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A Tale of a Falling Star : For eight seasons Gary Coleman --of 'Diff'rent Strokes'-- was at the top of the world. When the laugh track stopped, he had to scrounge for work. Now, his main role is in the courtroom, in a pathetic fight against his own parents.

May 20, 1990|BELLA STUMBO | Bella Stumbo is a Times staff writer. Her last story for this magazine was about Insurance Commissioner Roxani Gillespie.

THEY WERE a family whose good fortune was nice to see. Natives of the rural Deep South, the parents once mopped floors and washed laundry for a living. They were hard-working poor, reaching for modest middle-class comfort in suburban Zion, Ill., when, storybook style, Hollywood accidentally discovered their cute, cuddlesome little boy on a Chicago bank commercial and turned him almost overnight into the highest paid child star in history. As precocious Arnold Jackson on the NBC-TV comedy series "Diff'rent Strokes," Gary Coleman charmed a nation and made his parents rich.

Lending the tale its truly magic touch, Coleman was a handicapped child, born with failed kidneys. By the time he was 14, he had survived two transplants and knew that his growth would be permanently stunted by the side effects of dialysis medications. One of the most touching episodes of "Strokes," in fact, showed Arnold coming to grips with the fact that he would never grow into a full-sized adult. Both Gary Coleman and his parents, W. G. (Willie) and Edmonia Sue, were an inspiration to millions of American families afflicted by kidney disease.

Now, here they are on a gray winter morning inside a Los Angeles County Superior Court room, facing a judge fighting to control her disgust, three of the saddest casualties Hollywood has ever produced, publicly humiliating each other again, ostensibly over money. They sit 20 feet apart. They haven't spoken in months. Young Coleman, his face rigid with angry embarrassment, is flanked by protective publicists and attorneys. His parents, across a narrow aisle, look like a pair of nervous, middle-aged schoolteachers at a funeral.

What has brought the Colemans together today is the parents' claim that their son--now 22, 4-foot-8, unemployed and in worsened health--is mentally incompetent, and thus, without the supervision of a court-appointed conservator, incapable of managing what he does have left, a $7-million fortune. Specifically, the Colemans allege that their son has been "brainwashed" by his 26-year-old manager, Dion Mial, "a Michael Jackson impersonator" and former family "go-fer," and Mial's mother, Teri, "a cosmetics clerk at the Broadway." This brainwashing occurred, they say, during a two-week Hawaiian vacation Coleman and Mial took in 1987. Coleman returned, they say, a changed man: He fired them as his managers and hired the Mials. Not only that, but last year, Coleman also sued them, as well as his former business manager, Anita DeThomas, for allegedly stealing upwards of $1 million from him. All three countersued for defamation and breach of contract, and those cases are still pending. Today's proceeding is but a lurid mini-skirmish, a parental offensive, in the larger legal brawl Gary Coleman has begun.

Armed with medical studies, the Colemans' attorney, James Turkin, attributes Coleman's supposedly fragile mental condition to possible laxness in performing self-dialysis, which can lead to such documented psychiatric disorders as paranoia and depression. Coleman's own attorneys counter with doctors' reports proclaiming him as fit as a young man in his condition can be.

Coleman, whose second transplant failed four years ago, now has no kidneys. He is surviving on self-dialysis, a system of draining the blood of impurities normally carried away in urine. He must perform the ritual--an interim measure at best--four times a day. It involves drugs and an obviously unpleasant setup of tubes, pouches and surgical apertures in his body.

These are but a few of the details of Gary Coleman's personal condition now revealed to us. By the time the Coleman family battle is over, no part of his body will be secret, not even his teeth. (They are fortified with porcelain; medicine for kidney disease also depletes its victims of calcium.)

Such is the price of suing your parents.

Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin, a no-nonsense woman of maternal bearing, marches Coleman into a private room for a 30-minute chat about everything from his investments to his dialysis habits. She emerges looking ready to crack some heads together. "I do not see any basis whatsoever for proceeding! Mr. Coleman does not come close to requiring a conservatorship," she snaps wrathfully at the parents. Their son wins today's round.

THE ONLY WINNER in this bizarre yarn is the fleet of retainers in Gary Coleman's service. He's been supporting assorted adults since he was 10 years old, and nothing much has changed, except that now his flock is even larger, with two different interest groups.

The first consists of the usual agents, managers and image makers who attach themselves to any celebrity, even one fading as fast as Gary Coleman. Their mission is now dual--to find him a job if they can, and to make this lawsuit against Willie and Sue Coleman appear to be something more than a bitter young man's temper fit at parents whose failings have nothing to do with thievery. Neither is an easy task.

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