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Racial Harassment and Violence Shatter the Diff'rent Strokes World of Actor Todd Bridges

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The premise of NBC’s hit sitcom Diff’rent Strokes is that blacks and whites can live together as family. But outside the studio the show’s co-star Todd Bridges, 18, says that he is living in a world that is a good deal less benign. In recent months Bridges has been at the center of a series of bizarre incidents that include arrests, charges of harassment by both the Ku Klux Klan and the police, and mysterious shots fired in the night. In the most recent episode, less than a month ago, the charred remains of Bridges’ black 1981 Porsche were found in the parking lot of a church about 20 minutes’ drive from his home. The $30,000 car had been stolen, doused with gasoline and set afire. His license plate reads TODD B 1, so there was good reason to believe the thieves knew who the owner was.

A fire department arson investigator labeled the torching a spite case (two males were seen fleeing from the blaze on a motorcycle), but Bridges angrily charges it is all part of a pattern of intimidation directed at him since he moved into his three-bedroom house in L.A.’s conservative Canoga Park area three years ago. In September Bridges had temporarily moved out of his home after one bitter run-in with police. On Sept. 24 he, his brother, James, 23, and a white friend, Lee Harlin, 20, had just push-started the Porsche after Todd had run down the battery by leaving it outside his house with the lights on. As Bridges was steering it back into his driveway, a squad car from the West Valley division of the L.A. Police Department pulled up behind him. The next thing he knew, Bridges says, “I was arrested for stealing my own car.” Without asking for his registration or driver’s license, he claims, the officers handcuffed him and pushed him to the ground. When James tried to intervene, he too was handcuffed and tossed in the back of the patrol car. Todd says the police told Harlin to stay out of it when he protested, so he went in the house and telephoned Bridges’ mother, Betty. Only her arrival put a stop to the trouble.

There were, Bridges alleges, other “harassments” by local police and self-described Klansmen that started when he moved into the predominantly white, middle-class suburb. The first occurred in 1980 when a policeman ticketed him for driving his three-wheeled motorcycle on the sidewalk. Even though a white friend was also present and both of them had been riding only in a nearby field, Bridges asserts, he alone was ticketed. Since then, says Bridges, West Valley police have hit him with arbitrary traffic violations “seven or eight” times, and his license was once suspended for six months. Last June, he says, a gang of white youths wielding baseball bats showed up at his door demanding to see him. He didn’t answer the door. About a month later shots were fired at him on his lawn. Bridges insists he called police about the shooting, “but no one ever showed up. From then on I carried a gun.” The police say they have no record of the call.

Shortly thereafter police arrested the actor when they pulled him over for speeding in Beverly Hills and found his loaded .45-caliber pistol in the glove compartment. Bridges had a temporary, expired permit to own the gun and pleaded guilty in court to carrying a loaded gun in his car. A judge fined him $240 on Sept. 15 and put him on a year’s summary probation.

The police seem to regard Bridges as a troublemaker. “I don’t think anyone was aware he lived in this area until we started getting a lot of calls [about him] from people in the area,” says Lieut. Harvey Eubank, West Valley night-watch commander. The police, who patrol the western end of the sprawling San Fernando Valley, say they began getting complaints a year ago about Bridges causing disturbances in the neighborhood, and one officer recalls the actor coming down to the station “several times bitching and complaining” about tickets. The LAPD is remaining tight-lipped about a four-week internal investigation of the Bridges matter, which is now under review. LAPD spokesman Lieut. Dan Cooke says the police do have problems with Klansmen “from time to time, but not usually in that part of town.” Maintains Lieutenant Eubank: “I don’t know of anybody going out of their way to harass Bridges. If they are, we want to put a stop to it.”

For some, Bridges’ troubled history on Diff’rent Strokes casts doubt on his allegations against the police. His father, James, a theatrical agent in L.A., and his dramatics-teacher mother got Todd into acting at the age of 6. At 8, Todd appeared in an episode of Barney Miller, then had a leading role in the spinoff, Fish, and did guest appearances on Little House on the Prairie, Roots and The Waltons before joining Diff’rent Strokes as Willis. Last year he got into a slapping fight with pint-size co-star Gary Coleman, 15. The on-set scuffle was broken up by Conrad Bain, 60, who plays the boys’ adoptive father. Says one source: “The word all over the set is that Todd Bridges is bad news. I know Gary is scared of him.”

One colleague who defends Bridges is Bain. He points out that the cast has received a small but steady stream of hate mail since the interracial sitcom went on the air in 1978. “Todd is an adolescent, and we all know how that is. But he’s not a bad kid. I think he is terrific.”

The incidents certainly seem to have had an effect on Bridges, making him at the same time more mercurial and more reclusive. “The cops harassed me because I spoke up for myself,” the teenager says. “As far as I’m concerned they are racists who are rotten from the top down. These days I ride my motorcycle. With a full helmet on no one can see who I am…or what color I am.”