The road of kids who achieved stardom but later went astray is paved with big names — Danny Bonaduce, Lindsay Lohan, etc. — and as hard as it is to believe, three of them are from one television program.
The show is “Diff’rent Strokes” that aired from 1978 to 1986. The once adorable and innocent, but later wayward and legally entangled stars, were Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges and Dana Plato.
Bridges, who may have as many police mug shots on file as he has publicity photos in his home, decided that it was time to tell his story. Hence, the provocatively titled “Killing Willis,” subtitled “From ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ to the Life I Always Wanted.” (Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)
Bridges, who will be 45 in May, portrayed Willis Jackson, alongside Coleman as younger brother Arnold and Plato as Kimberly Drummond, daughter of Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), the man who adopted the boys.
“FROM THE time that I was five years old, I thought I knew how my story was going to go,” says Bridges. “All I ever wanted was to be a famous TV star. My dream came true.”
So far, so good.
Once cast on “Diff’rent Strokes,” Bridges recalls, “I thought I had it made, and for a little while I did.” But later came “drug addiction, devastating personal loss and more than one trip to jail.”
He blames it all on the bad decisions he made.
Much has been written about child stars, and why so many end up on the wrong side of the law. The general belief is that it is a matter of having and experiencing too much too soon.
Suddenly a kid — with a kid’s mind — is famous, making more money than they ever imaged, receiving stacks of fan mail from adoring fans, receiving celebrity treatment, etc. Despite their tender years they are thrust into the adult world, and the fact that it’s Hollywood adds several more dimensions.
The young stars are faced with an array of temptations, some involving drugs, others involving sex, and on it goes.
Then all too soon, the TV show comes to an end, or the movie roles come to an abrupt halt. It’s all over, and because this reality switch is such a “head trip,” many of the child prodigies are unable to adjust and cope. Some have plans to continue in show business, but interest in them is limited or nonexistent.
“I HAD MADE friends with most of the other child stars working in Hollywood,” remembers Bridges. “We knew each other’s work, of course, and it was cool to meet someone else who could relate to what it was like to have all the privileges and pressures that went along with being famous at such a young age.”
Drugs were also in the mix.
“There was always a party at someone’s house, and drugs were very much out in the open,” he says. “So there was always coke and booze, and we all had a good time. Unfortunately, a lot of us ended up in serious trouble because of that, and several of those friends ended up dead from drug overdoses.”
There was plenty of unprotected sex as well.
As his career nosedived, so did Todd Bridges’ personal life.
“My whole world soon revolved around crack,” he says bluntly. “I was a crack addict, plain and simple. I had gotten rid of almost everything and everyone from my old life. I didn’t want to be reminded of the days when I had lived my dreams.So I was ‘killing Willis,’ cutting all ties to the people who remembered how full of possibilities that time had been.”
JUST AS HIS career was beginning to take off (TV shows, commercials, etc.) after his family moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco, young Todd developed a close relationship with a family friend, Ronald Rayton, who not only became his publicist but also a father figure.
Todd had a father of his own but, as he put it, “He (Rayton) gave me all of the affection that I had never received from my own father. I wanted so badly for my dad to be proud of me, or even just to take an interest in me. But my dad just didn’t have the capacity to be a good father. Spending time with Ronald quickly became the next best thing.”
His real father was also violent, a heavy drinker and jealous of his son, or for that matter, any Black male doing better than he was.
However, one day Rayton performed a sex act on his young friend/client, resulting in a confused 13-year-old Todd thereafter “being nervous around Ronald because I never knew if he was going to do that to me again.”
BUT IT WASN’T all bad times during the run of the show. For example, there was a puppy love affair with Janet Jackson, who had been cast as Willis’ girlfriend, Charlene DuPrey. A couple of months later, they were also dating in real life.
“It was a really sweet relationship,” he recalls. “We used to talk on the phone for hours and hours, until our parents finally told us to hang up and go to bed.
“Even though we were acting together on a hit TV show, we were regular kids. When I got my license, I would pick her up for dates. I really cared about Janet, and I always did my best to treat her with respect.”
It was different with his co-star Dana Plato. As hormones raged, Todd accepted an offer: “My friend wants to have sex with you and me at the same time,” she said boldly.
“Dana and I were so close. Everything we tried together had sort of an innocent quality to it; we were two good friends eager to have crazy new experiences,” writes Bridges. “Dana may have been partying harder than I was, but it didn’t get really dark for either of us until after the show was cancelled.”
Despite his life sinking about as low as possible, eventually Bridges managed to pull himself up.
“With sixteen years of sobriety, a happy marriage and two beautiful children who are growing up to be strong and independent young people, I can definitely say that I’ve made a lot of progress,” he states.
“On average, I now have six days of happiness. And the seventh day is turmoil as I fight my same old inner fight and work on trying to love myself and forgive myself for my past.
“But that’s okay because I know that even the bad days don’t last forever. And with God’s grace and a whole lot of patience, we all get to where we’re supposed to be in the end.”