After Diff'rent Strokes: When The Laughter Stopped

Director: Ted Haimes
Alon Williams, Corey Mendell Parker, Elise Horn

It's funny how there were things in your childhood that you didn't even want to think about, but as you got older you found yourself slowly not minding thinking about these things at all or even the possibility of directly embracing them. For example, when I was a child, I avoided westerns and straight dramas like the plague. But today, I am definitely more open to them, as many of the reviews on this website will show. On the other hand, there are definitely some things that in your childhood that you thought about endlessly, but as you got older the mere thought of these things slowly started to lose its appeal. I'd like to talk about one of those things, something that very likely you too held onto tightly as a child, but loosened your grip on it as the years went by. I'm talking about the dream of being a Hollywood celebrity, specifically an actor. While I am sure some of you in your childhoods liked to imagine being an actor as an adult - I sometimes dreamed of that - personally, I wanted more in my childhood to think about being an actor just as I was then - a child. Why should I dream about waiting many years to be something I wanted now? Back then, acting seemed like playing a game to me, and I certainly liked games as a child. I also heard about other perks there seemed to be for child actors. For one thing, you would be paid a lot more than the allowance you were currently getting from your parents - with money, you could certainly buy a lot of toys. Also, while you would be acting on your particular movie or television show, you wouldn't have to sit though school several hours for five days a week. Oh, I did learn early on that child actors in Hollywood get tutors while acting in some production, but from what I heard about tutoring sessions, they certainly sounded a lot more appealing than regular school classes.

But as the years went by, the idea of being a child actor slowly started to lose its appeal. Certainly, part of the reason was that because I was slowly becoming an adult, I was starting to put childish things and idea behind me. But a bigger reason was that I started to learn about child actors who eventually fell into hard times. You've probably heard about some of them yourself, actors like Corey Haim, Leif Garrett, Edward Furlong, Lindsay Lohan, Dustin Diamond, and quite a few others. The interesting thing about such actors who fall on hard times is that there seem to be five chief reasons that caused the bad fortune, with one or more of these reasons happening. The first reason is due to mismanagement of their earnings. Thanks to greedy parents and/or dishonest reps, the earnings of these child actors can be dwindled down to nothing, and life is tough without a financial cushion. The second reason is that many of these former child actors suddenly find themselves unable to get acting roles once they become adults. Many people, from fans to casting agents, often can't see anything in these adults except for the roles they played as youths. The third reason is that as you probably know, Hollywood is an easy place to get hooked on substances, from alcohol to drugs. That's because these substances are everywhere in Hollywood, even on studio sets. The fourth reason is kind of related to the second reason - while growing up as a child actor, the child actors often neglect to spend time acquiring skills other than acting that could be used as a backup should they can't find acting roles once becoming actors. The fifth and last reason is that there are a lot of predators in the film and television industries, people who will abuse child actors any chance that they can get. This of course leads to trauma that can stay with the child actor even once he or she becomes an adult.

I am certainly not implying that all or even most child actors fall into one or more of those five pitfalls eventually. If you were to think about it for a little bit, you would come up with a substantial list of former famous child actors from various movies and television shows who had After Diff'rent Strokes: When The Laughter Stoppedgood lives in their adult years. Plus, think of the thousands of child actors in Hollywood who never became famous - I am sure that if most or even a significant number of them fell on hard times, word would spread out, and few parents then would have their children enter the world of Hollywood. But yes, the stories of former child actors who fell on hard times always seem to stick out more prominently than those who had happy lives as adults. And I have to admit that when I come across such a sad story, something always makes me pay close attention to it. It may be a "There but for the grace of God go I" kind of thing, but I think also such stories make me interested to know exactly what caused the mistakes of the former child actor, or negative life experiences that they had no control over. Despite that, when After Diff'rent Strokes: When The Laughter Stopped aired on TV in 2000 for the first (and also last) time, originally I didn't plan to watch it. It was aired on the FOX network, and it only ran for an hour with commercials, leaving me to think that this wouldn't be very good. But I decided to watch the first few minutes to confirm my feelings. As it turned out, I found the first few minutes so compelling, that I ended up watching the whole thing. A hard-hitting drama that rang true, you might be thinking? Well, read on to see how it played out.

