The Life And Times Of Gary Coleman

Clockwise from top left: Coleman charming the audience at a benefit in the 1980s; Gary with part of his train collection; “Arnold” in Diff’rent Strokes with his goldfish; title card for On The Right Track; Coleman at the Carousel Ball with Bob Hope and Sammy Davis, Jr.

The Life And Times Of Gary Coleman

Gary Coleman connected with audiences in a big way beginning in the late 1970s. With an enormously likeable personality, a winning stage presence, and natural sense of humor, Coleman earned kudos from his peers and the respect of his bosses.

As the precocious pitchman in a television commercial for Chicago-area Harris Bank, Gary Coleman won viewer affection by holding a cute stuffed lion (representing the company’s mascot) and exclaiming, “You should have a Hubert doll.”

At age ten, Coleman found his signature role as Arnold Jackson on Norman Lear’s Diff’rent Strokes. Fred Silverman, new head of NBC in 1978, chose that series as one of his first programs, seeing Coleman as a potential breakout star. Gary Coleman lived up to Silverman’s expectations and became one of NBC’s signature personalities, attracting to Diff’rent Strokes such guests as First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Cast as the younger of two brothers adopted by a wealthy New Yorker, Coleman’s sharp delivery and comic timing turned the series into one of the network’s hit shows of the era. His line “What’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” (directed to his brother) became a pop culture catchphrase.

Gary Coleman also starred in more than a half dozen made-for-TV movies and theatrical films, including The Kid from Left Field and Scout’s Honor on television, as well as On the Right Track and Jimmy the Kid in the movie houses. All were gentle formula packages that gave audiences the opportunity to see Coleman’s winning persona in new but reassuringly familiar situations, with the star outshining his material.

Even while he played his child character roles to perfection, Gary Coleman demonstrated ease as a guest elsewhere. Alongside veteran adult performers Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, and Johnny Carson, Coleman was consistently charming and authentic.

Since age two, Coleman dealt with his own health issues that included multiple surgeries, kidney transplants, and dialysis medication that permanently stunted his growth at a height of 4’8”. Those medical realities shadowed him until his death in 2010.

Throughout his career, Gary Coleman actively embraced charitable causes devoted to kidney and diabetes research and treatment. He joined other big names at the annual Carousel of Hope fundraising ball. He also regularly worked with schools and children affected by these conditions. In a symbolic flip from his celebrity life, the content of the letters he received shifted from pure fan mail to heartfelt appreciations. Looking back, Norman Lear observed that Coleman “spilled humanity. You wanted to pick him up and hug him.”

The Museum of Broadcast Communications exhibition draws from personal family artifacts donated by Edmonia Sue and W.G. Coleman – and other existing Museum materials. MBC Founder/President Bruce DuMont directed the project with input from Coleman’s long time agent and friend Victor Perillo. The exhibition was prepared by MBC Librarian John Gieger and MBC Curator Walter J. Podrazik, with additional assistance and production support from Patrick Hughes. Agent Charles Lenhoff provided early direction for the exhibition. Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko and Vice President, Media Productions, Ed Zimmerman provided all of the Gary Coleman video content, along with noted television collector Dan Wingate. Fred Silverman and Norman Lear provided insight into Gary’s career. MBC Production Manager Clifford Parkhurst coordinated all video transfers and Daria Sokolova provided editing support. MBC Operations Director Favian Mondragon provided exhibition coordination and marketing assistance, along with Niki Hampton.