Throughout his brief, deeply troubled life, Gary Coleman felt chronically betrayed: by the Hollywood community he felt had turned its back on him; by the parents he once believed mishandled his fortune; by his own failing body, which chained him to dialysis for decades. But the one part of his life where Coleman always felt safe-joyful even-was in his passion for model trains. “That was his big escape,” says Fred Hill of Allied Model Trains in Culver City, Calif., where the 4’8″ Coleman was a fixture, even working there between acting jobs. “The customers loved him, and he loved the attention,” recalls Hill. Still, “if fans said, ‘Why aren’t you on TV anymore?’ that would really bother him. But Gary was able to bask in the glory of his faded fame and accept what was.”
Sadly, Coleman’s unlikely rise to stardom and subsequent downward slide tell a different story. Given up for adoption at 1 day old, then a prime-time star on the hit NBC sitcom Diff’rent Strokes by age 10, he struggled to find his footing in a world where he’d gone from being a beloved ’80s icon to a longtime late-night punch line until his death at age 42 on May 28 in Provo, Utah. “I’d been dreading [losing him] for years,” says Shavar Ross, who played Coleman’s best friend Dudley on Diff’rent Strokes, one of many ex-costars whom Coleman cut off in the early ’90s as he sought to distance himself from his child stardom. “With some former child stars, there’s a real psychological hurdle trying to stay relevant. And that happened to Gary. And he had those other things to deal with: his height, his health, being adopted. It caused a lot of frustration for him.”
After years of conflict that dogged much of his adult life, questions followed Coleman’s death. After suffering a brain hemorrhage at his Santaquin, Utah, home on May 26, he fell into a coma and was removed from life support at the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo with his wife of three years, Shannon Price, 24, by his side. A hospital spokeswoman said only that an “accident” had occurred at the home but declined to give specifics, citing Price’s desire for privacy. (An investigation of the official cause of death is pending.) Santaquin Police Chief Dennis Howard says, “There is absolutely nothing suspicious” about Coleman’s death.
But the actor’s parents, Sue and W.G. “Willie” Coleman-with whom he stopped communicating entirely around 1995-are asking for answers about his final days. “We’re not pointing fingers, but we need to know exactly what happened,” says Sue, 67, a nurse who lives with her husband, Willie, 71, a retired forklift driver, in Zion, Ill. The couple say they tried to reach out to the Price family when they learned of their son’s condition but didn’t hear back and weren’t notified of the decision to take him off life support. (Price declined to speak to PEOPLE.) “We’re not angry. We’re just concerned,” says Sue. “Did our son fall down the stairs? In the bathtub? We need to have some closure.”
This much is certain: Coleman and Price (see box on page 71), who met on the set of the 2006 indie comedy Church Ball, had a “stormy” marriage, says Randy Kester, Coleman’s Utah-based attorney. “They both had pretty explosive personalities,” says Kester. “There were incidences of domestic violence on both sides. They had plenty of verbal fights, which did escalate to physical confrontations.” Coleman’s manager John Alcantar says he never witnessed any physical violence: “He loved her very much, and she cared for him. At the end, she was by his side and his last words to her were that he loved her.” They had a nearly 18-year age difference, but “he had a childlike quality,” says Alcantar, “which is funny, because he seemed like an old soul as a kid.”
A bright and precocious child, “people were just drawn to him,” says Sue. But his health was a constant struggle: He was diagnosed as a toddler with an atrophied kidney, and the other failed by age 5, when he had the first of two ultimately unsuccessful transplants. Although his growth was stunted by immunosuppressants, his personality blossomed, and in the mid-’70s he was discovered by producer Norman Lear. He charmed audiences as plucky motormouth Arnold Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes (see box, left); behind the scenes his health was a constant source of stress. “He had to be on dialysis daily,” recalls costar Mary Jo Catlett, who played housekeeper Pearl. “But he never complained.”
But after Diff’rent Strokes ended in 1986, Coleman “found himself out in the cold,” says his former agent Victor Perillo. “A lot of bitterness in his life came from that.” Around that period Coleman began “listening to the wrong people,” says Perillo. In 1989 Coleman sued his then business manager and parents, claiming they had misappropriated his money, and his parents later countersued. In 1993 a court awarded Coleman a nearly $1.3 million judgment-quickly devoured, he said, by lawyers’ fees and poor investments. His parents have always denied any wrongdoing: “We were the last people who would hurt Gary in any way,” says Sue Coleman, adding that she and her husband were dragged into the legal mess.
With no family ties, Coleman spent the next decade and a half adrift in Hollywood, making occasional headlines for bad behavior (“Former Diff’rent Strokes Star Arrested for Allegedly Punching Fan”) and taking various jobs-he famously worked as a mall security guard in 1998 . A February appearance on The Insider went viral when Coleman-who felt he was being badgered during an interview about domestic abuse-stormed off the set. Dr. Drew Pinsky, who spoke to him about the incident, says the actor’s physical issues were behind his outbursts. “Metabolically, he was off and couldn’t contain himself,” says Pinsky. “Not because there was a psychiatric problem, but because he was so ill.”
In the end Coleman remained at odds with the path his life had taken. “I have four strikes against me,” he told PEOPLE in 1999. “I’m black, I’m short, I’m intelligent, and I have a medical condition.” Now the friends and family he left behind are mourning what might have been. “We always left a place setting at our dinner table for Gary for the last 25 years,” says his father, Willie. Looking back on his last visit home in 1995, Sue says, “We said, ‘We love you,’ and he said, ‘I love you too.’ And that was it. He was gone.”