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Gary Coleman: Still Making Kids Laugh

May 29, 2010

My kids love Diff’rent Strokes. We have a few seasons on DVD, and they can always be trusted to generate plenty of laughs … and plenty of discussion.

The laughs come mostly from Gary Coleman, the kid actor for whom the show was created. His star burned bright in those days, then dimmed and flickered until finally going dark yesterday. When I showed the kids a newspaper article about his death, they said “He still looks the same.” And he kind of did. But the pocket-sized comedians’s skills from those days did not keep him well in his adult years; his last two decades have been a confusing blend of scandal, weirdness and odd, a classic example of what awaits child actors after puberty.

I mentioned discussion. This began when my oldest son first watched the show and realized that, like him, the Jackson boys were adopted. This is something my son has known for only two years, and he’s still exploring the idea. He really liked watching Arnold and Willis gradually begin calling Mr. Drummond “Dad,” and thought it was neat that his situation is a reversal of theirs — he’s a blue-eyed blonde kid adopted into a family of Afro-Indian mutts.

This is a reflection of how groundbreaking Diff’rent Strokes was for its time. Hiding behind Coleman’s apple cheeks and saucy asides were some serious messages, primarily about race relations. Key episodes in the first two seasons include Kimberley’s boyfriend breaking up with her because her brothers are black, or the one in which the boys are rejected from Mr. Drummond’s posh private school alma mater.

It’s 30 years on, and the show that made me think about those things when I was a kid is now challenging my own children to the same questions … and making them laugh, laugh, laugh.

Whatever other messes Coleman got into in later years, he gave us Diff’rent Strokes. And this family is thankful for that.

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