May 29, 2010
I almost find it impossible to write about the death of Gary Coleman. I’m surprised by how much it affects me, as I never met Gary. But perhaps after a little reflection, it’s not too difficult to understand. Celebrities can become as much part of the fabric of our lives as some family members. For me, Gary was like the younger, bad ass big/little brother I’ll never have. I should probably start with the beginning of our connection, though.
I first laid eyes on Gary, like nearly everyone else, while he played “Arnold Jackson” on the hit show“Diff’rent Strokes” in 1979. I watched the show periodically as a kid, but other than seeing him as another short, cute Black kid on TV, I didn’t have the strongest or best impression of him. I might not have known the word caricature at 10 years old, but I knew “Whatchoo talkin’ about Willis?” sounded…wrong. Yet it wasn’t that bad. Then, while dancing on TV for the Variety Club’s annual marathon, I met Robert Guillaume, of “Benson” fame, backstage. Mr. Guillaume was fresh off the heels of being Gary’s co-star in the made for TV movie, “The Kid From Left Field.” He said, “They’re looking for a kid like you to cast for the TV series version of ‘The Kid From Left Field.’ We should stay in touch!” My father gave him our info. Mr. Guillaume kept his promise to stay in touch, later writing me and my mother a touching letter that the show wasn’t going to be launched and for me not to be too disappointed. I actually understood, but from that moment on, I took a serious interest in Gary Coleman as, in my child’s mind, I was one step from being as famous as he was.
I began noticing how similar our lives were: he was born nearly three months after I was; I had kidney problems (like he did); and I crowned adulthood at 4’11” and he at 4’8”. Around 16, I was introduced to a newer procedure that possibly saved my single kidney and Gary got his last kidney transplants. I felt as if Gary and I both had been given new leases on life. I had come to think of Gary as a celebrity doppelganger or a “life stunt double.” I went on to college for my bachelor’s, master’s and part of my Ph.D, though academia ended up not being for me. So I did the most natural thing and became an actor, of course. Gary languished in Hollywood after he left “Diff’rent Strokes” in 1986, only landing bit parts in movies and TV shows. After awhile, other than hearing that he was suing his adopted parents for stealing his money in 1989, I generally lost track of what happened in his life until 1998.
In 1998, Gary was arrested for punching an aggressive fan who sought his autograph. From the details I gathered at the time, he punched her because she dissed him and his underwhelming career as an adult actor when he said no to the autograph. With her standing a few feet taller and several pounds heavier than he was, Gary claims he got scared for his life and belted her. Like everybody, I was horrified that he would hit a woman, but then a few facts came out that seemed stranger still. Gary was working as a security guard and was seeking to buy a bulletproof vest? WTF?! When I talked to people about the story, they would just lament how far the great star had fallen. As another short Black man, I had a different take. He really had no other options, no other social capital but to take a job he had not business having, at all? Who hires a 4’8” former celebrity as a security guard except as a gimmick or a joke? Some people didn’t see it that way, preferring to see someone giving him a job as an act of compassion. I knew of a more likely possibility from my own life.
About the same time that Gary was going through legal issues with the assault case, I had been cast in a Shakespeare play where I had to learn to walk on 3 foot high stilts. Once you learn to walk on stilts, it’s fairly easy to walk on them. But learning how to walk on them was among one of the hardest and scariest things I’ve done because I don’t have the best balance just walking and if you fall on stilts, you can blow out both your knees among other things. Eventually, after days of pushing past the frustration and fear, I became a stiltwalker. I was working, and I trusted there was a grand concept that the director had in mind for why I was hovering nearly a story above everyone else. Once we were in full rehearsal, the director became annoyed by my need to stay in motion when not walking (as any stiltwalker will tell you that you must do.) He said to my dismay that we would cut out the stilts from the show. I would have been more relieved the week before, but, when he cut ‘em, I was more pissed. So I asked, right as he decided to cut the stilts, why was I on stilts in the first place? He said, “Because I thought it would be cool to have a guy who was really short become a giant at this part of the play.” Mind you, there’s nothing in the play that requires this guy to become a giant, and I had no idea that my height was relevant to the casting of that part…at all. I was furious. I had done all this work, risking life and limb, for a gimmick, revolving around being short?! I wanted stick a stilt up his ass. But I did the show and thought of Gary. I understood exactly how he had become a security guard, in small inattentive steps. You need a job; someone else needs a good laugh and feel like a philanthropist at the same time. (A bad combo!) Of course, I also knew that I had options that maybe Gary didn’t have. I had two degrees, parents who loved me and good health; but I had seen numerous times, before the stiltwalking and after, how my height served as shits and giggles for people.
