By Tom Gliatto
September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Gary Coleman remains instantly recognizable—even beloved—13 years after his sole claim to fame, the series Diff’rent Strokes, went off the air. As he approaches L.A.’s Planet Hollywood one recent afternoon, his bantam stride is interrupted every few paces by well-wishers. “I watched all your work throughout the ’80s,” says one. Then a thirtysomething stockbroker looks down and offers his hand to the actor, now 31 but only 4’8″, his height stunted by a childhood drug regimen to combat kidney disease. “Thanks for the memories,” says the fan. Coleman, pleased, thanks him back.

Moments later, after entering the restaurant and beaming at a trio of hostesses—”Every time I come here the girls get prettier and prettier,” he says—Coleman reveals how little he cares for nostalgia. “I have a pet peeve with ‘memories,’ ” he says. “I’m not dead yet, I haven’t retired. But I have four strikes against me. I’m black, I’m short, I’m intelligent and I have a medical condition. Those are my four strikes, and I can’t get around them.”

Make that five. Like the Planet Hollywood chain, he’s broke. Coleman declared bankruptcy in Los Angeles on Aug. 18. The announcement, coming only four months after costar Dana Plato’s fatal drug overdose at 34, reminded America yet again that those Diff’rent Strokes kids, including Todd Bridges, 34, have endured brutal growing pains. Coleman’s string of misadventures and humiliations includes a bitter lawsuit that fractured his family, reports of erratic behavior (his father, W.G. Coleman, claims 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. Add to that a still pending civil suit over a punching incident and a career stymied by the fact that, even now, Coleman looks scarcely older than he did playing Arnold Jackson, the plucky Harlem boy adopted into a wealthy white household. Bankruptcy feels like a step toward maturity. “I should be able to create the kind of future I want,” says Coleman. “Bankruptcy is good. Millions do it.”

But few of those insolvents can claim to have amassed and lost an estimated $18 million fortune. Although Coleman would argue 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 says. “Photos, meetings, lunches, dinners, facial care, tooth care. It requires an exorbitant amount of money.” Which is exactly what he no longer has. Coleman earned $70,000 an episode during the heyday of Diff’rent Strokes, which aired on NBC and then ABC from 1978, when he was 10, to 1986, but today he lists debts of $71,890 against assets of $19,850. After lawyers’ fees, bad investments (including $200,000 lost after a video-game parlor he owned went belly-up in 1995) and profligate spending, his only ready cash these days, he says, is $100, plus a $500 bond. His wardrobe totals $1,500, and he owns three semiautomatic pistols (he likes the firing range) totaling $750. So far, Coleman puts his 1999 income, including residuals, at $24,000. Where his real estate once included luxurious homes in Tucson and Denver, he has sold it all off and rents an apartment outside L.A. for $800 a month. And he has canceled his cable TV, saving $132 a month. Even romance is frugal enterprise. “My rules for women now is they have to have, a place and a car,” says the single Coleman, who leases a Ford pickup, “and a job that pays them more than what I get paid.”

His one remaining treasure is a $3,000 train set—a lifelong hobby—in his bedroom. But his father, now 60, a fork-lift operator in Zion, Ill., recalls when Gary was rich enough to own a set with 30 miles of track. Says the senior Coleman: “I told him, ‘Gary, you don’t know how fortunate you are. With a snap of a finger, it could all be gone.’ ”

Tracy Fields knows the feeling. Coleman’s bankruptcy automatically halts arbitration of her $250,000 civil claim against him. Fields, a 33-year-old bus driver in L.A., says Coleman lashed out and hit her in the eye in July 1998 after she spotted him in a shop in Hawthorne, Calif., and requested an autograph for her son. While the suit is on hold, Coleman continues with the anger-management courses he was ordered to take by the court. He’s annoyed that the lessons focus on domestic abuse: “I’m not married to the woman. I’m not her lover, and I’m not her friend.”

