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Diff'rent Strokes Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

Norman Lear was looking for a sitcom vehicle to pair Conrad Bain with Gary Coleman, and NBC President Fred Silverman was looking for a project to put his stamp on in his new role at the ratings-starved network. What started as "45 Minutes From Harlem," became "Diff'rent Strokes," with the premise as simple (or not so simple) as "a comedy about a white millionaire who adopts two young, streetwise black brothers."

In November of 1978, "Strokes" replaced the Joe Namath starring "The Waverly Wonders" (Conrad Bain had guest starred twice), and became the hit everyone had hoped for, and so much more. The show tackled many topics from sexual abuse to racism, alcoholism, drug abuse, kidnapping, and bullying, landing guest stars ranging from Nancy Reagan to Mr. T, Muhammad Ali to K.I.T.T. from "Knight Rider."

While there were continuous subtractions and additions to the cast over 8 seasons, and troubled and tumultuous lifestyles of the young actors during and after the show's run, "Diff'rent Strokes" remains a show as charming today as it was from 1978-1986. Sadly, out of the main cast, only Todd Bridges (Willis Jackson) and Danny Cooksey (Sam McKinney) are still with us.

Conrad Bain as Philip Drummond

Widowed millionaire Philip Drummond took on a lot when, as a single father with his own daughter to look after, he did the right thing by adopting his deceased housekeeper's two boys. In the years to come he would hire three diff'rent replacement housekeepers, take on a new wife, a step son, and every challenge a sitcom could possibly throw at him.

Drummond was in control within the show, and Bain had control of the show — he had concept, script and cast approval. He took great satisfaction in working on a project that audiences thoroughly enjoyed. In 1987, Bain reflected, "Best of all was being a part of those kids growing up and learning their craft, being able to put your oar in here and there and give them help — that's what really brought me joy." He also relished his role in helping to normalize mixed race families on TV, receiving fan letters of praise, but also hate from the likes of the Klu Klux Klan.

The former Canadian Army sergeant came to New York to further his acting studies, and a stage career was born. Starting in the mid-1950s, Bain acted in many Broadway shows, while eventually landing small roles on TV (the clerk on "Dark Shadows") and in film (he and Charlotte Rae appeared in Woody Allen's "Bananas"). His resume hit an apex in the 1970s when he played Bea Arthur's pompous conservative neighbor for 6 seasons on "Maude," which gave him the leverage and freedom to pick his follow-up project with producer Lear.

Bain didn't work much after "Strokes," outside of playing George C. Scott's chief of staff on the short lived sitcom "Mr. President," and acting his age as Grandpa in "Postcards from the Edge." His final credit had him stepping back into his Phillip Drummond persona for the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" finale, alongside "son" Gary Coleman. Bain died in 2013 at age 89.

[Fun fact: Conrad had an identical twin brother named Bonar, who appeared as his twin brother on "Maude" and his female Dutch cousin Anna Van Drummond on "Strokes."]

Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson

Gary Coleman was short in stature (due to medical conditions), but gargantuan in talent. A Chicago Harris Bank commercial landed him on Norman Lear's radar, and cast him in a never-aired pilot for a remake of "The Little Rascals." 

He next nabbed parts on Lear's shows "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times," before he was given the role of a lifetime — the precocious, endlessly quotable ("Wha'choo talkin' 'bout, Willis?") Arnold Jackson on "Diff'rent Strokes." Coleman (who was adopted himself) became the star of the show, and a kid in high demand for talk shows, movies ("On the Right Track" and "Jimmy the Kid") and other TV shows, even playing Arnold Jackson on "Hello, Larry," "The Facts of Life," "Silver Spoons," "Amazing Stories," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" finale, and his final credited role, "Robot Chicken."

Yet, the role that defined him also became his albatross. As far back as 1979, he wasn't comfortable with his rising star status, admitting that "being famous is no fun. It's too much trouble because I can't be myself." And when he ran for governor of California in 2003, He told the New York Times, "I want to escape that legacy of Arnold Jackson. It would be nice if the world thought of me as something more." He finished in 8th place, by the way!

Coleman ran into various health, financial and public relation problems throughout his life — many compounded by relentless tabloid attention, others brought on by his participation in barrel-bottom projects with names like "Midgets vs. Mascots." He had two kidney surgeries, his parents embezzled his earnings from him, he took a job as a security guard that had him scrapping with paparazzi, and he was once charged with assault after punching a fan who had asked for his autograph. In his tumultuous final years, the work he could find all seemed to be cameos making fun of his own image, primarily in the early days of celebrity-reality TV. These projects included "The Ben Stiller Show," "The Surreal Life," "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star," and the music video for Moby's "We Are All Made of Stars." Coleman died of a brain hemorrhage at age 42 in 2010.

