The Sad Truth of What Willis Was Really Talkin’ ‘Bout

The adventures of a racially blended family, Diff’rent Strokes was breath of fresh air when it first came out in the late ‘70s. Did it feed into black/white stereotypes? Yes. Was it kind of cringy to have a “typical” rich, white man save two Black kids from the streets? Yes. But still, there was something undeniably addictive and endearing about the sitcom.

Gary Coleman, Dana Plato, and Todd Bridges / Todd Bridges, Dana Plato and Elinor Donahue / Gary Coleman / Charlotte Rae and Gary Coleman
Source: Getty Images

Whether it was Gary Coleman’s (Arnold’s) witty comebacks and charming dimples, or Charlotte Rae’s (Mrs. Garret’s) quivery and funny voice, the Drummond’s household never ceased to amuse its viewers.

But, tragically, once the show wrapped up, the child stars who had felt so safe and loved on the set, each ran into some deep trouble, resulting in jail time, suicide, and legal battles.

What went wrong?

“Treated as Ignorant, Dumb, and Stupid”

The show turned actor Todd Bridges (Willis Jackson) into a major TV star, but that didn’t mean he was granted some magical immunity from racism. According to an interview he did with Page Six, Bridges confessed that his teen idol status didn’t save him from people’s ignorant remarks, and that the extreme racism he suffered was the most difficult part of growing up in the limelight.

Todd Bridges on the set of the NBC television series 'Diff'rent Strokes'.
Photo by NBC TV/Getty Images

“Here you are doing something spectacular for people, and people are enjoying it, but then you go outside, and you’re treated like you’re ignorant, dumb and stupid,” he admitted. “Not like you have some intelligence or you’re a good kid, not at all.”

He Didn’t Experience Racism Until He Moved to L.A.

Bridges said he never experienced racism until he moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Shortly after his arrival, he recalled going to a football practice where he and his brother were called out for their skin color. One of the players threw in the N-word, a slur which Bridges had never heard of before until that point.

Todd Bridges attends NBC TV Affiliates Party accompanied by others.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

In his memoir, Killing Willis, he wrote that things just got worse and worse during his time in L.A. The show made him a rich, Black teen star but living in a white middle-class suburb made him a target, and he experienced serious abuse from authorities in the area.

He Had to Carry a Gun Around

His first run-in with the cops happened in 1980 when he got a ticket for driving his three-wheeled motorcycle on the sidewalk. And while that might sound reasonable, Bridges’ white friend was also present, yet he didn’t get anything.

Dana Plato, Todd Bridges, and Conrad Bain welcome a cop into their home in a scene from ‘Diff’rent Strokes”
Source: / Copyright: NBC

The actor kept getting ticketed for arbitrary traffic violations and even had his license suspended once for six months. To further his case about racial inequity, Bridges told People magazine that when he sought out the cops’ support after a group of white youths fired at him on his lawn, no officers ever showed up. From that point on, he decided to carry a gun.

He Was Arrested for Stealing His Own Car

Perhaps the most ridiculous incident occurred when Bridges was handcuffed after messing around with his Porsche after its battery ran down. As he steered into his driveway, police from the West Valley division of L.A. pulled up behind him and arrested him for “stealing [his] own car.”

Todd Bridges is standing beside his first car.
Source: Pinterest

The cops didn’t ask for his registration nor his driver’s license. They simply handcuffed him and pushed him to the ground. Bridges’ brother was there and tried to intervene, but he was also handcuffed. It was only after Bridges’ mom arrived at the scene that the issue was settled.

He Sued the Police

The assaults became so severe that Bridges ultimately sued the police for harassment. But the actor wasn’t just an easy target for the police; he was also harassed by self-described Ku Klux Klansmen, who once stole his Porsche, drenched it in gasoline, and set it afire.

Todd Bridges sitting in court in between his lawyers.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

His car’s license plate read TODD B 1, so the thieves clearly knew who the owner was. The charred remains of his black Porsche were found in the parking lot of a church which was located about a 20-minute drive from his home.

The Cast Received a Steady Stream of Hate Mail

When the interracial sitcom first surfaced in 1978, the cast received numerous hate mails from people who weren’t happy about seeing a biracial family on the air (and one that got along so well). Those same people also weren’t too happy about Black people getting rich from the show.

A promotional photo of the cast of ‘Diff’rent Strokes’.
Source: / Copyright: NBC

All of those incidents, taken together, had a serious effect on Bridges, who grew more and more reclusive as time went by. In an interview he did once as a teen, he revealed, “These days I ride my motorcycle. With a full helmet on, no one can see who I am…or what color I am.”

