When legendary television producer Norman Lear was looking for the right sitcom to pair actors Conrad Bain with Gary Coleman in, NBC’s newly appointed president Fred Silverman was also conveniently looking for a project to greenlight to bring new life to his ratings-starved network.
What was initially titled 45 Minutes From Harlem eventually became Diff’rent Strokes – a comedy about an aging white millionaire who adopts two young, witty black brothers.
Diff’rent Strokes premiered in November of 1978 replacing The Waverly Wonders – a show that Conrad Bain had previously guest-starred on twice. It was an overnight success and became the huge hit that the studio and everyone involved with the project had hoped for.
The show addressed difficult topics like sexual abuse, racism, drug use, kidnapping, alcoholism, and bullying. It lured in big-name guest stars like Nancy Reagan, Mr. T., Muhammad Ali, and even KITT from Knight Rider.
While there certainly were some cast members that came and went throughout the series’s tenure on the tube, and some of the young actors ended up getting into quite a bit of trouble during and after the show’s run. Regardless, Diff’rent Strokes remains just about as charming as it was back in 1978 when it first hit American television screens.
But seeing as how the show premiered over 40 years ago, it’s not surprising that out of all the main cast members, only Todd Bridges and Danny Cooksey are still with us. Everyone else sadly has fallen victim to the inevitability of death. Stick around to see who all has passed away. Everyone knows about Gary Coleman, but how did everyone else make their final curtain call?
Conrad Bain – Phillip Drummond
As a widowed multi-millionaire, Phillip Drummond had a lot on his plate. He was not only a single father with his own daughter to take care of, but he also stepped up to the plate and adopted his deceased housekeeper’s two young boys. In the years that followed, he went on to hire three different housekeepers, got married to another spouse, and with that took on a new stepson.
Drummond was in control within the show and Bain certainly had a lot of control over the show at large. He had both concept, script, and cast approval. He thoroughly enjoyed working on a project that the viewers at home appreciated so much, but most of all he loved being a part of the kids’ lives as they grew up and learned the ropes of the industry. He did his best to always be there for them whenever they needed an ear to talk to or a bit of advice. That’s what brought him the most satisfaction in life. He was, after all, a family man both on screen and in his private life.
Drummond also found great pleasure in normalizing mixed-race families on Television. While that brought him a lot of praise and fanfare, it also invited the hateful ire from groups like the Klu Klux Klan.
Bain moved from Canada to New York to pursue his love for acting. He appeared in numerous Broadway productions in the mid to late 50s before landing his first television role as a clerk on Dark Shadows. His first film credit was in Woody Allen’s Bananas.
In the 1970s, Bain played Bea Arthur’s arrogant conservative neighbor for 6 seasons on Maude which helped him to get on producer Norman Lear’s good side.
After Diff’rent Strokes, Bain never really landed another major role. He did briefly play George C. Scott’s chief on the short-lived comedy Mr. President, but his last credit was a reprisal of his Phillip Drummond character for the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air series finale alongside his ‘son’ Gary Coleman. Bain passed away in 2013 at the age of 89.
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And don’t you dare sneak off so soon. Stick around to see how Dana Plato’s life essentially crashed and burned after she left the cast of Diff’rent Strokes. Her story is nothing short of tragic.
Gary Coleman – Arnold Jackson
Coleman’s short stature was caused by a rare kidney disorder, but his talent and personality were larger than life. Coleman first caught Norman Lear’s eye after appearing in a Chicago Harris Bank commercial. At first, he cast the young boy in a pilot for a remake of The Little Rascals but unfortunately that project never really got off the ground.
He then landed parts on Lear’s sitcoms The Jeffersons and Good Times before he scored the role of his life as the highly intelligent, and ridiculously quotable Arnold Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes.
Coleman, who was himself adopted, became the veritable star of the show. Soon enough he was in high demand to appear on talk shows. films and other TV shows. He got the chance to play Arnold Jackson on shows like Hello Larry, The Facts of Life, Silver Spoons, Amazing Stories, and even Robot Chicken of all things which ended up being his final credited role.
Yet, the role that made him a star ended up becoming his millstone. As early as 1979, Coleman was already feeling pretty uncomfortable about fame. He was once quoted as saying that being famous was ‘no fun’ because he couldn’t be himself.
