In death, Gary Coleman's life takes strange turns

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor Gary Coleman may have lived a life of strange and often sad twists, but in death his legacy seems to have taken even stranger turns.

Actor Gary Coleman arrives at the 6th Annual TV Land Awards in Santa Monica, California, in this June 8, 2008 file photo. Photo taken June 8, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Pizzello/Files

Reports of death photos for sale, multiple wills, and a canceled funeral due to family bickering have added to the drama of a once promising child star on “Diff’rent Strokes” who peaked too soon and was never able to stage a successful comeback.

Yet, pop culture and Hollywood watchers say that the events are not so strange for people who find fame at a young age and crave it for the remainder of their lives after it’s gone.

Richard Walter, a screenwriting professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television said Coleman is likely somewhere watching the drama unfold and enjoying “the fuss and bother” his death is causing.

“Wherever Gary is now, he would prefer this kind of attention rather than a quiet death,” said Walter. “Throughout his life, he continued to crave the kind of attention he once had and was unable to close that chapter of his life and move on. Otherwise, why all the antics?”

For fans, however, it seems a sad ending for the 42-year-old actor whose life got off to bad start when he suffered a congenital kidney disease that halted his growth and led to two kidney transplants later in life.

Coleman found fame and riches as the diminutive star of hit sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” (1978-1986), but he had to sue his parents in 1989 after they had squandered much of his fortune.

Years later, he found himself working as a shopping mall security guard, and attempted to recapture his celebrity by running for California governor in a 2003 election.

“People like that are so stimulated by fame that when they are alone, they feel they don’t exist,” said Walter. “They are devastated if they are not perpetually approved.”


In late May, the former star was hospitalized after falling in his Utah home and suffering a brain hemorrhage. One day later, he slipped into a coma and on May 28, 24-year old Shannon Price decided to take him off life support.

Soon it was revealed that Price and Coleman were not married as believed, but were divorced at the time of his death. The couple, who were secretly wed in 2007, broke up a year later but were living together when he died. Price was authorized to make medical decisions on his behalf.

Yet that was only the beginning of the posthumous drama.

Coleman’s estranged parents, Sue and Willie Coleman said they learned of their son’s death through media reports. They planned a funeral, then canceled it amid bickering with Price.

A 1999 will said Coleman’s ex-manager, Dion Mial, is the executor of Coleman’s estate, but Todd Bridges, who starred with Coleman on “Diff’rent Strokes,” has claimed he has paperwork to a secret will.

According to on Tuesday, the actor asked in his 1999 will for a wake “conducted by those who have had no financial ties to me and can look each other in the eyes and say they really cared personally for Gary Coleman.”

Price, who is now said to be locked out of the home the couple shared, is expected to contest any will. She also claims that the two planned to renew their vows.

But in the past two days, numerous reports say Price was involved in the sale of photos of Coleman in the hospital -- taken before and after his death.

Victor Perillo, Coleman’s former agent said in a statement Tuesday he was “personally appalled” to hear of the pictures.

“This is unconscionable and despicable,” said Perillo. “I would like to praise all the reputable news organizations that declined the offers. I hope others will do the same out of respect and human decency.”

Robert Thompson, professor of Television and Pop Culture at Syracuse University cited similar post-death dramas with Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith.

Thompson sees Coleman’s life in three phases: TV superstar, followed by mockery and self-mockery, and a surreal afterlife where everyday there appears a new wrinkle in death.

“For people like Gary, the real stories are not the movies or the shows they star in,” said Thompson. “It’s the outrageous off-screen drama that seems to maintain their careers long after the peak of performance -- in some cases long after they die.”

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte