RIP, Gary Coleman

RIP, Gary Coleman

RIP, Gary Coleman

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Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
May 28 2010 6:17 PM

RIP, Gary Coleman

Requiescat in pace , Gary Coleman , dead today at age 42, a deft comic actor as a child star and a cuddly kitsch object by the time the ironic '90s rolled around. Like Billy Barty, Hervé Villechaize, Verne Troyer, Linda Hunt, Tom Cruise, and the confectioners of TLC's Little Chocolatiers , Coleman was on the short side. Fully grown, he topped out seven inches below Muggsy Bogues, and I suppose there are few people out that there who do not know that his stature was an essential part of his performance as Arnold Jackson on the NBC sitcom Diff'rent Strokes , which at its peak was the lead-in to John Houseman's Silver Spoons on Saturday nights.

Here was a pair of fantasies about class and money. A critic with an eye for '80s sitcoms more dispassionate than mine ought out to write about their complicated relationships with Hollywood Reaganomics. The Diff'rent Strokes half of the essay should begin by finding a more elegant way to state the following: Eight-year-old Arnold and older brother Willis, two black kids from Harlem, move into a fancy Park Avenue apartment formerly cleaned by their late mother. Even before their mother's untimely death, the boys were struggling, sociologically speaking, as evidenced by Willis' surly attitude and their inability to buy another E for the word "diff'rent." Paternal and paternalistically liberal, Mr. Drummond interceded and raised the kids as his own and bought the kids some fancy new bootstraps. Dana Plato was pretty cute. To be perfectly frank, Mrs. Garrett was a richer and more complex character as portrayed on The Facts of Life .

Coleman sold the show and owned his scenes, as no one has described better than the critic Donald Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television , calling him "a hip, modern, savvy, sepia Little Lord Fauntleroy—brazenly independent and aggressive, a born survivor." Bogle comes to praise Coleman and to cast a glance at the show's problematic racial subtexts and, finally, to venture what went wrong with the career: "As Coleman grew older on the series, it was sometimes painful to watch him. Because of his health problems ... his growth had been stunted and his face often looked puffy and worn. The scripts tried maturing him. But it never worked." This is a short-person joke that isn't funny.

 

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.