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Gary Coleman was an 80s icon. His TV showDiff’rent Strokes, ran from 1978 to 1986. Coleman lit up the screen with his impeccable acting and perfectly timed humor. He even had a famous catchphrase.

The fame of “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” long outlasted Diff’rent Strokes itself. In fact, it may have been more famous than Coleman himself toward the end of his career.

The actor had a hard time landing jobs after Diff’rent Strokes was canceled. His career was full of pitfalls and betrayals, even while he was on Diff’rent Strokes. Still, according to Mental Floss, he would end up playing his character from the show, Arnold, on another iconic sitcom. 

‘Diff’rent Strokes’ was groundbreaking

Producers never intended to make a splash with Diff’rent Strokes. Fred Silverman, the president of NBC in 1978, just really wanted to find a way to use Coleman. At the time, Coleman was killing it in commercials. Silverman knew he could be a big star, given the right show.

He tried to reboot The Little Rascals with Coleman as the lead, but it was a no-go. That’s when he got the idea for a white millionaire who adopts two Black kids from Harlem. 

Silverman didn’t want the show to be political, but the interracial nature of the cast alone seemed to rub racists the wrong way. Stars got threats from the Klan. Conrad Bain even got a letter with a special wax seal from one of the Klan’s Grand Dragons.

Todd Bridges, the actor who plays Arnold’s older brother Willis, was also on the receiving end of harassment from white supremacists. 

Gary Coleman wanted to be done with Arnold 

Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson, Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson, Dana Plato as Kimberly Drummond
Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson, Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson, Dana Plato as Kimberly Drummond | Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Coleman was still a child when the show started. He effectively grew up on setDiff’rent Strokes ran from 1978 to 1986. According to, Coleman was around 18 when the show ended, and he was tired of playing a child.

While Coleman grew up, Arnold seemed to stay mostly the same age. This was achievable due to a tragic medical condition that afflicted Coleman. He was born with a condition that left him with kidney issues. Medications he was given for the problem stunted his growth. 

Even though Coleman was a teenager in the middle of the show’s run, Arnold was still quite babyish. Coleman successfully lobbied producers to make Arnold older in the later seasons. He went to high school, giving Coleman the chance to play out more mature story lines.

The show explained Arnold’s size by giving him the same condition Coleman himself had. That gave producers a chance to explain Arnold’s stature, but also led to a great storyline of Arnold dealing with the devastating diagnosis. 

The ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ group came back for an episode of ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ including Gary Coleman 

By 18, Coleman was ready to be done with Arnold. The show was canceled, which Coleman seemed just fine with. Unfortunately, however, his career slowed after the cancellation of Diff’rent Strokes. It seemed as if Coleman would always be remembered for Arnold and his signature catchphrases.

Apparently, fans asked Coleman to say his “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” phrase so often that he would later refuse to say it. 

But Coleman did return to the character of Arnold at least one time before his death in 2010. Coleman’s last time playing Arnold would be for the series finale of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. 

In the episode, Will shows Banks family’s Bel-Air mansion, including Arnold and Mr. Drummond. Coleman even dropped his famous catchphrase, to which Will replied, “You know, Arnold, those things were a lot funnier when you were still a little child.”