Dana Plato, the lovable star of Diff'rent Strokes, became a Hollywood casualty at age 34

By Tom Gliatto
May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

During the last two months of a brief, troubled life marred by drugs and bizarre scandal, Dana Plato I seemed to have found respite by the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Traveling down to West Palm Beach in her mobile home in early February, the former TV actress and her new boyfriend, Robert Menchaca, 28, stopped off for the night at Magnolia Beach Campground in Navarre, Fla., 25 miles east of Pensacola. Plato liked the tranquil trailer park so much that the next morning she decided to live there for a spell. Only gradually did campers recognize her as the girl who’d played Kimberly Drummond on Diff’rent Strokes from 1978 to 1984. “She didn’t walk around telling anyone she was a celebrity,” says Charles Inman, 36, a framing contractor and full-time resident at the camp. He and Plato, 34, became friends, and one day she shared a cherished memento of child stardom—a black choker she’d worn as Kimberly on the NBC sitcom. “She showed it to me and put it on,” says Inman.

The couple stayed until May 1, then headed off. Plato told Inman she was planning to jump-start a career that essentially ended after she became pregnant at 18 and left Strokes. First up was a scheduled appearance on shock jock Howard Stern’s national radio show broadcast from New York City. Then she was going to host an adult-entertainment expo in Chicago. In farewell, she gave Inman a digital photo portrait from her computer. She autographed it with a favorite saying: “Rainbows and butterflies forever.”

But there was to be no comeback, only one last, fatal misstep. Over Mother’s Day weekend, Plato and Menchaca, who claimed to be both her fiancé and her manager, were visiting his family in Moore, Okla. They parked her 37-foot Winnebago—their only home—outside his parents’ residence, a modest redbrick house on a block spared by the tornadoes that roared through a few days before. Late in the afternoon of May 8, Menchaca later told police, Plato said she wasn’t feeling well. She had taken a couple of pills—Valium and Lortab, a powerful prescription pain reliever 10 times stronger than codeine—and lain down in the RV. Menchaca joined her soon after, but before drifting off noticed she was cold and sweating. He covered her with a blanket and fell asleep beside her.

When Menchaca awoke shortly before 9 p.m., he couldn’t wake her. “Robert called out, ‘There’s something wrong with Dana,’ ” says his mother, Marcela Menchaca, a nurse technician who was sitting outside with Albert, another son. “We dashed over there and started CPR.” It was too late.

Although friends believe Plato might have been upset by the predictably cruel jokes that accompanied her visit to the Stern show the day before, authorities at this point regard the death as an accidental overdose. “There was no indication of suicide,” says Moore Police Sgt. Scott Singer. Indeed, advises Ernest D. Lykissa, M.D., a Houston toxicologist, Lortab is easily abused and potentially lethal, especially when combined with Valium. Lortab, he adds, “is a nuclear bomb you give yourself.”

Yet some who knew Plato couldn’t help assuming the worst scenario. Since her early teens, the actress had taken one unsavory detour after another, until her life and career turned into that tragic cliche of the TV age: the cute kid star who stumbles into adulthood—then free-falls. In the 15 years since she was written out of Diff’rent Strokes, Plato crossed the line from fame to notoriety, most notably in 1991, when she held up a Las Vegas video store with a pellet gun, taking $164. Plato’s victim, a cashier, reported to 911: “I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes.”

She repeatedly admitted to substance abuse, chiefly of Valium and alcohol. “I was so wasted, it would take me a good five days to sober up and go to work,” Plato told the cable entertainment channel E! last summer. She had a rough time being a mother to her son Tyler, 14, who for the most part has been raised by his father, Lanny Lambert, who lives in Tulsa, and paternal grandmother, Joan Richardson. Plato was often broke, even though she once earned $25,000 an episode for her series. She posed for Playboy in 1989 and, at her nadir, starred in a 1997 soft-core porn flick, Different Strokes: The Story of Jack & Jill…and Jill. In the words of former Partridge Family star Danny Bonaduce: “[Former child stars] have got a big billboard that says ‘failure.’ ”