An Abused Minor

The problems didn’t go away when the show ended. If anything, things got worse. Bridges felt that he didn’t know who he was without Diff’rent Strokes. And shortly after the show went off the air, he spiraled into a crippling cocaine addiction, was arrested for carrying a gun (his permit had expired), threatening to make a bomb AND transporting narcotics.

Todd Bridges, Gary Coleman, and Conrad Bain smile as they pose for a publicity photo.
Photo by NBC TV/Getty Images

Years later, the star revealed he was sexually abused by a publicist when he was 11, and the trauma drove him to do crazy things to numb the pain. Bridges’ childhood trauma, as well as the racism and exploitation he experienced as a child star, weighed on him. And it took years for him to come back to his senses.

Serious Charges

In 1989, Bridges was charged with his most severe crime yet – attempted murder. The actor was only 23 when he was linked to a narcotics activity where one drug dealer named Kenneth Clay was shot five times at a vacant house.

Todd Bridges turns to spectators as jury selection begins in his trial.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Clay told police that he confronted Bridges and another guy named Harvey Duckett, and once the argument escalated, Bridges reportedly took out a handgun and began firing. The actor was eventually acquitted after being represented by Johnnie Cochran, the same lawyer from the famous O.J. Simpson case.

Why He Wanted to Be an Actor

As a child, Bridges confessed that he dreamed of becoming an actor because he wanted to be able to speak up and freely express his emotions. “I was unable to do it at home in front of my father,” he revealed in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. His dad was an angry drunk and being around him made it impossible to “be really happy or be sad or really say what [he] felt.”

Ben Hooks, Gary Coleman, and Todd Bridges are posing with their award at the 12th Annual NAACP Image Awards.
Source: Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Wireimage/Getty Images

Looking back at pictures and video clips of his younger years, Bridges said that he is mainly filled with a sense of melancholy. “The only time when I was happy was when I was on the sets,” he explained. “I was going through a lot at the time. I really was hurting.”

He Won’t Pin His Problems on Child Stardom

Speaking of all his issues, Bridges, who finally found sobriety in 1993, said in an interview with Page Six that he refuses to pin his problems solely on child stardom. “There are too many of us that have come out great,” he explained, adding:

Todd Bridges (as Willis Drummond) gives Gary Coleman (as Arnold Drummond) some brotherly advice on the set of 'Diff'rent Strokes'.
Photo by NBC TV/Getty Images

“I had other things to deal with, pretty traumatic things as a child, that’s what affected me and had me go through other situations.” The actor said he is hopeful that the next generation would make a change. He feels that his kids’ generation don’t see color. They see people.

Maybe the Next-Generation Would Make a Change

From Willis to his younger brother, Arnold, the cast of Diff’rent Strokes all had their fair share of troubles. Gary Coleman, who became a megastar after the show aired, was, in fact, knee-deep in both medical and financial problems.

Gary Coleman relaxes on the set of his show 'Diff'rent Strokes'.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

While many viewers believed Gary was little because of his short stature, that wasn’t the case. Coleman was born with problematic kidneys, and the drugs he took to combat his symptoms ended up stunting his growth. He received his first kidney transplant when he was just five and his second toward the end of the show.

Seriously Under-Compensated

Coleman’s health issues weren’t the only thing getting in the way of his career. When Diff’rent Strokes premiered, Coleman was seriously under-compensated, making only $1,800 per episode. His parents, who were also his managers, intervened and earned him a raise of 30k per episode.

Gary Coleman poses for a portrait while studying on the set of his show 'Diff'rent Strokes'.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After a while, his parents pushed for an additional raise, and the negotiations surrounding it led to him sitting out the first few episodes of Season Four. Ultimately, they agreed on $70,000 per episode, making him the highest paid comedy star at NBC.

Gary’s Parents Were Blinded by the Big Money

It was obvious to everyone that Coleman was the true star of the show, and his parents (Bruce Young and Lorena Gale) slowly become blinded by all the money that was coming in. So much so, that they subjected their poor kid to a gruesome schedule despite knowing how sick he felt due to his kidneys.

Gary Coleman and his parents at the 1982 National Kidney Foundation Awards Dinner.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

They also ripped him off financially. The child star claimed that the money he earned from the show was basically gone by the time he turned 18. He eventually took his parents to court and was awarded around $1.3 million.

Growing Pains

Diff’rent Strokes was an immediate hit when it first aired in the late ‘70s, hardly losing any viewers at all for the first three seasons. Coleman became the nation’s favorite kid with his plucky attitude and iconic catchphrase “What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” But he grew tired of it pretty quickly.