Dana Plato as Kimberly Drummond

Dana Plato screen tested for the Kim Richards role on "Hello, Larry," and was cast instead in Tandem Productions' other project "Diff'rent Strokes," as Philip's 13 year-old daughter Kimberly. The character was protective of her father, newly adopted brothers, and perhaps sometimes too much of a goody two shoes. 

In a 1983 interview, Plato said "I would have her do something bad for a change. That character is so candy sweet, it's sickening." 

Unfortunately, that comment reveals a lot in retrospect about where Plato was headed. Off screen, the actress made out with her "brother" Willis, overdosed on Valium, showed up to the set drunk, and at 18 "deliberately got pregnant," as screen father Conrad Bain accused her of doing. This caused her to essentially be written off the show after season 6 (they sent her to school in Paris). Plato's Kimberly would only make 5 more appearances over the two final seasons.

Plato was an adoptee herself, and appeared in hundreds of TV ads as a kid, while also being a dedicated figure skater. At 13 she had to choose between the Olympics team or a TV show, and she took the "Diff'rent" path. While she had some early promising roles in films like "Exorcist II: The Heretic" and playing Jane Fonda's daughter in "California Suite," the work dried up after she'd had her son, exacerbating her substance abuse issues (at her lowest point, she drank almost a gallon of vodka a day). By the early '90s, she was "starring" in projects like the infamous softcore/slasher CD-Rom videogame "Night Trap," which was not only responsible for the formation of the ESRB ratings system, but has since been resurrected from its failure into a minor cult classic

Plato became a tabloid fixture by getting breast implants, posing for "Playboy" in 1989, and two years later, robbing a Las Vegas video store with a pellet gun (The clerk told 911: "I've just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff'rent Strokes.") for the sum of $160 (she was bailed out by Wayne Newton). In one of her final credited roles, Plato returned to a familiar title, starring in the porno "Different Strokes" in 1998.

Plato's 1999 death, at age 34, was initially listed as a drug overdose, but was later ruled a suicide. At the time, Bain said of Plato's "tragic case," "I recall her as a beautiful, talented young girl. That's the way she is in my mind." Making matters even more tragic, Plato's son Tyler Lambert committed suicide two days before the 11th anniversary of hers.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett

In order to lure super producer Norman Lear to be a part of what became "Diff'rent Strokes," they made sure to hire one of his favorite actresses, Charlotte Rae. She played newly-hired housekeeper Mrs. Garrett, who replaced Mr. Drummond's previous employee, Arnold and Willis' deceased mother. In the beginning she made it known that "I don't do windows and I don't do boys," but Mrs. Garrett soon softened on them and their charm, onscreen and off, saying: "I feel younger than I have in years."

Her character proved so popular that she lasted only 37 episodes before being spun-off as headmistress of an all girl's boarding school on "The Facts of Life." On the transition from "Strokes" to "Facts" she said, "Hopefully, some of Mrs. Garrett's character will unfold and I will be able to fill her out as a human being. They asked me what her first name was and I said 'Edna.' It just came out." Due to health issues, she left that series after 155 episodes, and was replaced by her college roommate, the late Cloris Leachman. She remained close with Leachman and the "Facts" girls for the rest of her life.

Charlotte Rae Lubotsky had been a fixture in the world of entertainment long before her "Stroke" of good luck. She was Al Lewis' wife on "Car 54, Where Are You?," and ended up becoming the wife of the show's theme song co-composer, John Strauss. They'd also collaborate with Woody Allen in 1971's "Bananas," and in Milos Forman's "Hair" film from 1979. She was nominated for two Tonys (for 1966's "Pickwick," and 1969's "Morning, Noon, and Night"), and two Emmys (for 1975's "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom," and in "Facts of Life" in 1982), and even released a couple of albums. She worked well into her twilight years, with her final role, at age 88, in Jonathan Demme's last dramatic feature, 2015's "Ricki and the Flash."

After a series of various illnesses, cancers and a history of heart failure, Rae died in 2018, at age 92.

[Fun fact: Her mother's childhood friend was Golda Meir, the future Israeli prime minister.]

Nedra Volz as Adelaide Brubaker

When Edna Garrett took off in the middle of Season 2, it left another vacancy in the housekeeping needs of the Drummonds. Enter the grandmotherly Adelaide Brubaker, played by Nedra Volz, who joined the fray right when Philip ran for city council in "The Election," and stuck around for 22 episodes before being replaced by Pearl Gallagher (Mary Jo Catlett) in Season 5. 