Yet, Plato occasionally pulled herself together—and somehow preserved a fundamental if odd sweetness. Sara Corwin, an L.A. photographer who was a friend, recalls, “She would call me at all hours to tell me things like, ‘I just saw the most beautiful flower today.’ ” Even when she wound up working as a cashier in a Las Vegas dry-cleaning shop in 1990, customers were touched by her friendly lack of airs. “Normally,” noted onetime customer Phil Harrington, “you don’t have a former TV actress picking up your pants.” Of course, beneath the gentle manner was a truly troubled soul. Plato’s former drug counselor Ray Slaughter told E! last summer that at one point she was drinking almost a gallon of vodka a day. As of last September she was still making attempts to stay sober, says Gerald Wolff, her manager from 1993 to 1998. “But,” he adds, “she started to go crazy again. I was hoping she was going to straighten herself out.”

The same has often been said, over the years, about Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges, who played Plato’s two brothers, Arnold and Willis, adopted by her cheery father, Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain). Bridges, now 33, has a police record dating back to 1983. In 1990 the former cocaine addict was acquitted of shooting an accused drug dealer in an L.A. crack house. The diminutive Coleman, 30, feuded with his parents over his $6 million fortune, worked as a security guard at a mall and, last year, was arrested for allegedly punching a female fan who had approached him for an autograph. Diff’rent Strokes‘ creative supervisor Al Burton remembers meeting Plato at a party in 1990. “She told me, ‘I just posed nude for Playboy, Gary is suing his parents, Todd was arrested. That Drummond sure was a terrible father.’ ”

Bridges recently told USA Today he now stays sober with a 12-step program, and Coleman was required to take anger-management classes after pleading no contest in the autograph incident. Plato, though, always remained a concern to former teen star Paul Petersen (The Donna Reed Show, 1958-66), now 53 and head of A Minor Consideration, a watchdog organization for the rights of child actors. “I was doing the Sally Jessy Raphael Show [in May 1990] with Dana,” he says, “and she bumped into me before the show, fresh out of the bathroom, with cocaine powder all over her nose. Five minutes later she was on the air saying she’s clean and sober.” Plato, he says, “lied to everybody.”

Menchaca, who met her in Tulsa only four months ago, is distraught over the suggestion that drugs caused her death. “Dana’s name has been dragged through the dirt,” he says. “I want the world to know what kind of person she was. I learned from her it’s the little things that count. Never take life for granted.”

Plato kept trying to repair her own damaged life. She went on Stern’s show to refute the claims of a woman named Jennifer Wejbe, who had once been her L.A. roommate. Wejbe told The National Enquirer in March that she and Plato had been lovers, that Plato was still a drug user and that the actress had run off with her money. Callers to the show mocked Plato as a has-been, a lesbian and a mental case. The occasional well-wisher reduced her to tears.

Plato, says her cousin Kim Jaafil of Northridge, Calif., was “always an outgoing, bubbly kid, very happy and well-adjusted.” Still, her world was never stable. She was given up for adoption at birth by her mother, Linda Strain, then 17 and now the married mother of three in Springfield, Mo. Her adoptive parents—Dean Plato, who owned a trucking company, and Kay, who oversaw her career—divorced before Dana was 4. After that, Dean seldom played a part in her life, except in 1984, when he unsuccessfully sued her for support. Not long after the adoption, Kay was diagnosed with a rare blood disease that killed her 20 years later. Because of her illness, Jaafil suggests, “Kay wanted to give Dana everything while she was still around.”

As a child star, Dana lacked very little. She began acting at age 6, appearing in some 250 commercials before Al Burton cast the then-13-year-old in Diff’rent Strokes. “But she was always insecure,” says Sy Levin, who managed her from age 13 to 17. “She was third on the totem pole. It was always Coleman, then it was Todd. Then it was her.”