After the fan-punch, Gary was in the public’s eye for one thing or another. I don’t need to recount everything he has been in the news for, but he was mostly known as the “little” angry Black man and former child star who just couldn’t make a go of life. And on some level that’s true. He almost came to relish in how people thought this of him. In fact, last year, around this time, I went to a midnight screening of what’s now Gary Coleman’s last movie–.
In this mocumentary, Gary, as himself, had been wrangled into a “documentary” where little people perform a series of reality-TV like tasks against people dressed as team mascots to win $10 million. It wasn’t that funny for me, though it has about three moments of sheer hilarity. (It’s probably funny if you find the idea of little people or midgets funny.) I went to see what kind of train wreck Gary Coleman had become…again. To my chagrin and delight, I didn’t walk out the movie disgusted as much as marveling at how Gary how found the perfect platform to voice the gripes that he’s had with people for most of his life, especially during some of the supposed outtakes. It was revealing. Gary may have been an angry guy, but he wasn’t without his own sense of irony, for sure. I guess his run for California governor showed that he has a love for irony too. (And coming in 8th out of 135 candidates, right after publisher Larry Flynt, wasn’t a bad showing either.)
Yet I understood his anger. In fact, I quietly relished in some of his antics, because I know his daily life must have had enough absurd qualities to it that would make anybody want to hit people, almost randomly. I’ve certainly had my own moments. Just two weeks ago, as I was walking in my neighborhood late at night, what looked like two young women were approaching me on the sidewalk. As I passed them, one of them says to me, “Good night, midget!” I wheeled around and as I was turning I went through all the options I had at my disposal to deal with this. And I’ve had a variety of responses, from violent to bitterly sarcastic to ignoring them. But that night I decided to play the one reaction that I play the least: vulnerability. So, as I turned to her, I said, “That wasn’t a very nice thing to say.” She turned back, registering what must have sounded like hurt in my voice. “Oh, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” She and her friend emerged out of the shadows. They were grown ass women. At that moment, I attempted to see if she were developmentally delayed. “No? Then how am I supposed to feel when I hear you call me a midget? “Well, a midget isn’t a bad thing. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with being short,” she said in a comforting tone. “I know that, but that doesn’t mean that you should call complete strangers “midgets” as you pass them on the sidewalk.” “Well, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. But I got a 25 year-old daughter who ain’t much taller than you,” she said, still softening her tone. “This woman has progeny?! And that old? God, I don’t know much longer I can keep my faith in humanity. I don’t know,” I thought. “I see. Okay, good night,” I said, whipping back around, lest I shift from vulnerable to violent. “Okay, good night, honey. And remember ain’t nothin’ wrong with being short,” she said as I walked away, practically screaming up the street as if she were cheering me on at a rally. But this is only a recent absurd encounter centered around my height out of many in my lifetime. I can’t imagine what Gary Coleman, as a celebrity, faced, but I can understand why Gary was pissed off and so sad.
However, I know my life and destiny is not Gary’s. A sweet friend of mine, sensing my kismet connection with Gary at the time I heard about his death, tweeted me this message, “Gary Coleman’s fate is not yours…He was clearly a troubled spirit. You are full of light and love.” Yeah, I don’t know if I’m full of all of that as I have my fair share of shit too, but I know what she means. Yet I can’t help but feel as if Gary was my shorter “shadow-brother” who acted out the fame, the insanity and the fury that life had opted for me not to fully experience, but given me ample opportunity to taste. And now for the first time in two decades, I have to face all of that without projecting it on to Gary or sharing it with him. Maybe we all share some bit of Gary’s bizarre life, but for me, as another short Black man, it feels acute. It makes me think of other short people, like Emmanuel Lewis, of “Webster,” a show that was a blatant rip-off of “Diff’rent Strokes” and Gary’s success. Of course, Emmanuel has his own story to write, though he’s been more on the straight and narrow than both me and Gary. Well, I guess except for those times when “Webster” used to sit snugly in the palm of Michael Jackson’ hand as a teenager!
That’s something, I know, Gary would never do. Gary was the short angry Black man in all of us, even for other short Black men. For that, all he experienced and all he didn’t get to experience, I’m gonna miss you Gary Coleman. Rest in Peace.