What I remember about Gary Coleman

Gary Coleman died May 28, 2010.

What I remember most vividly was being asked what not to ask Gary Coleman.

Don’t ask him about Dana Plato, was the request.

He won’t talk about her. It’ll only upset him.

“But I have to bring it up, somehow,” I told the public relations representative for Game Show Network, who was herding media types – both of us – interested in interviewing Gary Coleman on a June night in 1999. A month earlier Plato, Coleman’s old friend from their days on Diffr’rent Strokes, had died of what authorities ruled as an intentional drug overdose in her hometown of Moore, Okla. She was 34.

Coincidentally, just weeks later, Arnold Jackson himself was delivered to Las Vegas to work on a cable TV show.

He was at the Flamingo -- the Flamingo Hilton at the time – to film a scene for an obscure-at-the-time and long-forgotten sitcom called Burt Luddin’s Love Buffet. The show was a mix of sitcom and quiz show. The star was not Coleman, but John Cervenka, a blond, congenial sort who was also known as the announcer on the game Love Connection.

Coleman played himself in the show, at the time the latest in a numbing string of such appearances he made as “Gary Coleman,” or a Gary Coleman type. He couldn’t find work as anything but himself or a variation thereof. He complained about this during our interview afterward, which was remarkable also because the person joining us was KOMP DJ Andy Kaye, recording the session for his morning show.

"Playing myself gets really old, really quick," Coleman said. "The unfortunate thing is, and this is no slam against Love Buffet, but I'm playing myself. It's either me, or an Arnold-type character saying, 'Whatchoo talkin' 'bout,' which I'm really trying to get away from.”

As he said that, I asked about the show that made him and Plato, and Todd Bridges, at once famous and infamous. Seemingly unable to lead anything resembling a drama-free life, Coleman had fought his own sued parents over control of his trust fund, and soon after his appearance in Las Vegas filed for bankruptcy. The two older cast members had battled drug addiction and fell afoul of the law after the series ended in 1986.

At her nadir, Plato was arrested after attempting to rob a video store in Las Vegas, wearing a disguise of dark glasses and a black hat that was so laughable that authorities felt the inept attempt was simply a way for the declining actress to ask for help (Plato was released from Clark County Jail only after Wayne Newton, who didn’t even know her, posted her $13,000 bail out of sympathy).

“What do you think about what happened to Dana Plato?” I finally asked Coleman. And the guy who played the magnanimous little Arnold took off.

"My only thought for Dana Plato is -- and this is for the press in general -- that her ashes are in Oklahoma. Let her rest in peace," Coleman said. "Quit dogging her out in the press now that she's gone. I know it sells newspapers, and I know it's what slope-minded, slope-headed people want to focus on, but she was much more than a troubled person and always will be much more than that to me.”

I remember this long silence, and looking over at Andy, whose eyebrows were raised. I managed, “You miss her?”

"She was a wonderful, free spirit," Coleman said. "She gave of her love freely, gave of her time freely. ... She's gone, I don't know by her own choice, but she's gone because she needed do go. She wasn't getting a break, people were just bringing her down, and there was no way to get up from that."

When we rose from the restaurant booth that was our interview station, I was reminded at just how small Coleman was, just 4-foot-7, and how childlike he seemed even though we were about the same age. Noticing this, too, he looked into my torso and said, “I like that tie. I’d like to wear that tie.” It was a canary-yellow, silver-paisley number. Ugly, actually.

I also recall, during our time at the restaurant, an employee succumbed to idiocy and blurted the phrase, “"Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

“I don’t know who you are,” Coleman glowered in an overacting sort of way, “but you’re fired.”

It’s still funny, remembering that. I wonder, now that Gary Coleman is gone at age 42, what he would have become if he’d been allowed to grow.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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