Coleman lived with constant health issues, but as he aged those only compounded with his financial and public relations problems. He received relentless tabloid attention and made questionable career moves such as participating in the extremely low-brow project Midgets vs. Mascots in 2009.
In addition to dealing with his debilitating health problems, Coleman’s own parents embezzled his earnings from him. Once he ran out of cash, he took a job as a security job but that only ended up causing him to have frequent scraps with the paparazzi. At one point, he was even charged with assault for punching a fan who asked him for his autograph.
Coleman’s final years were nothing short of disastrous. Sadly he died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 42 in 2010.
Dana Plato – Kimberly Drummond
Plato initially auditioned for the Kim Richards part on Hello, Larry but was instead cast in Tandem Productions’ other production, Diff’rent Strokes. Plato played Kimberly, Phillip Drumond’s 13-year-old daughter. Her character was extremely protective of her father and her newly adopted brothers but at times she could be a bit uptight.
Plato resented playing such a goody-two-shoes character and secretly pined for the opportunity to do something bad for a change. She found her character to be far too sweet for her liking.
Eventually, she grew tired of playing by the rules and started to act out. At one point she made out with her screen brother Willis, overdosed on Benzos, showed up to the set drunk, and when she turned 18 she intentionally got pregnant and was essentially written off the show after season 6,
Plato’s career went down the drain after leaving Diff’rent Strokes. She scored a couple of roles at first that seemed to indicate that she might still have a career in acting, appearing in films like Exorcist II: The Heretic and California Suite alongside Jane Fonda, but after she had her son, the work all but dried up.
She started drinking and drugging heavily in the late 80s. At one point she was drinking almost a gallon of Vodka a day. In 1989 she got breast implants and posed for Playboy. A year later, she robbed a Las Vegas video store armed with a pellet gun. In 1998, she starred in the porno parody film Different Strokes which incidentally was one of her final credited roles.
Plato died in 1999 at the age of 34 from what was initially determined to be a drug overdose. It was later ruled that her death was a suicide. Sadly, Plato’s son Tyler Lambert also committed suicide just 2 days before the 11th anniversary of his mother’s.
Charlotte Rae – Edna Garrett
Charlotte played Mrs. Garrett, a newly-hired housekeeper who replaced Mr. Drumond’s previous one. Right out of the gate, Garrett laid down her list of ‘don’ts’. She told Mr. Drummond that she doesn’t do windows and she doesn’t do boys’, but as time went on she softened up to Arnold and Willis both onscreen and off.
Rae’s character was so popular that she was given her own spin-off series as headmistress of an all-girls boarding school on ‘The Facts of Life’. She ended up leaving that series after 155 episodes due to health issues.
Before Diff’rent Strokes, Rae had appeared in shows like Car 54, Where Are You, Sesame Street, The Partridge Family, Good Times, and The Love Boat. She married composer John Strauss on November 4, 1951. They divorced in 1976 after Strauss came out as bisexual.
Rae continued to act long after her Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes days. Her final role at the age of 88, was in 2015s Ricki and the Flash.
Rae died peacefully in her home in 2018 at the age of 92.
Nedra Volz – Adelaide Brubaker
When Edna jumped ship in the middle of season two to go off and do her own show, she left a vacancy in the housekeeping needs of the Drummond family. Actress Nedra Volz was called in to play the warm and grandmotherly replacement maid Adelaide Brubaker. She only was around for 22 episodes though before she was replaced by Pearl Gallagher in Season 5.
Nedra got her start in show businesses touring with her vaudeville parents as little ‘Baby Nedra’, but she eventually gave up on acting to instead focus on pursuing a singing career. When that didn’t work out, she took a step back and devoted her energies to raising a family.
Years later, after joining a local theater production company, she landed an agent. Before she knew it, she was starring in commercials and landing guest roles on TV shows. She went on to play essentially the same role as the ‘crazy old lady’ in seven of Norman Lear’s sitcoms. She also appeared in shows like Filthy Rich, Designing Women, and WKRP in Cincinnati.
Volz died of complications of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2003 at the of 94.
Sadly, that’s about all the time we’ve got left for this video. We didn’t get the chance to touch on each and every death connected to Diff’rent Strokes but at least we got the chance to honor some of the key players who helped make that classic show the iconic treasure that it is.
Now’s your turn to let your voice be heard. Who was your favorite brother between Willis and Arnold? Let us know in the comments section below.
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