Todd Bridges, of Diff’rent Strokes fame, was a major TV star by the time he hit his teens, but that didn’t give him some magic immunity from racism.
Bridges, now 55, appeared as a child star on some of TV’s most-watched shows in the ’70s and ’80s — The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, Barney Miller and its spin-off, Fish — and the acclaimed mini-series Roots. Then Diff’rent Strokes catapulted him to stardom. However, he told Page Six his teen idol status didn’t save him from “extreme racism,” and says that was the “most difficult” part of growing up.
“Here you are doing something spectacular for people and people are enjoying it, but then you go outside and you’re treated like you’re ignorant, dumb and stupid,” said Bridges, who was nominated for two Young Artist Awards for his role.
Bridges — the son of a talent agent and actress/manager — continued, “Not like you have some intelligence or you’re a good kid, not at all.”
Bridges has previously said that he didn’t experience racism until he moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Soon after, he recalled walking to football practice with his brother and a Spanish friend and being called the N-word. He had never heard it before or knew the origins of the slur. In his Killing Willis memoir, Bridges said that things only got worse. As a rich, Black teen star living in a white, middle-class suburb, the cops in the San Fernando Valley “abused me so much as a teenager.” He filed a police harassment lawsuit in 1983 over a number of racial incidents, including being “arrested for stealing my own car.” He alleged other “harassments” by local police — including “seven or eight” arbitrary traffic violations — and incidents with self-described Ku Klux Klansmen, including having his Porsche stolen, doused with gasoline and set afire.
Diff’rent Strokes ran from 1978 to 1985 and saw Bridges’s character, Willis Jackson, and his younger brother, Arnold (Gary Coleman), become orphaned and move from their Harlem neighborhood to the lux Park Avenue digs of white, businessman Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain) and his daughter, Kimberly (Dana Plato). The show was an entertaining comedy, which launched the “What’choo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” catch-phrase, while also attempting to show the experiences of a racially blended family (though not a typical one). The must-see show was also known for its “very special episodes,” focusing on important topics — first lady Nancy Reagan appeared in an anti-drug episode — and Willis’s girlfriend Charlene was played by none other than Janet Jackson.
Bridges, Coleman and Plato all became teen idols from their roles, appearing in the teeny-bopper magazines of the time and attending awards shows. Sadly, however, all three developed serious problems, leading to the idea that there was a “Diff’rent Strokes curse” providing endless fodder for True Hollywood Story type exposés.
Plato, whose drug and alcohol problems started when she appeared on the show and continued with an armed robbery arrest, died by suicide in 1999. Coleman, who had medical problems, money issues and felt forever typecast as Arnold, died in 2010.
Bridges went on to have his own problems too. He has said he was sexually abused by a publicist and family friend starting at age 11. He later became addicted to crack cocaine and methamphetamine. He started dealing drugs to support his habit and was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, making a bomb threat and transporting narcotics. In 1989, he was acquitted for attempted murder and represented by the late Johnny Cochran, of O.J. Simpson trial fame, who said Bridges was an abused minor driven to drugs by the exploitative entertainment industry.
Speaking of all his troubles, Bridges — who got sober in 1993 — told Page Six he won’t pin them on child stardom.
“There are too many of us that have come out great,” he said of his peers. “I had other things to deal with, pretty traumatic things as a child, that’s what affected me and had me go through other situations.”
He went on to say, “Anything that affected me back then doesn’t affect me now. You see what’s going on in the world right now, you see the racism, you still have to go through it. I don’t let that affect me as much now. I know that’s what the world is right now.”
And he is hopeful “the next generation” will change things. He says his “kids’ generation doesn’t see color, they see people.”
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