Tragic Details About The Cast Of Diff'rent Strokes

Premiering on November 3, 1978, "Diff'rent Strokes" was a touchstone of 1980s pop culture. The brainchild of Norman Lear, the mind behind such legendary situation comedies as "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons," and "Good Times," the show was a classic, fish-out-of-water tale with a modern twist. Featuring Conrad Bain, then best known for his role as Dr. Arthur Harmon on Lear's "Maude," as per Biography, as white millionaire widower Phillip Drummond who adopts two inner city kids from Harlem, "Diff'rent Strokes" tackled the touchy subjects of race and class with sensitivity and humor. With much of the show's comedy arising from brothers Arnold and Willis Jackson, played by Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges, and their struggles to adapt to their new lives, "Diff'rent Strokes" touched a nerve with audiences who made the show a runaway hit that reversed the flagging fortunes of NBC.

Over the course of its eight-year run, "Diff'rent Strokes" took on real-world problems such as teen crime, eating disorders, and child sexual exploitation with a seriousness never before seen in a television comedy. Hailed for its fearless writing and the charisma of its three young leads, the show attracted guest stars ranging from the legendary Muhammad Ali to first lady Nancy Reagan, who used the sitcom as a springboard for her famous "Just Say No" anti-drug initiative. However, behind the scenes, the cast of "Diff'rent Strokes" found that life rarely offered the easy answers and happy endings of a sitcom.

Gary Coleman

Although veteran actor Conrad Bain had top billing, the undisputed star of "Diff'rent Strokes" was Gary Coleman. As detailed in a 2009 Biography documentary, Coleman was a wisecracking, cherubic 8-year-old when he was spotted by writer/producer Norman Lear in a Chicago-area TV commercial in 1976. Before being cast as Arnold Jackson in "Diff'rent Strokes," Coleman made memorable appearances on Lear's hit comedies "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times."

Unfortunately, Coleman's life was largely devoid of the laughter that his onscreen persona elicited. Born February 8, 1968, in Zion, Illinois, Coleman was adopted as an infant. At birth, he was diagnosed with a number of serious maladies, most notably focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a congenital autoimmune condition that damages the kidneys. According to the 1981 book, "Gary Coleman, Medical Miracle," by Bill Davidson, by the time he was 5, Coleman lost his right kidney to the disease. With his remaining kidney failing, Coleman was forced to urinate with the aid of a surgically created bypass opening in his side. 

The drugs used to treat Coleman stunted his growth. He would reach a height of only 4 feet 8 inches. He underwent two kidney transplants in his lifetime and underwent regular dialysis to clean his blood of toxins for the remainder of his life, as per Today.

Gary Coleman

As one of the most in-demand child stars of the 1980s, Gary Coleman's salary was more than double that of his "Diff'rent Strokes" co-stars. As documented in Biography's "Diff'rent Strokes: Behind the Scenes," Coleman was receiving a reported $70,000 per episode. Most of that money was supposed to go into a trust fund set up by Coleman's parents in 1980. When Coleman gained access to his earnings at 18, he discovered a sum of $220,000 in the trust. Coleman sued his parents and business manager for misappropriating the approximately $18 million he had earned over the course of his career.

Although the court awarded Coleman a $1.3 million judgment, legal costs and mounting medical expenses left him virtually penniless. Estranged from his adoptive parents, and embittered by his early fame, Coleman's life went into a downward spiral in the last two decades of his life. Eventually, he was forced to file bankruptcy. Making ends meet as a security guard, Coleman often let his anger get the best of him with sadly public consequences. A 1998 confrontation with an autograph seeker led to his arrest. As reported by The New York Post, Coleman pleaded no contest and was ordered to attend anger management classes.

On May 26, Coleman struck his head in a fall in his Santaquin, Utah, home. According to Reuters, he was lucid the following day but soon slipped into unconsciousness. Gary Coleman died of a brain hemorrhage on May 28, 2010. He was 42.

