‘Diff’rent Strokes’ Happened Because Gary Coleman Was Just That Good

Many TV shows have an ensemble cast, and it’s often the interactions and chemistry between the whole crew that make the series work. Even with this group dynamic, however, there can be a single actor who becomes the biggest draw for the series. Sometimes, this is to the chagrin of the rest of the cast members.

This was the case for Henry Winkler’s character on Happy Days. The Fonz became a fan favorite even though Ron Howard’s Richie was nominally the star. Similarly, Jaleel White’s portrayal of Steve Urkel became a central focus of Family Matters, which caused some tension on the set

While it might not always sit well with the other stars of the set, there’s no denying that a captivating character in the hands of a capable actor can steal the show. For the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, that was the case from the beginning. 

‘Diff’rent Strokes’ was a groundbreaking series

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When it premiered in 1978, Diff’rent Strokes boldly took on the topic of American race relations in a way that was somewhat shocking to see on network television, but its hilarious delivery made it palatable — and quite popular — for primetime audiences. The series revolved around widowed Manhattan billionaire Phillip Drummond. When his housekeeper dies and leaves two orphaned children, Drummond steps up to adopt them. 

A white billionaire raising two Black children from Harlem made for plenty of laughs, but it also made for poignant social commentary as Willis (played by Todd Bridges) and Arnold (played by Gary Coleman) went from rags to riches and had plenty of opportunities to showcase the stark differences in their life experiences. The series was incredibly popular, running for eight seasons and spawning the spinoff series The Facts of Life

Gary Coleman had a tragic path through fame 

Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson, Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson
Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson, Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson | Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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Diff’rent Strokes acted as a launching pad for a young Gary Coleman. He was just 10 years old when he landed the spot on the show, and he quickly stole audiences hearts. Coleman played Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes through the series conclusion in 1986.

From there, he had a few guest spots on television series and often played himself — including voicing himself on The Simpsons and appearing as himself on shows like Drake and Josh

Coleman’s signature catchphrase and hilarious mannerisms earned him a long-standing place in pop culture, but it was sadly not a ticket to personal success. Coleman maintained a child-like appearance into adulthood, and it was difficult to find fitting roles as he aged.

He filed for bankruptcy in 1999, which was after a high-profile legal battle with his own parents at the height of his fame. When he died in 2010, he was only 42 years old, and he had few financial assets and had not spoken to his parents in decades. 

‘Diff’rent Strokes’ was a vehicle for Gary Coleman’s talents

While things may not have gone as foreseen for the child star, there’s no denying Gary Coleman’s immense talent.

In fact, it was his clearly superb acting abilities that made Diff’rent Strokes happen in the first place. As Mental Floss reports, NBC President Fred Silverman was determined to have a show that prominently featured Coleman. 

After Coleman played in a Little Rascals TV movie, he was on track to become part of a reboot of the series, but the entire project fell apart. That’s when Silverman found room for him in the upcoming Diff’rent Strokes instead because he was determined that the captivating young star would be a hit with audiences.

Silverman’s instincts proved right, and Coleman quickly stole the show, helping to keep it high in the ratings year after year.