Pound for pound, the most sophisticated ratings watcher at NBC is no longer Fred Silverman. It’s the waist-high dynamo (below) who’s hip enough to join his dad in a spoof of the Roots II motif and skilled enough to make a hit of his own in Diff’rent Strokes. “We’ve got a 35 share,” reports Gary Coleman, its precocious 11-year-old star. Yet his realistic appraisal is that “it’s not the greatest show in the world.”
That’s so, but thanks largely to Coleman’s unerring delivery of some numbingly cute lines, Diff’rent Strokes is the only new Nielsen success in the NBC ossuary. The nominal headliner, Conrad Bain, plays a millionaire who adopts his late maid’s two children, Coleman and 13-year-old Todd Bridges. “I don’t blame anyone for thinking that working with kids can be unpleasant,” says Bain. “But Gary is exceptional, and not only by the standards set for children. He’s bright, sweet and affectionate. He seems incapable of a wrong reading, and I’ve never seen that in any actor.”
Coleman, in fact, snaps off one-liners with such worldly wisdom that a brief and hurtful rumor once circulated that he is a midget. (Johnny Carson, for one, was nonplussed at the way Gary matched repartee with him on The Tonight Show.) The more stunning reality is that Gary grew up in Zion, Ill., north of Chicago, with nephritis, a potentially fatal kidney defect. He has undergone three operations, the last of which was a kidney transplant six years ago. “The reason I survived is that I had a kidney that wouldn’t give up,” he says matter-of-factly. “Now I got a Greek kidney donated from a kid who was hit by a car.”
The ailment has slowed Gary’s growth—at 43 inches, he is the size of a 5-year-old, and he may never top five feet. Further, he pops “so many pills a day, you’d think I’d rattle.” That included steroids, which his parents once thought may have puffed his chipmunk cheeks. “His talent,” as his mother, Sue, puts it, “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.” Though he has no dietary restrictions, Gary joshes that he likes “a little red wine once in a while. It helps keep the kidneys flushed out.” “Only on special holidays,” interjects Mother.
His father, Willie, works 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 Norman Lear cast him in a pilot remake of The Little Rascals, which didn’t fly, en route to Diff’rent Strokes.
Gary’s mom gave up her nursing career to move to L.A. nine months a year to chaperon her son. (His dad visits periodically from Zion.) “If this is what Gary wants to do, he should have the chance,” says Sue. “But if he wants to quit next year, that’s also fine with me.” She’s nobody’s stage mother, as the series’ other star, Charlotte Rae, testified when she got a call from Paul Lynde. The comedian was casting a special and asked old crony Rae if Gary’s mother were a problem.
Between tapings and guest gigs, Gary works with a tutor on a curriculum shipped out from his fifth-grade teacher back in Zion. So far his parents have kept his child-size 11½ feet and outsize IQ on the ground. “I try to understand people who aren’t as smart as me and not be hateful,” says Gary. He’s a kid when it comes to movies—”Star Wars was magnificent, but you could tell Darth Vader’s ships were glued together”—and he loves “trains, planes and model cars.” He can’t splurge, however, because his cautious parents bank his paycheck (reportedly $1,600 a week, which is shockingly low for someone who carries a hit series).
Coleman clearly revels in celebrity, but hasn’t lost perspective. “Television is fun, but it’s hard, and if it gets too crazy I may just do it as a part-time thing,” he says. The Coast has not corrupted him. “I may like L.A.,” Gary admits, “but I want to know when the seasons are. I’m going to put Zion on the map.”