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So long, Rue McClanahan, horniest TV nymphomaniac ever, we will miss you.

Seems we lose one every year.

2008 claimed Estelle Getty, taking her down with Alzheimer’s. 2009 proved to be possibly Bea Arthur’s worst year ever – she died of cancer, aged 86. Now it’s 2010 and Rue McClanahan’s turn. I don’t know about you, but I can’t take much more of this. It’s almost an annual tradition now to wake up one day and find that another Golden Girl’s dropped off the twig. Given this startling trend, I’m beginning to worry about Betty White. In fact, if you have anything approaching a heart, then you are too, so get praying.

Eddi-Rue McClanahan had been around a while. She made her debut on Broadway in 1969 alongside Dustin Hoffman in the musical Jimmy Shine, which I’ve never heard of, then moved on to acting in TV soap operas, including NBC’s Another World (which I’ve never heard of either). On the show, she played Caroline, apparently, a nanny to young twins Michael and Marianne Randolph. In the storyline, she fell in love with the kids’ father and spent most of her free time poisoning their mother. It’s a soap. That’s what nannies do on soaps. Anyway, somehow the writers managed to spin this threadbare yarn out for a year, before Caroline was finally charged and tried for kidnapping the twins and Rue ran screaming from the show. Another World was later axed. Justifiably, by the sound of it.

Despite her best efforts, and aside from a sparkle of notoriety among the kind of dim people who find time to watch daytime soaps, Rue didn’t even make so much as a blip on our sonar until 1972. That’s when she bagged the role of Vivian Harmon in Norman Lear’s popular but surprisingly forgettable sitcom Maude, playing opposite Bea Arthur. Only later, after escaping Maude, did the two of them finally hit their stride, with a stroke of good fortune that every actor begs for. In 1985, they found themselves part of a classic show – The Golden Girls. And that, my friends, was when the world grew to adore Rue McClanahan.

But not really.

The person they really adored was Blanche Devereaux, the carefree, conniving, saucy temptress we all wish we could be, and the woman who single-handedly made nymphomania among Florida senior citizens fashionable again, becoming one of the greatest sitcom characters ever created. For her part in this process, Rue won an Emmy.

She starred in other things too – movies, plays, TV series – usually to mixed reviews. Luckily, nobody remembers those. Nor do we care. Because by the time she got to play Golden Girl #4, Rue was locked into TV history, and will be remembered forever more as the horniest old person ever to grace our screens.

But back to the death thing.

I happen to know Betty White. Every year she takes me and my partner as her guests to the L.A. Zoo for a function called The Beastly Ball. It’s a grand affair, an all-you-can-eat buffet that I always  get wasted at, usually while stuffing myself with more free food than a human body can reasonably hold. In that respect, I take this function very, very seriously.

Meanwhile, as I’m gorging like a prize hog, Betty is on her feet being the focus of all the attention. Somehow that’s always the case. The woman is a phenomenon. Everyone loves her. Except maybe Bea Arthur, who was a closet drunk and quite mean in real life, and apparently despised Betty for her popularity as well as her Emmys, maintaining her distance to the very end. Betty and Rue, on the other hand, got along well, probably because they had something in common – a passion for animals and animal rights.

What’s odd, given today’s horrible news, is how the death of the Golden Girls cast is like an ominous clock ticking down to something, but to what? Estelle Sher-Gettleman (Estelle Getty) went first, aged 84. As Dorothy’s mother (even though Getty was two years younger than Bea Arthur in real life), she was the least important character. Then Bea, the second least important, went in 09. And now it’s 2010, time to lose another. God’s picking them off one by one. Accordingly, Blanche Devereaux is no more.

This is why I urge you to get praying, people. Betty’s enjoying a fresh resurgence in popularity. She’s by far the most treasured, iconic comedy actress of our time – and I’m not just saying this because she takes me to the zoo every year – as well as being a wonderful human being. If God has her in his crosshairs and is even thinking of taking her in 2011, we need to start petitioning now. As things stand, she seems healthy and happy and just as vibrant as ever. So she’s in with a chance of beating this thing. But we mustn’t get cocky.

Rue, in contrast, was dogged by health problems in later life. First a run-in with breast cancer in the 70s, which she overcame, boldly marching on until 2009 when she had triple bypass surgery and suffered a small stroke, losing her power of speech. That was bad enough, but today she  had another, much bigger stroke. This one, tragically, was enough to see her off altogether. She died, aged 76, early this morning in a New York hospital.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but there are certain public figures who, after they’re gone, seem to take a small piece of me with them. We’ve invested so much time and energy in their art that they’ve become an important part of us. Rue McClanahan was like that. She created something wonderfully memorable with her life and her craft and made millions of people she didn’t know very happy. We should all be able to say that when we go.

TV Swami – he still grieving the loss of Gary Coleman, so this another big blow. What’s with everyone dying all of a sudden?

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So long, Gary Coleman, small person with kidney problems, we will miss you.

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.


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