Gary Coleman poses for a portrait wearing a cowboy hat.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By the time he matured into his mid-teens, Gary had become unhappy about his role as a small child. He was trapped by his trademark line and by what the show had made of his character. Unfortunately, producers didn’t leave the actor much room to grow and develop as Arnold.

His Death

Coleman died from a brain hemorrhage in 2010, never reviving his career past the kitschy trademark line of his childhood persona. He checked into a medical center after having suffered a head injury caused by a fall. Sadly, a few days later, he passed away after he was removed from life support.

Gary Coleman arrives at the 6th annual
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

His death, which was ruled an accident, sparked legal battles between his ex-wife, Shannon Price, and his ex-girlfriend, Anna Gray, who both claimed control of his estate. The judge eventually ruled against Price, who was called out as being abusive and manipulative towards Coleman.

Dana Plato Made Some Bad Decisions

Dana Plato was a troubled young actress when she was cast to play Kimberly Drummond. Only 14 years old at the time, Plato was thrown into the spotlight and found herself gradually descending into alcoholism and drug abuse, leading to multiple confrontations with the law, including shoplifting and forging drug prescriptions.

Dana Plato talks on a payphone during the Sixth Annual People's Choice Awards.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

When the show ended, her reckless behavior turned lethal. Her life post-Diff’rent Strokes was a blur of alcohol and other substances. She messed around, trying to revive her career, and made some bad decisions, including nude photoshoots and softcore adult movies.

A Mid-Season Pregnancy

In 1984, Plato was fired from the show after becoming pregnant with her son, Tyler. Her character was written out of the script by supposedly moving to Paris to study. Plato didn’t miss out on too much of the action because two seasons later, the show was officially canceled after ratings declined.

Dana Plato, as Kimberly Drummond, has a look of surprise on her face in a still from ‘Diff’rent Strokes’.
Source: Youtube

In 1984, the former child star married Tyler’s father, Lanny, but after six tumultuous years, they parted ways. Plato’s alcohol addiction made her incapable of taking care of Tyler, and it was decided that he would be better off living with his dad.

An Accident or a Suicide?

Plato spent most of her life battling addiction, and at the young age of 34, it finally came to an end when she was found dead after overdosing. Initially, authorities claimed it was an accident, but after looking into it more, the high level of drugs, as well as Plato’s suicidal history, led them to believe it was a suicide.

Dana Plato visits a little girl in the hospital in a still from the TV show ‘Diff’rent Strokes’.
Source: / Copyright: NBC

The day before her death, Plato appeared on The Howard Stern Show, where she spoke about the difficulties she faced throughout her life, including her financial problems and her addictions. The late actress argued that she had been sober for almost a decade, but viewers (and probably Howard) didn’t believe her one bit. A day later, their skepticism was confirmed.

Her Son Followed in Her Footsteps

Eleven years after Dana’s suicide, her son Tyler, aged 25, followed in her footsteps when he took his own life by shooting himself in the head. At the time, Tyler was said to have been experimenting with drugs and alcohol, which authorities believe contributed to his tragic ending.

Dana is embracing her son Tyler.
Source: Reddit

Tyler committed suicide around Mother’s Day and just two days before the 11th anniversary of his mom’s passing. “It’s a shame that such a talented human being would do this with his life,” Tyler’s grandmother told People magazine.

So, What Exactly Was Willis Talking About?

Diff’rent Strokes dealt with several “taboo” topics in a way that previous sitcoms never had before. The show pioneered the concept of “special” episodes, which centered around controversial issues like alcoholism, child molestation, and eating disorders.

Todd Bridges and Dana Plato are sitting on the couch listening to Elinor Donahue.
Source: / Copyright: NBC

Navigating disturbing topics wasn’t easy, but the show’s producers felt it was essential to give their viewers a bit more than just pleasant, light-hearted laughs. The series inspired several other shows to speak up and integrate difficult topics into their storylines.

We Have Little Rascal to Thank for the Show

Television figure Norman Lear created two pilots for an attempted Little Rascals reboot in 1977 titled, “Rascal” and “Souper Nuts.” He hired young newcomer Gary Coleman to star as Stymie. And while the series wasn’t picked up, Coleman made an impression on the executives.

Bug Hall rowing a boat while looking at Brittany Ashton Holmes in a scene from the film 'The Little Rascals'.
Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images

One producer became determined to find work for the gifted actor. And before Coleman knew it, he was drawn in by the network to play Diff’rent Strokes’ leading character. Without Coleman, we doubt the show would have ever made it as big as it did.

