Gary Coleman: child star appeared at pivotal time

'Diff'rent Strokes' star Gary Coleman, who died Friday, became a household name at a transitional period for black child actors.

Chris Pizzello/Reuters/File
Actor Gary Coleman is seen arriving at the 6th Annual TV Land Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2008. The 'Diff'rent Strokes' star, who died in a Utah hospital on May 27 after reportedly injuring his head, was America's first black child actor to star on TV.

Gary Coleman, who died after a brain injury Friday afternoon, was the first African-American child actor to become a household name in the United States.

Playing Arnold Jackson, a young black kid adopted by a white widower in the comedy TV hit “Diff’rent Strokes,” Coleman captured the nation’s imagination. His sassy catch phrase – "Whatcha' talkin' 'bout, Willis?" – is still heard today.

The comedy show and Coleman's cuddly persona burst on the American scene at a pivotal time for African-Americans in the entertainment industry. Adult black actors, notably Bill Cosby as a savvy secret-agent in “I Spy,” had already broken through as leading men on television. That show debuted in 1965.

But no black child actor achieved similar TV acclaim until 1978 when “Diff’rent Strokes” began to air. Coleman was 10.

The role that Coleman played fit into more traditional roles for black actors until that point – a comedic character in a white world.

“I think one could make the argument that … of all the ways you could have done the story of an African American young boy on TV, it was not the most sophisticated positive way it could have been done,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Then again, Coleman’s options were limited, he adds, there were few opportunities for black actors in the 1970s.

But during the show's eight-year run, those opportunities did begin to open up. In 1984, Mr. Cosby reappeared on the small screen with “The Cosby Show,” which started its eight-year run portraying a professional couple with children who became stars in their own right.

Two of its child actors, Lisa Bonet and Raven Simone, went on to star in their own hits: “A Different World” and “That’s So Raven,” respectively.

In 1989, "Family Matters," starring Jaleel White as the uber-nerdy Steve Urkel, began its nine-year run. "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," which debuted in 1990, launched Will Smith¹s acting career. "Moesha," which featured R&B star Brandy Norwood as an LA teen, began in 1996.

The advent of cable has helped opened the industry for black child actors further. There are still significantly more roles, however, available for white actors. The Screen Actors¹ Guild 2008 casting data report showed that about 73 percent of roles when to white actors, while only 13 percent went to black actors.

Mr. Coleman had suffered from health problems since childhood. Like other child actors who gain fame and fortune at a young age, he had also experienced his share of financial challenges. In 1989, three years after “Diff’rent Strokes” went off the air, he sued his parents for misappropriation of his trust fund. In 1999 he filed for bankruptcy.

Coleman did make cameo appearances and had a few movie roles, including "Church Ball," a low-budget film set in Utah where Coleman met his future wife. But none achieved the acclaim of “Diff’rent Strokes."

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