There were problems far more serious than professional rivalry. At 14, according to Levin, she overdosed on Valium. By the time she was 15, she was coming to the set drunk. “She would show up in a daze, in a funk,” says Burton. Then, at 18, she got pregnant by her 21-year-old boyfriend, and her Strokes stint was over. Conrad Bain, for one, was disturbed by her recklessness. “She deliberately got pregnant while doing the series,” he says. “When I spoke to her about it, she was enthusiastic about having done that.” She later told him, “When I get the baby, I will never be alone again.”

Years later, Plato told fellow camper Charles Inman that she didn’t regret the decision to have her child. Tyler was born in July 1984, four months after Plato married Lambert. “I would never trade Tyler for anything,” she said. But when the couple divorced in 1989, custody of Tyler was awarded to his father. With her substance-abuse troubles, “I was making him crazy,” she later said in an interview with USA Today, “so I sent him away.” The boy lived with Plato periodically, however, and she hoped to have him back soon, according to one friend. “She wanted her son,” says Inman. “She wanted unconditional love.”

Plato was devastated when her mother Kay died in 1988. “They had remained very close,” says Jaafil. “It was a real blow”—one Plato believed tipped her into the drinking-and-drug spree that climaxed with her comically inept 1991 video-store robbery. Her disguise of dark glasses and black hat was so transparent “even she knew it was a laughingstock,” says Clark County D.A. Stewart Bell, her attorney at the time. “The robbery was a cry for help.” (She got out of jail when Wayne Newton, who’d never met her, posted her $13,000 bail. “He felt sorry for her,” says his spokeswoman. “Here she was alone in a jail cell, and no one came forward.”) Another cry for help came that December, when Plato began forging Valium prescriptions. She earned two five-year probation sentences for the offenses.

That same year, Plato sought out her biological mother, Linda Strain, and eventually appeared with her on The Maury Povich Show. “Linda was thrilled,” says Strain’s sister Becky Heidger. “We watched this girl grow up on TV. She looked identical to our brother’s daughter, but we never put two and two together.” The reunion was short-lived, however. Plato eventually stopped speaking to Strain. “Dana turned Linda’s world upside-down and made it wonderful,” says Heidger, “for a very short time.”

Meanwhile, there were many people trying to keep Plato emotionally grounded. She was always welcome in Tulsa by her ex-mother-in-law. “I was very fond of her,” says Joan Richardson. “We were her only family.” Says child-actor advocate Paul Petersen: “I can’t tell you the number of checks I had to give Dana to cover the rent.” Last year he introduced her to Fred Potts, 41, an aspiring filmmaker in Tucson. They became engaged last June but soon broke up over her drug use. Still, Potts encouraged her to leave L.A. behind. “She was going to settle in, be an Arizona beach bum, sit by the pool, relax, no drugs, no alcohol,” says Potts. The move never happened: “I never got an explanation.” And former Family Affair child star Johnny Whitaker, 39, now a talent manager, took her on as a client. Himself in recovery, he talked to Plato about sobriety and asked her to check in daily. “But she’d only call about once or twice a week,” he says. “For the past three weeks, Dana hadn’t called at all.”

By then, she was with Robert Menchaca, whom few of Plato’s friends had even heard of until her death. “I didn’t meet Dana as a celebrity,” says Menchaca. “We dated a few times, and things just clicked.” Now he, too, has lost Plato. At a press conference at his home on May 11, he said, “I’ll always love her, and I know the millions of fans out there love her.”

A viewing was held in nearby Oklahoma City for Plato’s family that same day. Her son Tyler “is holding up well,” says Whitaker, who spoke with him by phone. “His grandmother tells me he’s the spitting image of Dana. And he asked me, ‘When all this is over and done with and I come to Los Angeles, do you think that you could manage me?’ I guess it’s in the blood.”

Tom Gliatto

Champ Clark, Ken Baker and Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles, Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston, Gabrielle Cosgriff in Moore, Mary M. Harrison in Missouri, Melissa Schorr in Las Vegas, Tim Roche in Navarre and Bob Meadows in New York City