The Original Title Was 45 Minutes From Harlem

Producers knew they had to find work for Coleman, and they had also promised to find a new project for Conrad Bain after his work in Maude Fame. The duo was teamed up for a concept that they intended to call 45 Minutes From Harlem.

Conrad Bain has Gary Coleman sitting on his lap on the set of ‘Diff’rent Strokes’.
Source: Pinterest

The show’s setting was, like the title implied, in a suburban setting north of New York. And, as weird as it is to imagine such a concept, the show wasn’t supposed to include Willis. In that case, we wonder what Arnold’s catchphrase would have been?

Alan Thicke Co-Wrote the Funky Theme Song

Growing Pains’ dad, Alan Thicke, co-wrote Diff’rent Strokes’ catchy tune with his wife, Gloria Loring. “It don’t matter that you got not a lot, so what?” the lyrics sang over a groovy rhythm. Thicke and his wife also worked together on the theme song for a spinoff of Facts of Life.

Alan Thicke and wife Gloria Loring attending 10th Annual Promise Ball.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

The successful song composer created several unforgettable tunes, including music for The Wizard of Odds, The Joker’s Wild, and Wheel of Fortune. He passed away in 2016 at the age of 69 after suffering a heart attack. His great works will forever remain in fans’ hearts.

The Drummonds’ Rent Was Only $3,500 Per Month

Have you ever wondered how much the Drummonds’ luxurious apartment supposedly cost? So have we. In Season Five’s episode, Push Comes to Shove, Mr. Drummond complains that a new lease will cost him $28,000 more a year. We did the math, and it seems the family was paying around $3,500 a month for the luxury flat.

The cast on set of ‘Diff’rent Strokes’.
Source: Twitter

A total steal by today’s standards! Nowadays, the building, located at 900 Park Avenue on the Upper East Side, has similar apartments for five figures. Ahhh… How great would it be if prices remained the same?

We Have Muhammad Ali to Thank for the Title

Just where did the title Diff’rent Strokes come from? Well, it sort of came from Muhammad Ali, who publicly popularized the term in an interview from 1966 when he was cited saying, “Different strokes for different folks.”

The Cast of Diff’rent Strokes being silly on set with Muhammad Ali.
Source: / Copyright: NBC

A year later, musician Syl Johnson recorded a song called “Different Strokes,” which became one of the most sampled songs in pop history. The show eventually honored Ali by inviting him to guest star on the show, in Season Two’s episode, Arnold’s Hero.

Coleman Shipped His Homework to the Set From Illinois

Gary Coleman was a bright child who began reading books at the age of three. Raised by a nurse and a pharmaceutical employee, he grew up to become a great student, despite the challenges of being homeschooled. Or, in his case, “set” schooled.

Gary Coleman poses for a portrait with co-stars Dana Plato and Todd Bridges while studying on the set of his show 'Diff'rent Strokes'.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1979, as the show was busy wrapping up its first season, People magazine flew to the set to talk with the child prodigy and reported that he was working on the set with a tutor on a curriculum that was shipped all the way from his hometown by his fifth-grade teacher.

The Show Featured Nancy Reagan, Who Hadn’t Performed Since 1962

Of all the show’s guest stars, none were bigger than the nation’s First Lady. Nancy’s appearance led to an impressive 24% surge in viewers, as approximately 32.5 million people tuned in to see her deliver her “Just Say No” message.

Conrad Bain, Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, and US First Lady Nancy Reagan on the set of the television show 'Diff'rent Strokes'.
Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

Nancy was certainly not a newbie when it came to acting. She had appeared with her husband in Hellcats of the Navy (1957) and in an episode of Wagon Train (1962). Reagan took several years off afterward to focus solely on family life until finally appearing again on Diff’rent Strokes.

Arnold’s BFFs Are Named After Two of the Show’s Writers

Arnold has two friends who repeatedly appear on the show – Dudley and Robbie. Dudley’s original last name was Johnson before being changed to Ramsey. And Robbie’s full name was Robbie Jason. Both of their names were chosen in honor of two of the series’ writers, Robert Jayson and A. Dudley Johnson, Jr.

Arnold and his friends Dudley and Robbie are offering a thermos to another kid.
Source: IMDB

Years after the show ended, Steven Mond, the man who played Robbie, said in an interview that despite being tight on the show, he didn’t believe Coleman would recognize him anymore (now that they were both adults). “I also think Gary’s quite reticent to be reminded of the DS days,” he explained.

