By Elizabeth Sporkin
Updated March 25, 1991 12:00 PM

During the past two months, Dana Plato lost low-paying countergirl jobs at two Las Vegas dry cleaners and spent much of her time trying to win a nickel-slot jackpot at the Lakes Lounge, a neighborhood bar near the $550-a-month apartment she shared with her warehouse-worker boyfriend. Jason Spaven, and another roommate. On Feb. 28, the day before her rent was due. Plato, 26, applied for a $6-an-hour job picking up garbage and cleaning bathrooms at her building but was turned down. Desperate, she put on a black hat and black wraparound sunglasses and, at 10:25 A.M., according to a witness, walked into the local video store. Lake Video. “Give me your money,” she demanded, pulling a pellet gun out of her black coat. Clerk Heather Dailey handed over all $164 in the cash register. Then, as Plato fled, Dailey called 911. “I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes,” she said.

Though her hair was stringy and her eyes puffy, Plato was still recognizable as the perky widower’s daughter she played on the genial, highly rated sitcom. (A prime-time fixture from 1978 to 1986, Strokes depicted the tribulations of a wealthy white man—played by Conrad Bain—who adopts two black brothers—actors Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges—from Harlem.) Fifteen minutes after the robbery. Plato inexplicably returned to the scene wearing a blue sweat suit and was immediately arrested and charged with armed robbery. Police took her to the Clark County Detention Center, where she remained for five days until she posted $13,000 bail. The money presumably came from selling her story to the tabloid the Star.

Plato’s alleged crime (her lawyer says she will plead innocent), which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, made instant headlines, prompting some speculation that the robbery was a publicity stunt intended to resurrect her acting career. At the very least, it drew attention as the latest of many strikes against Strokes’ beleaguered cast members. Bridges, 25, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter in August 1990 and has a police record that goes back to 1983. Gary Coleman, 23, the diminutive (4’8″) actor who was an ’80s TV phenomenon, has been surviving by using a portable self-dialysis machine since his second kidney transplant failed five years ago; he is suing his parents over the handling of his $18 million fortune.

The CURSE OF DIFFRENT STROKES, as the tabs hastened to call it, was quickly noted by comedians such as Jay Leno, who quipped in a Tonight Show monologue that the Strokes cast would do a reunion show “on America’s Most Wanted.” But it was no joke to those involved—or to other children who grew up in front of the camera and believe that early fame exacted a price. “Fame is a drug,” says Paul Petersen, who played son Jeff on The Donna Reed Show in the ’50s and ’60s before using drugs for about 10 years. Last year, Petersen founded A Minor Consideration, a group of grown child actors who counsel the current crop on coping with the limelight. “When you’re a teenager and told your career is over,” he says, “that’s devastating.”

It certainly was for Plato, who started acting in TV commercials at age 6 and won her Strokes role at 12, eventually earning several thousand dollars per episode. Her slide began six years later when a pregnancy forced her to leave the show. She married the baby’s father, Lanny Lambert, in 1984 but separated from him in 1985. Four years later, unable to make ends meet, Plato voluntarily turned over her son, Tyler, now 6, to Lambert. Meanwhile, Plato’s estranged adoptive father, Dean, unsuccessfully sued her for support in 1984, and her mother, Florine, with whom she was close, died of a blood disease in 1988.

Constantly trying to revive her career, Plato even posed nude for Playboy in June 1989. Nothing worked. By last year, Plato was earning $5.75 an hour at Al Phillips drive-thru cleaners in Las Vegas. Says Jenny Gini, a friend and coworker there: “People would bring their clothes here just to meet her.” But Plato left over a personality conflict with another employee and briefly worked at a different cleaning establishment before losing that job too. “She kind of suggested that the alleged robbery was kind of a cry for help,” says Gini, who called her friend after Plato’s release from jail. “I wasn’t thinking,” Plato said when Gini asked why she did it. “I guess I’m just really whacked.”