Coleman is just as dispassionate about Plato. “I was not upset or surprised,” he says flatly of his former costar’s death. “My thoughts were more for her son [Tyler, 15] and the press issue and whether it would affect my ability to get employment—because the publicity about Todd, Dana or myself is never good.” He dismisses the notion of a Strokes “curse,” even though Bridges, now married with an infant son, also had troubles (a former cocaine addict, he was acquitted in 1990 of a shooting in an L.A. crack house). Coleman points to the show’s grownups, Conrad Bain and Charlotte Rae: “Until one of them robs a bank, murders someone or gets in an altercation that puts them in court, there is no curse. It just happens that we had the same problems most child actors go through—lack of support, lack of career advancement, lack of wise business assistance, adolescence.”

Indeed, his happiest years, he says, came before he became a star. Back in Zion, “I had more control over my life than I’ve had in the last 22 years.” Even then, though, times were tough. By age 2, Coleman, given up for adoption by parents he has never met, suffered from an atrophied kidney. The other failed by age 5, when he had the first of two ultimately unsuccessful transplants. His growth stunted by immunosuppressants, the only child was lonely and ostracized. His mother, Edmonia Sue, now 56, a nurse practitioner, told the Los Angeles Times in 1990 that she began “looking for things…that might be fun for him.”

The key one turned out to be acting. A local television ad for a Chicago bank brought Coleman to the attention of producer Norman Lear, whose company custom-made a series for him. Strokes was a hit. “The first four years were the best,” Coleman opines. “The writing was good, the ideas were free-flowing.” But by the show’s end in ’86, the scripts had grown stale, ratings were down and—given that the star was 17—Arnold’s age was no longer mentioned.

Not long after, says W.G., “all hell broke loose.” The star, turning the legal age of 18, began investigating his finances at the instigation of a boyhood friend, Dion Mial, the son of a Strokes employee. Three years later, in 1989, Coleman sacked his parents as his trustees and sued them, claiming they had misappropriated money from commissions, salaries, fees and his pension fund. “He felt completely betrayed,” says Mial, 35, a onetime Michael Jackson impersonator who by then had become Gary’s manager. His parents countersued, claiming at one point that Gary was mentally incompetent. The case wasn’t settled until 1993, with Coleman getting $1.3 million—quickly devoured, he says, by lawyers’ fees and poor investments.

His “adoptive parents,” as Coleman pointedly calls them, have not seen him since 1994. “He pulled a truck into the driveway, and he and a bodyguard said they wanted to remove some of his personal items,” recalls W.G. “Gary took his four People’s Choice Awards, his Youth Award and his Image Award. Then he said to the guard, ‘Remove everything from the walls with my face on it.’ I said to Gary, ‘What are you trying to do? Wipe yourself from our lives?’ ” Gary assured them he only wanted the pictures to copy. Five years later, says his father, “I still haven’t seen those pictures.” Asked if he thinks about his folks, Coleman says simply, “Not at all, but I’m sure they’re doing quite well.” In fact, says his father, the lawsuit ruined them financially, and Edmonia Sue is suffering from colon cancer.

Coleman dismisses any concerns for his own health. Unwilling to risk another failed transplant, he currently submits himself to three dialysis sessions a week. (His actors’ union insurance covers medical bills.) “The only pain is when they stick you with the needles,” he says. “Then you sit in a nice chair, watch TV and have pretty nurses to look at.” He insists his chronic illness—end-stage renal disease—”is not going to kill me for 30 or 40 years. If I get sick today and have a job, there’s no reason I can’t do that job tomorrow.”

It’s hard not to admire such resolve. “Nothing,” says Coleman, “can make me quit or retire.” He still fiercely aspires to be a star on the level of his hero Sidney Poitier. “He’s an intelligent, successful black man,” he says, then laughs. “But he’s taller, so success comes rather more easily to him.” These days, however, he makes do with cameos and puts in promotional appearances twice a month at a Pasadena video parlor and cafe, Holoworld, where he schmoozes with the young gamesters.

And if it’s unlikely he’ll be another Poitier, he’s willing to start with Verne Troyer, the 32-inch-tall actor who plays Mini-Me in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. “He has made grand strides as a small guy in opening up small doors,” says Coleman. “I want to ride on the coattails of that.”

Tom Gliatto

Lorenzo Benet and Ken Baker in Los Angeles and John Slania in Chicago