For those readers who are too young and/or don't live in North America, Diff'rent Strokes was an American sitcom that ran from 1978 to 1986. The premise of the show was about a rich Caucasian widower named Philip Drummond (played by Conrad Bain) who had a young teenaged daughter named Kimberly (played by Dana Plato). When his African-American housekeeper died, he adopted her two orphaned children, twelve-year-old Willis (played by Todd Bridges) and eight-year-old Arnold (played by Gary Coleman). The show was not only a ratings hit, Plato, Bridges, and (especially) Coleman became the idols of many youths. From just that, you might think life for all three child actors was sunshine and roses during the show's run, and maybe even afterwards. After Diff'rent Strokes: When The Laughter Stopped tells otherwise.

It stars off with a disclaimer stating, "The following program is based on events in the lives of the cast of Diff'rent Strokes. The chronological order of some events has been changed, and certain locations and individuals portrayed have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes." When any Hollywood production starts off with such a statement, it usually means a lot of creative license has been used for "dramatic purposes". Then over a picture of the real Plato, Bridges, and Coleman, we are told that starting in 1978, Diff'rent Strokes had, "A remarkable seven year run as one of America's favorite sitcoms." Seven? Uh, do the math from the start and end dates I listed at the beginning of the previous paragraph. Guess the producers of this special took more creative license than I was expecting.

Anyway, the opening narration goes on to say that thirteen years after the cancellation of Diff'rent Strokes, Dana Plato passed away, which was only one year earlier than the airing of this docudrama. So there will be less of a surprise of how everything ends for the three child stars. In fact, the first scene takes place according to onscreen captions on May 8, 1999, the day Plato died. In a motorhome piloted by her then husband and manager Robert Menchaca (Sean Bridgers, Get Shorty), a distraught adult Plato (played by Elise Horn) stumbles around in a drug-fueled stupor, finding and swallowing various prescription pills like they were candy. Falling on the motorhome bed, we hear her narrate, "My name is Dana Plato. Can you believe I ended up here?" With the real Plato dead at this point, are we to think that this production's use of her narration was possibly an homage to Sunset Boulevard?

Then there is a flashback to her wedding day back in 1984, where she reminisces on how good things once were for her, Bridges, and Coleman, and how she felt she was headed to superstardom. Flashforward back to the motorhome, where she's still on the bed and barely moving, yet Menchaca is snapping photos of her. "Told you you were snoring!" he jokes. Plato's narration then states blandly, "I'm not snoring, I'm dying."

Dying, she thinks back at the past again, this time at a 1986 press conference with Bridges and Coleman where they are all cheerful and have good hopes for the future... which we learn from their speech, because director Ted Haimes doesn't bother to give us a look at the trio's faces in this scene. Cut back to 1999 where the drugged Plato narrates upon reflection, "We didn't have a clue...", while her mouth exudes a large amount of foam.

Then things shift to Coleman's life six months after the end of Diff'rent Strokes, where Coleman (Alon Williams, Sid The Science Kid) discusses various (and demeaning) possible new projects with his parents. There are two interesting things about this scene, the first being that Coleman's father is played by Sy Richardson from the X-rated soft-core porn movie Cinderella. The second is that in this scene, Coleman is completely surrounded by his electric train platform, no doubt to try to hide the fact that actor Williams is nowhere as diminished in height as the real Coleman was. It doesn't work, and the fact that Williams's face looks nothing like Coleman's makes swallowing this representation very difficult (but funny all the same.)

Todd Bridges (Corey Mendell Parker, Spider-Man), on the other hand, is shown to be partying on, if you can call having three women and an unidentified man all crammed together with Bridges in a very small space "partying". But the cocaine they are all snorting is making them happy all the same, and we learn Bridges got addicted to drugs by pulling up a carpet in his house and finding a big stash of cocaine. While we are trying to understand how that could have happened, we cut to the next morning, where Bridges' father/agent comes in to lecture him on missing auditions and various other irresponsibilities. Bridges just dismisses him, though since he's still high on cocaine, maybe we should say Bridges blows him off.

Meanwhile, a now married with child Plato has become an alcoholic for unclear reasons, possibly in part due to not being able to get any acting offers (also for unclear reasons.) Things just get worse for her when her adoptive mother ends up in the hospital (for unclear reasons), and Plato's husband Lenny decides to divorce her (for reasons a little less unclear, but still not clear enough.) "Faced with real life," drones Plato on the soundtrack, "we were lost and unprepared."