While never formally added to the show's opening credits, she made her presence known with terrific comedic timing and quips like: "I ran in a race with 2 other people once, I came in fourth." Volz had a lot of respect for "Strokes" producer Norman Lear, and said "He's a Gray Panther person. He doesn't like his old people put down."

Born into showbiz, she toured with her vaudeville parents as "Baby Nedra," but gave up acting to pursue singing, and then stepped back to raise a family. Years later, she was asked to join a local theater production, which led to an agent, then commercials (McDonalds, Jack In The Box, Amtrak), and her late in life career continued to blossom from there. The 4′ 11″ wonder said, "If they want a crazy old lady, they got me."

She played many a crazy lady, including ones in seven different Norman Lear series, working alongside "Strokes" alumni Conrad Bain on "Maude," and Dody Goodman on "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." She worked opposite Dixie Carter on "Filthy Rich" and "Designing Women." Elsewhere, she got crazy as a turntable whacker in the pilot of "WKRP in Cincinnati," as postmistress for "The Dukes of Hazzard," and playing an ancient, farting housekeeper in Blake Edwards' "10." She was also Wendy's "Where's The Beef" lady Clara Peller's ride in the 1985 film "Moving Violations."

In her free time, she worked as a spokesperson for D.A.R.E., professing "I'm a hug addict." Volz died of complications of Alzheimer's disease in 2003, at age 94.

Dixie Carter as Maggie McKinney-Drummond

Hoping to keep the series fresh, "Diff'rent Strokes" drummed up a second wife for Philip Dummond in Season 6. He fell for highly-successful TV exercise host Maggie McKinney, played by Dixie Carter. 

When the two married, she was a package deal with her own son Sam (Danny Cooksey), which bumped Arnold from the youngest child to the role of older brother. Carter was welcomed to the show with "open arms," but burned bridges on her way out the door, with rumors of her clashing on set with Gary Coleman. "I served two years. I shouldn't have done it. I'm ashamed and I'll never live it down," Carter would later confess. She added, "I took the job for the money, nothing else, and that was all I got out of it."

Luckily Dixie Carter (not that wrestling one) found much success and happiness in her next TV sitcom adventure, "Designing Women," as the sassy and sarcastic Julia Sugarbaker for all 7 seasons and 163 episodes. Later, she scored an Emmy nomination in 2007 for playing Kyle MacLachlin's creepy mom on "Desperate Housewives."

"To me, there's no feeling as gorgeous as the feeling of singing. It's like flying," the Tennessian once spoke of her true passion. She would display her vocal talents through her career on Broadway, and performed cabaret acts, singing songs ranging from Cole Porter to Bob Dylan.

She met her third and final husband, Hal Holbrook, on the set of 1981's "The Killing of Randy Webster," and her final screen role was as Holbrook's deceased wife in 2009's "That Evening Sun."

Carter died of complications of endometrial cancer in 2010 at age 70, almost 2 months before Gary Coleman passed. Holbrook died earlier this year at age 95.

Mary Ann Mobley as Maggie McKinney-Drummond

When Dixie Carter left "Diff'rent Strokes" and the show left NBC for ABC in 1985, Mary Ann Mobley was tasked with becoming Philip Drummond's second second wife, Maggie McKinney-Drummond. 

She was a familiar face in the series, previously appearing as Arnold's teacher that Philip was hot for in Season 2. Mobley was even considered to be the first Maggie, but they deemed her age difference with Bain to be too wide. When called to see if she was interested in replacing Dixie, she said "I'd be there in five minutes," and when asked how she'd play the role diff'rently, she said "shorter. From what I understand, Dixie is a lot taller than I am." Mobley even got to pitch storyline ideas, and since she feels "strongly about the Adam Walsh foundation," they did a memorable episode about her son Sam getting kidnapped.

To show there were no hard feelings between Dixie Carter and the woman who replaced her as Maggie Drummond, Mobley guested on the "Designing Women" Season 5 episode "A Blast From The Past" as a woman from the historical society helping to promote Carter's ancestral home.

Mobley was the first Mississippian to become Miss America, in 1959. She studied acting with Lee Strasberg, then started a stage career before landing a contract with MGM Studios. She then appeared in a pair of 1965 Elvis films, and that same year was named one of the three New Stars of the Year at the Golden Globes. A year later, she met her husband, actor and TV host Gary Collins on the set of the 1966 Jerry Lewis film "Three on a Couch." The two would work together professionally (Miss America pageants, game shows) and on causes near and dear to their hearts (charities, and making documentaries around the world).

After a battle with breast cancer, Mobley died in 2014 at age 77.

