‘Diff’rent Strokes’: Gary Coleman’s Real-Life Hardships Were Eventually Incorporated Into the Series

In 1978, a groundbreaking sitcom debuted on NBC. Diff’rent Strokes was unusual among TV shows, and it drew attention for its willingness to address difficult issues. It also featured a child star, Gary Coleman, whose catchphrase, “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?” soon became famous. 

Coleman looked much younger than he was, because of serious health issues that he had from birth. But as the years went by, he wanted to play a character closer to his actual age. Instead of ignoring that fact and continuing to pretend he was a child, the show’s producers decided to make his struggle a part of the series. 

Gary Coleman’s difficult start

Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner, Mindy Cohn as Natalie Green, Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson, Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson, Conrad Bain as Philip Drummond
Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner, Mindy Cohn as Natalie Green, Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson, Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson, Conrad Bain as Philip Drummond | Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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According to Biography, Coleman was born in 1968. He was diagnosed as an infant with multiple health problems, including a kidney defect. When he was five years old, he received his first kidney transplant. Twelve years later, he had another transplant. Because of the medications that he was given, Coleman stopped growing early. His final height was a diminutive 4’8″ tall. 

As difficult as these health problems were, his short stature benefited him as a child actor, making him appear young and precocious. This, combined with his natural charm and talent, made him a valuable actor. Starting at nine years old, Coleman was frequently cast in projects as a child half his age. 

When he was 10, he landed the role that made him famous, playing Arnold Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes

‘Diff’rent Strokes’ was unique

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When it debuted, Diff’rent Strokes made waves by featuring a mixed-race family. According to Do You Remember, it was about a wealthy white man, living on Park Avenue, who had a daughter. When his Black housekeeper died, he adopted her two sons, eight-year-old Arnold and his older brother, Willis. 

The interracial family drew ire from white supremacists, but the show’s producers weren’t afraid to face racism — either in the viewer responses or on the program. They also aired episodes that delved into heavy issues such as child molestation, alcoholism, bulimia, and steroid abuse. Despite these controversial choices, the popular sitcom ran for eight seasons and launched a spinoff that also became a well-known show, The Facts of Life

As Coleman got older, he lobbied hard to have his character age as well. Instead of continuing to present his character as a much younger child, they agreed to tackle this issue head-on. 

They addressed his health issues on the show

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Coleman’s health problems never got easier. According to Mental Floss, after his two failed kidney transplants, he decided to have dialysis four times a day, rather than endure another transplant. Despite the fact that these problems kept him looking like a child, he continued to get older, and he got tired of playing a child. 

In order to let his character move on to high school and typical teen storylines, producers decided to address his height directly. During the third season, Arnold finds out that because of his health problems he will never get any taller.

He deals with depression at the news. But then he meets a girl whose health problems have stunted her growth and confined her to a wheelchair. Her positive attitude helps Arnold to accept his situation.

Sadly, after Diff’rent Strokes, Coleman never found another role that used his talents as well as Arnold. He also sued his parents and manager for misusing his earnings from the show. He eventually died at age 42, from an intracranial hemorrhage.