Meanwhile, Coleman has made friends with a Michael Jackson impersonator named Dion (Catero Colbert, Zombie Strippers), who doesn't really look much like Michael Jackson. We see the two of them talking in Dion's fancy car, and in another attempt to make actor Williams look as short as Coleman, Williams is slumped way down in his seat. Coleman asks Dion, "What does it mean to 'bounce a check'?... The bank keeps calling, they keeps saying I'm doing it." Dion answers maybe Gary doesn't have enough money, but an uncomprehending Coleman says, "I still have checks left!" Colman adds that his parents are taking care of what has to be his so-called "$30 million" fortune, but Dion illustrates how not only does Coleman's parents take a cut of his earnings, but various lawyers, agents, and managers. Coleman just shrugs this off, gets out of the car, and leans his head into the passenger window to say goodbye, having suddenly grown bigger by at least several inches.

After her mother's death and her divorce, Plato decides to pose for Playboy magazine to earn some bucks and to advertise that she is now a new woman and not the child sitcom star she previously was. The Playboy photographer, by the way, is played by David Yost, the actor who played the original Blue Ranger in the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers series, and if various reports on the Internet about his private life are true, it may explain to you why the display of Plato in front of his camera doesn't look the least bit erotic.

In the next scene, we cut back to Coleman, who is greeting a lawyer that Dion had called on Coleman's behalf. The lower half of Coleman's body is blocked by furniture, no doubt to hide the hole in the floor that actor Williams is standing in to make him look shorter. The lawyer tells Coleman that he and his team have found "irregularities" into Coleman's savings.

"Whatchatalkinabout?" exclaims Coleman at this news.

The lawyer then reveals that Coleman's savings have been drained by two-thirds by his parents for bad investments and other monetary mischief, and says Coleman will have to sue his parents to get his money back.

Bridges by now has fallen on hard times, living in a bad part of South Central and being addicted to crack. We see his crack dealer approach him one night, and the crack dealer is played by - get this - the real Todd Bridges! Did Bridges think he was adding symbolism by saying he got "himself" addicted to drugs? One can only wonder. Shortly after the transaction, a confusing scene plays out when Bridges tries to enter a house (why?) but is manhandled out of the house by an occupant (why?). Seconds later, he hears eight gunshots in the house, prompting him to leave the area... and then suddenly he's in a police station getting his mugshot taken by the cops. How was he tracked down? Why did the authorities suspect he was in on the murder? We don't know, even during the inevitable scene where he's grilled by the police. But then a lawyer comes in and the questioning is stopped. The lawyer is the infamous Johnnie Cochran (who later defended O.J. Simpson), and explains to Bridges that he's been retained by Bridges' mother to represent Bridges. Where Bridges' mother was all this time (or for that matter, where his father was after that earlier scene) is never answered. Come to think of it, Bridges' father isn't brought up again any time after that aforementioned scene with him.

Shortly afterwards, Plato appears on a talk show with neither the female host or the name of the show identified. One of the stagehands kindly indicates to Plato to wipe the cocaine off her nose before she walks on stage, and once she is there, she shares the stage with the female host and a television broadcasting Bridges from behind bars. While Bridges frets about being under the public microscope, Plato (sniffing her nose a couple of times) claims that she hasn't had any problems since Diff'rent Strokes ended. Of course, we immediately cut to Plato back home downing an entire bottle of hard liquor, narrating that the money from Playboy just fueled her drug and alcohol habit, and had done nothing for her acting career. Actually, in real life, after the photo shoot, she was offered one gig - to appear in a hard-core pornography film. But this isn't mentioned at all here, which makes you wonder if the makers of this production had a momentary lapse into good taste.

Anyway, after being fired from dry cleaning and janitorial jobs, Plato out of the blue decides to commit armed robbery. Donning a pathetic disguise, and getting a gun (from where?), she decides to go rob a video store. The video store has posters from this era (1991) such as Predator 2, though I did notice some videocassettes of Pokemon (a franchise which wasn't created until 1995) prominently displayed. Plato with her gun robs the video store, which prompts the video store clerk to breathlessly tell her mother on the telephone that she was robbed by the girl from Diff'rent Strokes. Actually, something like that did happen in real life, and so did the subsequent scene where a curious Plato returns to the scene of the crime a few hours later, and is promptly arrested. (A lot of cops investigating the scene of the crime are shown, which makes me wonder if video stores were more popular and more essential services than I originally thought.)