Dana Plato

Under the pressures of sudden fame, Dana Plato, who appeared as Phillip Drummond's daughter, Kimberly, began using marijuana, prescription pills, and cocaine while shooting "Diff'rent Strokes." According to a 1999 feature in People, at 15, she was showing up on the set drunk. At 18, Plato became pregnant and was written off the show. Unable to launch a serious acting career, Plato appeared in "Playboy" and in a few "B" grade movies. Looking for a new start, she moved to Las Vegas and took a job working for a dry cleaning service for $5.75 an hour, as per Biography.

Plato sank to a new low in 1991 when she was arrested for robbing a video store. Sympathetic to the former child star's plight and disgusted by her treatment by the press, singer Wayne Newton posted her $13,000 bail in hopes of giving Plato a much-needed second chance. Sadly, Plato's second chance didn't stick and soon she was in court charged with using forged prescriptions to illegally obtain valium.

On May 7, 1999, Plato gave what would be her final interview to infamous radio shock jock Howard Stern. Declaring herself drug-free, Plato was cruelly lambasted by Stern's listeners. The following day, Plato and her fiancé, Robert Menchaca, traveled in their motorhome to Moore, Oklahoma, to visit Menchaca's family. During the visit, Plato claimed she was ill and decided to take a nap. Plato, 34, died in her sleep of an overdose of Lortab and Valium. Medical investigators ruled the death a suicide, as per AP.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Todd Bridges

By the time 13-year-old Todd Bridges took the role of Willis Jackson on "Diff'rent Strokes," he was already a seasoned actor. Having appeared on such shows as "Little House on the Prairie," "The Waltons," and the critically acclaimed mini-series "Roots," Bridges was arguably the most experienced of the show's trio of young stars.

As documented in his memoir, "Killing Willis: From Diff'rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted," Bridges' life offscreen was far from ideal. His father was an alcoholic who took out his frustrations on his family. Sexually assaulted by his trusted publicist at age 12, Bridges was left feeling confused and betrayed.

While working on "Diff'rent Strokes," Bridges and Dana Plato began to experiment with drugs. "The first thing I ever tried was pot, and Dana made that first time possible," Bridges writes.

Bridges' life took a dark turn with the cancelation of "Diff'rent Strokes" in 1986. Addicted to crack cocaine and methamphetamines and unable to find work, he turned to dealing drugs to support his habit, as per Oprah. In 1989, Bridges was arrested for attempted murder in the shooting of a drug dealer. Although he was eventually acquitted, Bridges spent nine months in jail. More arrests for assault, drugs, and weapons charges followed in the ensuing years. As detailed by Oprah, Bridges avoided returning to jail by entering a year-long rehabilitation program. Clean and sober for over two decades, Bridges is the last living member of the show's core cast, notes USA Today.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Conrad Bain

Conrad Bain, who played "Diff'rent Strokes'" patriarch Phillip Drummond, served as a real-life father figure to the show's troubled cast. Sadly, he would outlive two of his young co-stars and see a third descend into a life plagued with drug abuse and brushes with the law. Bain especially made a positive impression on Todd Bridges. "Conrad was the sweetest man in the world. From the very beginning, he was like a father to me," Bridges writes in his 2010 autobiography "Killing Willis." "He was always very caring and supportive. ... It was such a relief to be around a kind, generous man who wanted nothing from me and who did nothing but love and nurture me."

To his credit, Bain often refused to comment on his co-stars' troubles. Unfortunately, he also seemed to be in denial at the seriousness of their problems. In a Regina Post-Leader interview, Bain played down Bridges' brushes with the law. "I cared about him deeply when he got into difficulty," Bain said. "... the press blew it out of all proportion. People said Todd had trouble with drugs, he never had trouble with drugs."

Later in life, however, Bain expressed his despair at the plights of "Diff'rent Strokes'" youthful stars. "It's painful," Bain revealed. "It is really painful. It leaves you with such a helpless feeling. I can't bear the thought. I love them all."

In 2013, Bain died from complications of a stroke. He was 89.

Charlotte Rae

Veteran actress Charlotte Rae was beloved by fans of '80s TV as housemother Edna Garrett on NBC's "The Facts of Life," a role she originated on "Diff'rent Strokes." As detailed by Turner Classic Movies, Rae was born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky on April 22, 1926, in Milwaukee. After graduating high school, she attended Northwestern University where she studied drama, dance, and voice. Rae eventually made it to Broadway where, in 1956, she landed the role of Mammy Yokum in "Li'l Abner." In 1961, she became a regular on the NBC comedy "Car 54, Where Are You?" alongside future "Munsters" stars Al Lewis and Fred Gwynne.

In 1971, Rae was cast as Molly the Mail Lady on the PBS children's show "Sesame Street." "Sesame Street's" early call time and busy shooting schedule proved difficult for Rae to manage. "Alcohol became my drug of choice so I could get sleep at night," Rae told Fox News. "It was difficult. . . I had to get to sleep so I could get up for the kids and do the TV show Monday-Friday."

After giving birth to her son, she decided it was time to get clean. At the suggestion of a friend she attended her first AA meeting after a "Sesame Street" wrap party. "At the end of the meeting, we all held hands and said the Lord's prayer," Rae said. "That was the beginning of my sobriety."

Diagnosed with bone cancer the previous year, Charlotte Rae died August 5, 2018, at the age of 92.

Shavar Ross

Shavar Ross was a familiar face on TV throughout the 1980s and '90s. Appearing on shows ranging from "The Love Boat" to "Magnum P.I.," Ross was a ubiquitous presence as a supporting actor and guest star. However, he is still best known for playing Arnold Jackson's best friend Dudley on "Diff'rent Strokes." Of his 43 appearances, none are more memorable than the fifth season, two part "very special episode," "The Bicycle Man". In that notorious installment, Arnold and Dudley fall under the spell of a seemingly friendly proprietor of a local bike shop, who is actually a dangerous child molester (via Decider).

Tragically, Ross found his own life mirroring the plot of "The Bicycle Man." "... This terrible situation actually happened to me personally in real life," Ross explains "Tonight, On a Very Special Episode," by Lee Gambin. "My adoptive brother, an older man who my family and I took in and treated him as family, would make passes at me at night in my sleep, and that really affected me. ... I spoke up and told my parents. The show helped me realize that I should never be afraid to speak out..."

Ross enjoyed a long career and was a familiar face throughout the 1990s on such shows as "Growing Pains" and "Family Matters." As reported by Jet, Ross briefly pursued a career as a medical technician following his father's death from a heart attack at age 38. He has since worked as a director, pastor, and entrepreneur.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Le Tari

Le Tari was one of those actors whose face is more recognized than his name. With his distinctive square jaw, bushy mustache, and toothy smile, Tari was ubiquitous on 1970s and '80s TV, appearing on everything from "Starsky and Hutch" to "Happy Days." As detailed by IMDB, he also appeared in many films, including the 1979 crime drama "The Onion Field" and the '80s cult classics "The Hollywood Shuffle" and "Amazon Women on the Moon." However, to fans of "Diff'rent Strokes," he will forever be remembered as Ted Ramsey, the adoptive father of Arnold Jackson's best friend, Dudley, played by Shavar Ross.

Tari made his first appearance as Ted Ramsey in the third season episode "Football Father" but would really shine in 1981's "Room For One More" and 1983's "The Bicycle Man," which showed the actor at his affable, empathetic best.

Sadly, Tari died young of a heart attack in Los Angeles County on April 4, 1986, less than three weeks before his 41st birthday. He's buried at L.A.'s world-famous Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

Danny Cooksey

Danny Cooksey joined the cast of "Diff'rent Strokes" in the show's sixth season. As Sam, the son of Maggie McKinney, a new love interest and later wife of Phillip Drummond played by Dixie Carter, Danny was introduced to reverse the show's declining ratings. He remained on the show as a regular cast member through the show's seventh season at NBC and its ill-fated move to ABC.