Dody Goodman as Sophia Drummond

In Season 3, we were introduced to Philip's sister Sophia Drummond, played by Dody Goodman. She was a bit more down to earth, of the earth, and nuttier than her brother. 

Sophia's first job as a caring aunt had her trying to rid Arnold's school of junk food, and later she tried to sound the alarm of pollution to deaf ears, but she caught everyone's attention when Kimberly's hair turned green after washing it in dirty water. She even tried to help her brother find love, but her matchmaking skills backfired when it became a battle of the haves and have-nots.

Dolores (nicknamed Dody by her brother) dreamed of making a career as a dancer, but Imogene Coca imagined her as more of a comedienne, and so she went down that path successfully. She first made waves on the "Tonight Show" forerunner "Tonight Starring Jack Parr," but soon overshadowed the host, who said he felt "like the announcer of 'The Dody Goodman Show."

Her funny voice, face and humor (which she said she inherited from her mother) splashed about on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (explaining the differences between men and women), as Mary Hartman's mom on that 70s show, as the chime chiming assistant to the principal in "Grease" and its sequel, as Mrs. Stimler in "Splash" and its sequel, and as Miss Miller on the "Alvin & The Chipmunks" cartoon from the late '80s.

Dody was also happy to be just her usual sunny self, dropping in on various talk shows, like Dinah Shore's, where she discussed old TV taboos, and danced the Charleston with Carol Channing. In the star-studded CHiPs episode "The Great 5K Star Race and Boulder Wrap Party," she shared a call sheet with future "Strokes" relatives Todd Bridges and Conrad Bain. She even appeared as a panelist alongside Bain in the game show "All-Star Secrets", which predated both collaborations.

Goodman died in 2008, at age 93, "older than she often said."

Le Tari as Ted Ramsey

Arnold's best friend Dudley had a lot in common with him, including being adopted by a very loving father, Ted Ramsey, played by Le Tari. And yet Dudley's dad kept being used as an excuse for Arnold to hide the truth, first claiming that Mr. Ramsey abused Dudley, and because of that, Mr. Drummond should adopt him too (in actuality, the only hand Mr. R raised was to hug him). Two seasons later, in the special episode about child predators and abuse, a bicycle shop owner (the late Gordon Jump), plied Arnold and Dudley with wine, but when the smell of it is sniffed on Arnold's breath, he fingered Mr. Ramsey as the supplier (don't worry, he was cleared and the real bad guy was stopped). 

In another serious episode, Arnold and Dudley got caught smoking cigarettes, but Mr. Ramsay shocked them all with the horror that it may lead to having their lung removed, which is a surgery he was about to undergo.

Tari had a very short career, but packed in over 20 screen roles in just a dozen years. His first was as one of three Vietnam Vets going to war back home against the Klu Klux Klan in 1976's "Brotherhood of Death." He popped up in numerous one shot appearances on shows like "The Jeffersons," "Starsky and Hutch," "Happy Days," "The A-Team," "Small Wonder," and as a reformed gang member scaring others straight on "What's Happening Now!" His last two credits were in the 1987 satires "Hollywood Shuffle" and "Amazon Women on the Moon."

Tari died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 40.

Robert Rockwell as Tom Bishop

Every successful business man needs a top lawyer, especially when they also have many personal affairs to deal with as well. Enter Tom Bishop, played by Robert Rockwell, who was always there for Philip Drummond for whatever thing writ large in his and his family's lives. 

One of his most important roles for Tom was shoring up the adoption process of Willis and Arnold. Other events he appeared on the scene for were when Mr. Drummond got into a serious car accident, or when Arnold stole a comic book as an initiation ritual to get into an "elite" school club. He at least got the night off and was simply a guest at Phillip's second wedding — which would also mark his final appearance on the show, as well as those of Charlotte Rae, Nedra Volz, Dody Goodman and Le Tari.

Rockwell is perhaps best known for playing a different Philip, Mr. Boynton, a shy biology teacher in the 1950s radio, TV and movie versions of "Our Miss Brooks." Around that time he also played George Reeves' father Jor-El in "Adventures of Superman," and a forest ranger in "War of the Worlds." Later he played the lead man in the western "The Man from Blackhawk," and various roles on "Perry Mason" and "Lassie." In 1983, he appeared in the Gary Coleman film "The Kid with the 200 I.Q.," and became step-father to "Diff'rent Strokes" theme song co-writer Alan Thicke on "Growing Pains." To more modern audiences, he will be instantly recognizable as the loving grandfather always happy to hand out Werther's Original candy to the next generation on many TV ads.

Rockwell died of cancer in 2003 at age 82. His "Miss Brooks" co-star Richard Crenna had died the same month, and their memorial services were held on the same day.