As a quick aside, Plato narrates that Bridges' first trial was deadlocked, and his second trial on a lesser charge ended up with him declared not guilty. Small comfort for Plato, who is sitting in jail. With the assistance of Wayne Newton, Plato is bailed out, and eventually is sentenced to a month of drug rehabilitation. During rehab, Plato manages to telephone to the outside world (correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that kind of thing really, really, really frowned upon in rehab?) "a friend", who agrees to interview her, plus track down her biological mother. And pay Plato $8000. At the airport, waiting for her biological mother to arrive, somehow she misses the announcement her mother's plane has just arrived and has to be told that. Then a few seconds later, her mother walks into the arrival area (I'd really like to know what airline offers such speedy service.) There are tears and hugs, naturally, but the good feelings in Plato are minutes later washed away from her internal narration urging her to get in the spotlight again.

Eleven months later, Plato and her mother are (you guessed it) estranged due to Plato's bad behavior, one thing being that though she kicked cocaine and booze, she is now hooked on Valium, and down to writing prescriptions for herself. Plato is arrested and put on trial again, and while Bridges tries to be a character witness at her trial, soon he is rearrested himself (while listening to "Wild Thing" by Tone Loc, for those who don't get what Bridges state of mind is at) for weapons possession and drugs. Bridges goes to rehab himself, and while he's frantically talking to his mother on the phone (uh...) to get him out, the camera shot of this starts far away and rapidly zooms in very close to him. Well, at least the director tried to do something novel.

After what seems like a very very very long time without seeing him, we finally return to Coleman and his troubles. He goes to court to sue his parents, who countersue, claiming he's incompetent with handling money. In fact, the judge asks him several basic financial questions, which he answers with ease. Remembering that Coleman earlier didn't know what even a bounced check was, either he learned a lot about financial matters over the subsequent years, or the writers of this drama weren't thinking very clearly. Plato narrates that Coleman was successful in his lawsuit, getting over $1 million from his parents, but most of that went to legal fees.

Flashforward to 1996. Plato is clean again, and offered the lead of a movie... though the movie turns out to be an exercise called Diff'rent Strokes: The Story Of Jack And Jill... and Jill. "I mean," Plato narrates over some filmed "lesbian scene" (really tame stuff, just Plato and another woman in a swimming pool holding each other softly... but remember this docudrama was made for TV in 2000), "they called it soft core, but I guess in the end, porn is porn." Of course, the movie doesn't lead to better things, but before getting to that, we cut back to Bridges in rehab. Witnessing a fellow addict screaming and knocking over furniture, Bridges suddenly sees the light (literally) in a vision, and has a spiritual awakening. He calls back his mother to apologize.

The following year, Coleman is seen sitting in a limousine (another excuse to not show the actor's real height), and is joined by Bridges and Plato to be taken to a reunion special that starts in 15 minutes. (Wow, makeup people and other behind the scenes professionals in Hollywood must be faster than I thought.) After the expected hugs and well wishes, Plato drops her purse and out rolls a little brown bottle with white powder in it. Both Bridges and Coleman are upset by this, and within seconds all three are arguing with each other. Plato jabs at Coleman for now working as a low rent security guard, and Coleman jabs back that he's "together" with himself, unlike his former co-stars.

And then the movie immediately cuts to Coleman on duty at his job, rapidly beating the utter crap out of a female autograph seeker in a clothing store, a store that looks like the back of an empty soundstage other than a couple of racks of clothes hugging the wall. While we are wondering why Coleman is applying fisticuffs to that woman in the first place (it's never explained why), his inevitable arrest comes seconds after we see during the wrestling between Coleman and the woman on the floor just how tall the actor playing Coleman really is.

Shortly after Coleman's arrest, we find that Plato made a new friend called Jennifer while working on a string of low budget movies. "I needed a roommate... it was perfect," recalls Plato. We then get a scene of Plato and Jennifer having a friendly chat, which soon leads to Plato kissing Jennifer (on the side of her face not facing the camera) and lying down on bed together... and that's how explicit it gets, sadly, for reasons I brought up earlier. "What happened... well, just happened. I wasn't going to become a lesbian or anything like that."

While this relationship is blossoming, we quickly learn that Bridges has completely turned his life around, getting saved and subsequently marrying and having a child. But when we return to Plato and Jennifer, we learn their relationship has gone on the rocks. There's a blow-up, and Plato runs away. A still seething Jennifer then goes to the press to report on the story between her and Plato, and things hit the fan. On a television news broadcast reporting on Plato's once-fame and now disappearance, the news anchor suddenly says with a straight face to the viewing audience, "We talked to Plato's lesbian lover, Jennifer, to hear what she had to say."

Actually, Jennifer hardly has a thing to say despite having bombshell material, and when the news story next moves to get comments from Bridges, he says "Naw, I haven't heard from her for a while, but I'd like to hear from her... Dana, if you're watching, I'd like for you to get in touch with me." Instead, Plato moves to Oklahoma, where she meets and marries the aforementioned Robert Menchaca, where they live in her motorhome.

Seemingly happy, Plato plans once again to resurrect her career, including appearing on the radio show of Howard Stern. "I knew that going on Howard Stern would bring me back on top," Plato narrates. (Although I haven't listened to much Howard Stern being that I'm in Canada, I have heard enough of him to know you have to be really prepared for being put on the spot concerning just about anything... which Plato somehow apparently didn't consider.) What follows is the day that Plato appeared on Stern's show, and the first sight of the actor playing Stern is extremely unintentionally amusing. Wearing a really obvious sloppy gigantic wig, the actor playing Stern seems to want to disguise his true identity. (Note: As it turns out, the actor playing Stern, as well as the actress playing his sidekick Robin Quivers, are not credited in the Internet Movie Database. Anyone know who they were?)

Getting to the interview, things start pretty well with Stern's typical rapid-fire but comic-tinged pace of direct questions, which Plato pretty much laughs off. Then Stern invites the public to phone in, and things quickly turn south. The first two callers say things like, "I can tell from your voice that you're full of it!", and "Dana, I think you're a junkie lez has-been who belongs in a mental hospital!" Plato's pretty upset by all this, which may explain why the interview ends about a minute later. (Mr. Stern, why did you even bother to have Plato if it was for only three or so minutes?) Before Plato leaves, she requests that a hair from her had that was taken by Stern's crew to be tested for traces of drugs be returned to her.

We cut to the next day, when Plato overdosed in her motorhome and was unsuccessfully revived. Her body on the gurney, the camera hovering over her slowly rises while we hear Plato's spirit commenting, "I could handle the booze, the drugs, losing my career, but that day the callers on the radio made me realize I was just a joke. Twenty-four hours later, I was dead."

Then at her funeral in the next scene, as the mourners pass by her open coffin, she further comments, "Disappointedly, there were only about a dozen people at my wake. But two weeks later there would be a big service in Hollywood, and everybody came.... And I would finally end up on the cover of People magazine. She then concludes the story by saying, "Did I mean to do it? Well, I took enough pills to kill a 108-pound actress three times over. Looking at the train wreck, it was our lives. I can say with all sincerity that being famous young is the worst thing that could happen to me. They say there are no second acts in America.. or is it, 'Everybody loves a comeback'? Hm, I don't know, I guess you would have to ask Todd or Gary."

The end.

Well... after finishing watching After Diff'rent Strokes: When The Laughter Stopped a second time 21 years after my first viewing, like the first time I watched it, I was for the first few seconds afterwards completely stunned by all of what I just watched. Then individual words started to form slowly one by one in my mind, and those words were (among others) "sleazy", "tasteless", "incompetent", and "cruel". Harsh words indeed; I can imagine any television critic who bothered to watch this "docudrama" back when it first aired used those words (or even harsher words) to describe what they had seen. But while I may have used those same words, I must also admit that I could view this program with a dfferent perspective. If you can manage to temporarily put aside any thoughts of the tragic events depicted in After Diff'rent Strokes, it is a truly unintentionally (and hysterically) hilarious experience, making you laugh when your jaw is not dropping down with utter amazement and shock with what you are seeing. I don't think I have to say any more in that conclusion, since I've written practically everything you'll see in it. Now that I have illustrated the complete experience, you should know one way or another if you think you'd be repulsed and call it a new low point for the docudrama genre, or find it pure gold. Come to think about it, since you have just read this entire review, my guess is leaning towards you feeling the latter option.

(Posted September 6, 2021)

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See also: The Christine Jorgensen Story, Evel Knievel, The Legend Of Alfred Packer