Gary Coleman, who by age 11 had skyrocketed to become TV’s brightest star but as an adult could never quite land on solid footing, has died after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He was 42.
Coleman died at 12:05 p.m. at the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, Utah, where he had been in a coma.
“He was removed from life support; soon thereafter, he passed quickly and peacefully,” his manager John Alcantar says. “By Gary s bedside were his wife and other close family members.”
The actor suffered an intracranial hemorrhage at his Utah home on Wednesday night. On Thursday, he was “conscious and lucid,” the hospital says in a statement, “but by early afternoon that same day, Mr. Coleman was slipping in and out of consciousness and his condition worsened.”
Despite congenital health problems which led to his never growing taller than 4’8,” Coleman experienced a towering achievement at the start of his career.
As Arnold Jackson, the plucky Harlem boy adopted into a wealthy white household on Diff’rent Strokes from 1978-86 – with his much-mimicked catchphrase of, “What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” – Coleman was pulling down as much as $100,000 per episode, though it was later reported that three-quarters of the money ended up being shelled out to his parents, advisers, lawyers and the IRS.
At the pinnacle of his fame in 1979 PEOPLE reported that Coleman had grown up in Zion, Ill., north of Chicago, with nephritis, a potentially fatal kidney defect.
He underwent two transplants before the age of 14. At one stage in his life, he underwent dialysis four times a day in order to survive.
“The reason I survived is that I had a kidney that wouldn’t give up,” he once said. “Now I got a Greek kidney donated from a kid who was hit by a car.”
“His talent,” said his mother, Sue, “may be God’s way of compensating him for what he’s been through, and the fact that he’ll never have the physical size of other boys.”
Coleman’s father, Willie, worked for a pharmaceutical company near Chicago, where Gary started modeling at age 5 after he wrote a brazen pitch letter to Montgomery Ward. (He could read at 3½.)
That led to commercials for McDonald’s and Hallmark cards before producer Norman Lear cast him in a pilot remake of The Little Rascals, which didn’t get picked up, en route to Diff’rent Strokes.
As has been chronicled, the three children on the series grew up into troubled lives. Dana Plato, 34, died of a drug overdose in 1999. (Plato’s son, Tyler Lambert, never came to terms with his mother’s death, and committed suicide on May 6, 2010. He was 25.)
The show’s Willis, actor Todd Bridges, now 45, was first arrested in 1994 after allegedly ramming someone’s car during an argument, He also has owned up to serious drug habit, which he struggled to beat.
By 1999, Coleman also faced troubles of his own. Long gone from Diff’rent Strokes, he had gone broke. His string of misadventures and humiliations included a bitter lawsuit that fractured his family, reports of erratic behavior (his father claimed Gary tried to run him over with a car during an argument in 1986) and a stint in 1998 as a security guard on a movie set.
All told, Coleman had amassed and lost an estimated $18 million fortune. Although he argued that his parents had a huge role in dissipating his wealth, he makes no apologies for having spent like a star. “I have lifestyle requirements,” he said at the time. “Photos, meetings, lunches, dinners, facial care, tooth care. It requires an exorbitant amount of money.”
Also in 1999, Coleman pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace after he punched a female autograph-seeker in California, for which he claimed self-defense. The previous year, he was again in the headlines, after allegedly hitting a pedestrian with his truck after arguing with him in a Salt Lake City bowling alley. In 2007, there was an incident involving a public argument with a female companion.
Married at 40
At times, there appeared to be turnarounds in his fortunes. In February 2008 – at the age of 40 – Coleman married for the first time. He’d met his bride, Shannon Price, on a movie set the previous August. She was 22.
Coleman admitted that Price was the first woman in his life. “I never got the opportunity to be romantic or feel romantic with anyone,” he said. “I wasn’t saving myself, she just happened to be the one.
Their relationship, they both admitted, was often rocky. “We may go a week and not speak to each other,” he said, while she claimed, “He lets his anger conquer him sometimes He throws things around, and sometimes he throws it in my direction.” Still, they remained together, and Price survives him.
In recent months, Coleman suffered a series of medical problems. He had been admitted to hospitals three times this year: in January, for reasons that were not disclosed; in February, when he suffered a seizure on the set of TV’s The Insider; and again on May 26.
“Thanks to everyone for their well wishing and support during this tragic time,” his manager says. “Now that Gary has passed, we know he will be missed because of all the love and support shown in the past couple of days. Gary is now at peace and his memory will be kept in the hearts of those who were entertained by him throughout the years.
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