No Olivier, but certainly interesting – R.I.P Gary Coleman

Illustration by Bryan Gomm
Illustration by Bryan Gomm

Former child star Gary Coleman died last week on May 28, 2010, after hitting his head and suffering an epidural hematoma. He was 42 years old. He is survived by his wife Shannon Price.

Coleman was born in Zion, Illinois on Feb. 8, 1968. He was adopted by Edmonia Sue and W.G. Coleman, who would become famous themselves for misappropriation of their son’s earnings. A congenital kidney disease stunted his growth, resulting in his famously small stature. Coleman began appearing in guest roles on The Jeffersons and Good Times in the late 70s, before winning the role of Arnold Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes, which ran from 1978 to 1986. The show was considered a success and Coleman became a star.

However, Diff’rent Strokes became a source of vexation for Coleman, who suffered financial and professional woes in the transition from child star to adult actor. His famous catchphrase “What’choo talkin’ about, Willis?” became less a welcome homage for a beloved character and more a method of inciting Coleman to anger and, sometimes, violence. In 1998, Coleman’s refusal to sign an autograph caused one female fan to mock his fizzled television career. The actor punched her in the face and was charged with assault.

Coleman left Hollywood and became Utah Valley’s unlikeliest celebrity in the mid-2000s when he settled in Santaquin, Utah. As in California, he sometimes became the center of unwanted attention during his sojourn on the Wasatch Front. Reports of intense altercations, domestic disputes, and assault catapulted him to cult status among locals, who spoke of the actor’s public behavior in the manner one would use to describe the antics of some mostly harmless boogeyman.

It would not be far-fetched to state that, late in life, Mr. Coleman’s work as an actor was overshadowed by his somewhat notorious public persona. Though it could be considered cruel, in light of his passing, to find a bizarre strain of entertainment in the tribulations of a 4’ 8” former television star, Coleman’s presence in Utah was so surreal that it seems impossible to do anything except be bizarrely entertained. At the risk of sounding callous, we might call Gary Coleman’s last years in Zion his greatest performance. For better or for worse, they provided an occasional modicum of diversion from the mundane, which is the basic raison d’etre of any thespian. They may not have been depicted onstage or filmed in front a live studio audience, but the strange adventures of Gary Coleman made the notoriously dull Utah Valley slightly more interesting, which is more than most can say about Marie Osmond or Wilford Brimley. Realistically, Gary Coleman is no Laurence Olivier, and his passing, though tragic to his family and friends, will not equal in professional gravity to the loss of a Paul Newman or a James Dean. However, we can say, unequivocally, that loss of an interesting person, no matter who they are and what they do, is a small, brief tragedy for people in general. And Coleman was most certainly interesting.

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