Arnold Starred in a Steven Spielberg Show

In one of the magical tales of Amazing Stories, the anthology series created by Steven Spielberg, Coleman played his character, Arnold Drummond. In Season One’s episode, Remote Control Man, a TV-addict is given a magical remote control that grants him the power to change his family into TV characters.

Gary Coleman on the set of amazing stories.
Source: Reddit

He swaps his wife and kids for June Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver, Face from the A-Team, and Arnold. Spielberg brought in all the original actors to play the parts. He wrote the story, and Bob Clark (of A Christmas Story) directed it.

Mr. Drummond and Arnold Appeared in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Amazing Stories wasn’t the only time Coleman starred as Arnold in another show. In 1996, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s season finale “I, Done” aired. In the second part, Arnold and Mr. Drummond consider buying the house, and as they descend the Banks’ staircase, Mr. Dummond says:

Mr. Drummond and Arnold are talking to Will Smith on the set of ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’.
Source: Twitter

“You know, this looks like a great place, Arnold.” But Will tries to convince him otherwise by saying: “At night, you hear the wailing of the dead.” Naturally, Arnold throws in his catchphrase, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Will?” Mr. Drummond then sighs and says, “You know Arnold, those things were a lot funnier when you were a little child.”

Coleman Tweaked His Catchphrase

According to the show’s writer Ben Starr, Arnold had a line that was written as, “What are you talking about, Willis?” But when Coleman read it, he turned it into his own, compressing it into what would become one of the most popular catchphrases of the ‘80s: “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”

Gary Coleman poses for a portrait.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The writers wanted to be careful to not to wear it out in future seasons, but they struggled to keep it out of the script for more than a few episodes in a row. By the late 1990s, Gary Coleman was so sick of the line, he refused to play along with it and told the writers he wasn’t willing to say it anymore.

Todd Felt “Peace and Safety” on the Set

When Todd Bridge was 15 or 16, he began experimenting with different drugs, but he would never do any of them on set. He would always wait until the weekends and do it to just “forget what [he] was going through.”

Janet Jackson portrays Todd Bridges', aka
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But when he was on the set working on Diff’rent Strokes, he “felt such peace and safety.” On the show, he was a star. But when it wrapped up, he was back in South Central L.A., spiraling into dangerous habits and hanging out with the wrong crowd.

The Reason Todd Called His Memoir “Killing Willis”

Todd Bridges wrote his book, Killing Willis, as a way of telling his side of the story. The title doesn’t imply that he resents Willis, it’s just that he felt like he needed to kill a part of him, and a part of him was Willis.

Todd Bridges attends a signing for his book in a bookstore.
Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

“And because I was so known for Willis, I was trying to destroy Todd Bridges,” he explained, “That’s not something I should have been doing, but that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to also to kill Willis, so I was killing Willis.”

Is Child Stardom Really to Blame?

There are plenty of child stars who have “fallen from grace,” but Todd Bridges noted in an interview with Beliefnet Entertainment that he didn’t necessarily believe it had to do with fame. “All the ones who were at the top of their game are [still] at the top of their game right now,” he noted.

Todd Bridges on the set of ‘Diff’rent Strokes’.
Source: / Copyright: NBC

He listed actors like Charlie Sheen and Drew Barrymore as examples. He then explained that “not having the love you need from the right kind of parents” has a huge impact on whether a child star manages to steer his fame in the right direction.

Conrad Bain Treated Bridges Better Than His Own Father

The patriarch of the show was played by Conrad Bain, who, according to actor Todd Bridges, treated the kids on set like a real, loving father would. “He really was like Mr. Drummond. Just an all-around nice guy. He treated me better than my own father treated me.”

Conrad Baines and Todd Bridges attend the 33rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Their bond was so strong that Conrad eventually became like a grandfather to Bridges’ kids. Todd would take them over to his place to play chess and hang out. After Conrad passed away in 2013, Bridges confessed he cried all day for weeks. “I’ll truly miss that man,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.

Mrs. Garret Really Loved the Kids

Charlotte Rae, who played the tough yet admirable Mrs. Garret on the show, said that she absolutely loved her character. “She was such a nice lady,” she told Emmy TV Legends. “She was a good cook, I’m a good cook.”

Charlotte Rae acting alongside Gary Coleman on the set of ‘Diff’rent Strokes’.
Source: Reddit

She added that the love Mrs. Garret felt for those two boys and that little girl was 100% authentic. She didn’t have to act out the compassionate feelings she felt for the cast. She genuinely loved each and every kid as if they were her own. The lovable actress passed away at age 92 in 2018.

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