off of the show), The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Hello, Larry. Prior to the show, you might remember his work with the fantastic Rue McLanahan on the show Maude – Conrad played her husband, Arthur.
He tried to make another sitcom work after Diff’rent Strokes wrapped, called Mr. President. Unfortunately, it was cancelled in 1988 after 24 episodes aired. In 1990, he had a brief role in the Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep movie Postcards From The Edge, which would be his last film. He also decided to take on a few more plays, a few even reaching Broadway. After that, he retired from being an actor and wanted to focus primarily on being a screenwriter.
In 2008, he moved to a Livermore, California retirement home, where he lived until January of 2013, when he passed away from natural causes at the age of 89.
Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson
Gary Coleman straight up won everyone’s hearts while playing Arnold. Unfortunately, his life behind the scenes wasn’t too cheerful. When the show ended, Gary was 18 years old – but based on a congenital kidney condition, he appeared much younger. This caused him a lot of difficulty finding roles once he became an adult.
While most of the work he found revolved around him playing himself, he did find some success in the early 2000′s, playing The Ghost of Christmas Past in the TV Movie A Carol Christmas, as well as Charles Higgens in A Church Ball. It was during filming of the latter that he met Shannon Price, who played the uncredited “spectator in crowd”. Despite being much younger than him, he married Shannon in 2007 and then starred in a show with her soon after, called Divorce Court.
Dana Plato as Kimberly Drummond
You’ve probably heard Dana’s name referred to in a grim way. But the truth is, Dana had kind of a turbulent life. While Diff’rent Strokes was her first big role, she was kicked off the show for getting pregnant near the end of it, only making a few cameo appearances during the final season. It was tough for her to find other work after the series wrapped, so she went the route of Playboy.
A few movies she did partake in could have been mistaken for soft core porn, like erotic drama Different Strokes: The Story of Jack and Jill…and Jill. Her addictions to drugs and alcohol weren’t a secret – after all, rumors of drug use were floating around during the time Diff’rent Strokes gave her the boot.
She also had a few issues with the law. On February 28, 1991, she entered a video store with a gun, and demanded money from the clerk. The clerk called 911 saying, “I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes.”
Dana seemed to be on an upswing when she was featured on Howard Stern a day before her death. While she fielded phone calls from people who called her a “has-been” and addict, she stated that she’s been clean for about ten years and that she’s tired of defending her past decision every time she had an interview. It’s brutal to listen to, and quite possibly what pushed her over the edge. The next day she was found dead based on overdosing on medications that were prescribed to her after a wisdom tooth removal.
Dana’s last films were A Silent Scream, where she played the lead, and Pacino Is Missing, where she played an attorney. Her son Tyler Lambert unfortunately committed suicide almost eleven years to the day of Dana’s death. Unfortunate all around.
Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson
I have to get this out there. This is the infamous Willis, of “Whatchu Talkin’ Bout Willis” fame. I’m sure you knew that, but I couldn’t finish writing without some kind of mention of the famous catchphrase.
I’ll talk about Todd’s rough problems first. Todd battled a crack cocaine addiction for several years, and had two altercations that landed him in court – in 1988, he was arrested and tried for the attempted murder of Kenneth “Tex” Clay, a Los Angeles area drug dealer (he didn’t do it) and in 1993, he stabbed his landlord in the name of self-defense after his landlord came after him with a sword.
Now here’s the good news: Todd has maintained his career, and has cleaned up his life. His projects included two that reunited him with Dana (The Sounds of Silence in 1992 and her final film, Pacino Is Missing) and had a string of straight-to-video releases between 2005 and 2007 – a few even getting pretty decent reviews.
Todd also saved a life in 1998, when a 51-year-old paraplegic woman, Stella Kline, had her wheelchair roll into a lake while she was fishing. Both Todd and his brother James rescued her before she drowned. “I was thanking God that he was there, and you know, everybody’s been saying nothing but bad stuff about Todd Bridges on the news and in the papers . . . He has a heart of gold,” Kline said.
In 2007 he also starred in a bunch of episodes of the TV show Everybody Hates Chris, and appeared as himself in The Smoking Gun Presents: World’s Dumbest – and while everybody whose been approached to narrate have done a few dumb things themselves (for example – Tonya Harding is also a host), Todd is a good man for being in on the joke. This hasn’t been his only run-in with Tonya. He actually fought her in Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Championship Wrestling on the CMT Network.
In 2010, he wrote a memoir called “Killing Willis” that explained his past, and focused on how tough it can be to break out of a character mold. In 2011, he appeared in the video for The Black Keys song “Howlin’ for You”, and this year he’s been working on Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, which is a 3D video game.
If you’re looking for information on the lovely Charlotte Rae, you can read up on the amazing career of Edna Garrett here.
What were some of your favorite Diff’rent Strokes moments? Did the “very special episodes” scar you for life? (Hopefully they didn’t.)