The sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, was another Norman Lear creation. The show which premiered in 1978 lasted for eight seasons and brought us one of the most memorable TV lines ever uttered with: “What you talkin’ ’bout Willis?”
The series followed the life of a wealthy white businessman, Phillip Drummond, who adopts the two children of his deceased housekeeper. He then hires a new housekeeper, Mrs. Edna Garrett, to help look after them. The actor who played Garrett, Charlotte Rae, was on the series for the first two seasons before leaving to star in the spinoff Facts of Life. Rae died on Aug. 5, 2018, after being diagnosed with bone cancer the previous year. She was 92. This begs the question: Are any of the other original Diff’rent Strokes cast members still alive today?
Conrad Bain was born on Feb. 4, 1923, in Alberta, Canada.
Before Diff’rent Strokes, Bain had a long career in TV and film but always found his experience playing the Drummond patriarch rewarding. The actor once told The Leader-Post: “Best of all was being a part of those kids growing up and learning their craft, being able to put your oar in here and there and give them help — that’s what really brought me joy.”
Bain died from complications following a stroke on Jan. 14, 2013. He was 89.
Dana Plato was born on Nov. 7, 1964.
She portrayed the goody-two-shoes character Kimberly Drummond, who was Phillip’s biological daughter. During an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Plato was asked what she would change about her character. “I would have her do something bad for a change,” she answered, adding, “That character is so candy sweet, it’s sickening.”
Offscreen Plato became known for some of her own bad behavior resulting in her being written off the show after season 6. She later had multiple run-ins with the law and died of a drug overdose that was ruled a suicide on May 8, 1999. She was 34.
Gary Coleman was born on Feb. 8, 1968.
He became a household name playing Arnold Jackson and was one of the most popular and highest-paid child actors in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He also made the line “What you talkin’ ’bout Willis?” famous. But Coleman wasn’t comfortable with his star status telling The Tribune: “Being famous is no fun. It’s too much trouble because I can’t be myself.”
After the show ended Coleman’s acting career stalled, his parents embezzled his earnings, and the paparazzi remained a presence in his life capturing some not-so-great moments. Coleman died of a brain hemorrhage on May 28, 2010. He was 42.
Todd Bridges was born on May 27, 1965.
He played Arnold’s older brother Willis and a number of brushes with the law before being tried and later acquitted of murder in 1988. Like his TV siblings, he also dealt with substance abuse issues. He chronicled his up, downs, and recovery in his book Killing Willis.
Bridges is the last of the main and original Diff’rent Strokes stars still alive today. Upon hearing the news of Rae’s death a few years back Bridges told The Hollywood Reporter: “I just broke down. I’m the only one left. That’s hard to deal with. It’s really sad and emotional. I had one piece left from that show. Now I’m the only cast member left.”
How to get help: In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text HOME to 741-741 to speak with a trained crisis counselor at the free Crisis Text Line.
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