I knew Gary Coleman. Briefly.
In 2003, the former child star of Diff’rent Strokes, who died today aged 42, of a fall, a knock on the head, and then an epidural hematoma (though not a stroke thankfully, which would have been the most horrible coincidence ever), was running as a gag candidate against Arnold Schwarzenegger for the governorship of California, and I was working for CNN as a reporter on my debut assignment.
The CNN editor told me to follow Coleman’s campaign with a camera as he doorstepped for votes. To be honest, I’d barely heard of the guy back then. Diff’rent Strokes was either never shown in Britain or, if it was, it was certainly never watched by more than about four people, because his stardom was a complete mystery. I must say, though, that this little guy surprised me. He was a celebrity marvel. That rare thing – a total has-been who, years later, still had the power to stop traffic. For the report, we put him out on Sunset Boulevard in a smart suit for a lark and there was chaos. Not the sitcom kind of chaos where hilarity ensues, but real mobbing-type fan chaos, the sort that causes car accidents and endangers lives.
The general public simply adored Gary Coleman. It’s just a fact. They’d followed his ups and downs, his bizarre erratic behavior, his arrests and public humiliations, his relentless bullying by the tabloid media, his sexless existence and strange moral values that seemed to preclude him from having any kind of fun, yet somehow they were able to see behind the facade, finding kinship in the string of hard knocks suffered by this tiny little boy-man who, despite a couple of kidney transplants that stunted his growth, and despite deciding to sue his own parents for misappropriating his TV fortune, had nevertheless faced the world with dignity and his head held high. Well, four feet high anyway, which is high enough.
Make no mistake, however, though physically diminutive, Coleman had the charisma and enthusiasm of a giant. I’m not kidding. It was a wonder to be in the presence of it.
In our sit-down interview, he was friendly and gushing. He had a keen brain and wonderful sense of humor. When he smiled, I honestly felt as if he liked me and wanted to be my friend. More than anything, though, he longed to be taken seriously, as an adult. Unfortunately, that couldn’t happen. His legacy as a child star and his stature as a tiny little person you wanted to treat as a collectible and stick in your top pocket simply stood in the way of that transition from famous kid to full-grown man, simply because, to the naked eye, he wasn’t one.
I remember emerging from the interview, after he’d left us, and telling people, “I’ve just met one of the most fantastic people EVER.” The crew loved him, the producer loved him, the people waiting outside the door loved him, the firemen who stopped their truck on Sunset Boulevard, blocking traffic for ten minutes, loved him. The whole thing was just an eye-opening experience.
But then I met him again about two months later, in Las Vegas. He was sitting in the lobby of a hotel playing with a Gameboy. So naturally, since we were such good TV friends, I walked straight up to him and introduced myself. Not that I needed to. I was the guy from CNN he’d had such a good time with – remember?
Well, he didn’t remember. Or if he did, he pretended not to. I was quite put out. He looked up, grunted something unintelligible, and, dismissing me with a menacing glare, went back to his Gameboy. Something at that point told me that this was the real Gary Coleman. In the limelight, fizzy, rambunctious, and fun. In private, a depressed, abused, miserable munchkin with major psychological issues. A man trapped in a kid’s body, yearning to break free, but unable to figure out an escape plan that worked. Until now.
Anyway, that all happened several years ago.
In the end, I never got beyond my debut CNN assignment. The debut assignment was also my swansong on the network. I was fired the next day. And Gary Coleman never got to be governor of California, although he did clock up an astonishing 14,000+ votes, coming in eighth, which is a fantastic achievement, and to my mind a grand testament to the star power of the one-time actor turned security guard who left us today.
TV Swami – he very sad to lose a friend. Albeit a television friend he only met twice.