If Plato surprised herself, she didn’t shock others who have been down the same road. “I know the signs of impending disaster, and she had them all,” says Lauren Chapin, who played Kitten on Father Knows Best and later became a heroin addict (see story, pages 38-39). Chapin appeared with Plato on a May 1989 Sally Jesse Raphaël show about child stars. “She seemed cranked up and babbling a mile a minute,” says Chapin. “I understand what she’s going through.”

Plato’s former costar, Todd Bridges, also professes to understand. “I thought that maybe she was searching for something,” says Bridges, who last year was arrested and released for cocaine possession and, after a retrial, was acquitted of shooting an accused drug dealer in a crack house. The son of a theatrical-agent father and a dramatics-teacher mother who divorced in 1982, Bridges won the part of Willis at age 13. “You make a lot of money, you’re taken care of, life is a breeze,” he says. “But what happens is that reality catches up and smacks you in the face.” Bridges has been in trouble before—for carrying a concealed weapon and making a bomb threat. He blames his fall on drugs. “I know how terrible life was when I was using drugs,” says Bridges, who began snorting cocaine in 1982 and freebasing in 1987. He says he is now clean.

Currently being sued for divorce by his wife of three years, Rebecca, Bridges lives outside L.A. and is trying to jump-start his career. He appeared, ironically enough, as a deputy sheriff in a recent episode of The New Lassie. “I don’t think there’s a Diff ‘rent Strokes curse,” says Bridges, who blames the cast’s fates on “the three of us trying to find ourselves after growing up in a protected world.”

None of the three was more carefully protected than Gary Coleman, Strokes’ precocious star, who was born with an atrophied right kidney and lost the use of his other kidney at age 5. Coleman’s condition and medication halted his growth, and though he aged from 10 to 18 on the show, his character remained an oddity, and he led a life that was carefully monitored by his adoptive parents, W.G., a chemical lab inspector, and Sue, a nurse.

Coleman entered show business at age 7 and soon after was spotted in a bank commercial by a scout for TV producer Norman Lear. Diff rent Strokes was created specifically for the pint-size novelty. At his peak, Coleman commanded $70,000 per episode. Yet when the show ended, adult roles that suited his stature were hard to come by—though he did appear as a midget on a 227 episode a year ago. In 1987, he took a Hawaiian vacation with Dion Mial, an aspiring singer whom he’d met in 1978 and who became his assistant, roommate and, some say, Svengali. When they came back. Coleman fired his parents as managers and hired Mial and his mother, Terry. Coleman’s relationship with his parents rapidly deteriorated. In 1989 he filed suit against them and his former business manager, Anita DeThomas, alleging that they stole more than $1 million from him. The three countersued; all the suits are still pending. Gary hasn’t spoken to his parents since last year, when the family had lunch in Beverly Hills.

In recent months, Coleman, who, his agent. Tom Korman, claims, is sometimes lax with his dialysis treatments, reportedly has been hospitalized at least twice and was released from an L.A. hospital eight weeks ago. Acquaintances say that he has been spending his time in Tucson, Denver and Los Angeles and putting in hours each day on his hobby, collecting model trains. “He just wanders around like everyone else,” says a salesman at Allied Model Trains in Culver City, Calif., where Coleman makes frequent pilgrimages.

Tabloid citings since last fall include reports that Coleman legally changed his name to Andy Shane and asked a former female housemate if he could suck her toes. His parents don’t know if any of that is true, but W.G. says. “All indications lead me to believe that Gary’s totally out of sync with the world.”

“It’s all our fault.” says Paul Petersen of the problems that have beset the young Strokes cast and others. “These children are not math prodigies or musical geniuses. It’s so random who gets chosen to be child stars.” Alas, it’s far too predictable who gets lost. “When you get off a high like celebrity,” Petersen says, “life doesn’t taste so good anymore.”

Elizabeth Sporkin, Tom Cunneff in Las Vegas, Todd Gold, Lois Armstrong, Doris Bacon in Los Angeles, Vickie Bane in Denver and Lynn Emmerman in Chicago