At its peak, NBC’s long-running sitcom Diff’rent Strokes was one of the most popular TV shows on cable. It made global stars out of several of its actors, many of whom started on the series as children.
It also launched numerous spin-offs and crossovers, including the series The Facts of Life and character crossovers in shows like The A-Team and Hello, Larry. Yet not everything was as perfect as it seemed on camera. After the show ended, actor Todd Bridges and many of his co-stars went through numerous legal and personal difficulties, and one prominent cast member even took her own life.
‘Diff’rent Strokes’ premiered in 1978
NBC debuted Diff’rent Strokes in the winter of 1978. The show follows the lives of two African American boys named Arnold and Willis Jackson, respectively played by Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges. The Jackson brothers are taken in by Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain), a wealthy New York City businessperson, and his daughter Kimberly Drummond (Dana Plato).
“The boys, whom Drummond always introduced as his two sons, went from rags to riches literally overnight,” explains IMDB. “At first, Willis was rather skeptical of their newfound wealth, but eventually, both he and Arnold felt right at home in their newfound surroundings. […] While most series revolved around the typical lessons of growing up, some were quite serious (including a frightening encounter with a child molester and a memorable episode dealing with drug abuse guest-starring First Lady Nancy Reagan).”
After moving to ABC, the show was cancelled. Its eight season was its last, and audiences said goodbye to the Jackson brothers in 1986.
The personal difficulties of the ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ cast was outlined in multiple documentaries
Even while Diff’rent Strokes was still on the air, life behind the scenes took a much darker twist.
“The elemental paradox of the Diff’rent Strokes phenomenon was that cuteness — and sanctimony, as ‘special episodes’ mercilessly preached honesty, sobriety and ‘just say no’ — so precipitously became distinctly uncute as the show’s young stars fell into pornography, bankruptcy, drugs, violence and crime,” reports the New York Times. It only got worse when the show ended. “The lives of Ms. Plato, Mr. Bridges and Mr. Coleman derailed when the show went off the air,” adds the publication.
Numerous documentaries and dramas have delved into the personal lives of the Diff’rent Strokes cast, including a 2000 TV movie on Fox and a 2006 TV documentary on NBC. The New York Times points out, for example, that Coleman went bankrupt and, in 2000, was charged with assault. Plato went on to commit robberies, was imprisoned, and died of a drug overdose that was later deemed a suicide.
Bridges also had a hard life after Diff’rent Strokes was canceled.
Bridges is the last living cast member of ‘Diff’rent Strokes’
“With the death of actress Charlotte Rae [in 2018], Todd Bridges is now the last surviving original member of the Diff’rent Strokes cast,” points out USA Today. Over the decades, Bridges has struggled with addiction and legal issues
“His post-Strokes years were full of run-ins with the law; the most devastating came in 1989, when he was accused of shooting an alleged drug dealer at a South Central L.A. crack den,” reports CNN. “He was eventually cleared of the charges, though he admitted to having a 14-gram-a-day cocaine habit.”
Today, Bridges has turned his life around. He quit drugs in the ’90s, and in 2008 he released his memoir Killing Willis: From Diff’rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted. In it, he opens up about his criminal life, addiction to drug, and the abuse he experienced as a child.