Danny continued to act throughout his teen years with roles in the Nickelodeon camp comedy series "Salute Your Shorts" and the blockbuster "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" but transitioned largely to music and voice-overs in the 1990s.

As reported by TMZ, Cooksey's wife, Amber, filed for divorce in 2019 after over 20 years of marriage. Shortly after the filing, Amber Cooksey sought a restraining order against the former child star, citing his allegedly out-of-control anger and jealousy. Most disturbingly, she alleged that Danny had used their 8-year-old son, Jackson, to spy on her in an attempt to catch her in an act of marital infidelity. Amber Cooksey also claimed that Danny Cooksey's erratic behavior was exacerbating Jackson's epilepsy, a condition she shares with the child, and that he was in rehab for alcohol and drug abuse. Consequently, Danny was ordered to stay 100 yards from his wife and son.

Dixie Carter

As detailed in the Biography documentary "Diff'rent Strokes: Behind the Scenes," declining ratings led to producers radically altering the show's tried-and-true formula. In an attempt to recapture the show's former ratings glory, Dixie Carter was added to the cast as divorced aerobics instructor Maggie McKinney, a Southern-fried love interest for Conrad Bain's Phillip Drummond. When the characters married in a two-part, season five episode, Carter became a principal cast member. She remained with the show until its cancellation at NBC. Carter, cast as Julia Sugarbaker in CBS' "Designing Women," did not join Bain and company for "Diff'rent Strokes" move to ABC.

"Designing Women" ran for seven seasons and made Carter a household name. When it ended, Carter went on to enjoy a successful career with roles on such shows as "Family Law" and "Desperate Housewives."

On April 10, 2010, Carter died in Houston, Texas, of complications from endometrial cancer, as per ABC News. She was 70.   

Janet Jackson

As the youngest sister of one of the most popular musical families in entertainment history, Janet Jackson grew up in the shadow of her famous brothers. Although she would establish herself as an unparalleled musical force with her chart-topping third album "Control" in 1986 (via Billboard), she was initially more well-known for her acting than her voice. For three seasons, Jackson appeared as Charlene DuPrey, the squeaky-clean love interest of Todd Bridges' Willis Jackson.

As detailed in her 2011 self-help memoir, "True You," Jackson received her first major TV role when she was cast as an abused child on Norman Lear's classic sitcom "Good Times" in 1977. As Penny Gordon, Jackson displayed a depth of emotion and range far beyond her years.

Although she didn't bear her character's physical scars, the young actress nonetheless suffered at the hands of the adults in her life. "I really didn't want to do the show," Jackson writes. " I didn't want to be away from my family. And being on television only added to my negative feelings about my body."

Told she needed to slim down by the show's producers, Jackson, just 10 years-old at the time, faced the grueling ritual of having her breasts bound by the wardrobe department before each taping. Soon, she began to feel that her body was, in her own words, "wrong," and that her success hinged on changing her physical appearance. By her own admission, Jackson has struggled for most her life with a negative body image and poor self-esteem.

Mary Ann Mobley

Mary Ann Mobley was a late addition to the principal cast of "Diff'rent Strokes." Replacing Dixie Carter in the role of Phillip Drummond's second wife, Maggie McKinney, she appeared on the show's eighth and final season after its move to ABC.

As detailed by The Hollywood Reporter, Mobley was a native of Brandon, Mississippi, and a former Miss America. Signed to a five-year contract with MGM in the early 1960s, Mobley became a successful actress.

Early in her career, Mobley received potentially devastating news. "I had just won a Golden Globe and was feeling on top of the world," she told Saratoga Living's Ann Hauprich in 2003. "I had just finished a month on a movie called 'Three on a Couch' ... when I came back to Los Angeles from location, I was not feeling well." Mobley, dehydrated and anemic, was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease and advised to retire from acting. Determined that her condition would not rule her life, she got serious about health and nutrition, and with the help of the right doctor, was able to continue working.

In 2009, Mary Ann Mobley was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. The disease claimed her life in 2014. Mobley was 77 at the time of her death.