There's no real way to write about Gary Coleman without acknowledging that the past 25 years of the man's life have served as a walking punchline for the American public, who took easy shots at a fairly tragic figure:
By all accounts, Coleman's life was a tragic one, both pre- and post-fame. As the New York Times notes in their obituary of the former child star, Coleman told the Associated Press in 2001 that he "would not give my first 15 years to my worst enemy. And I don't even have a worst enemy." Former Gawker editor Richard Rushfield, who knew Coleman in 1984, wrote a post on his Tumblr, noting that "of all the bad hands people have been dealt in life, of the people who I have known up close, compared to the starving in Mongolia, Gary had as about a rotten combination as anything I'd seen. I won't give the details, but there was very much a horrifying tragedy about his life, a desperation that I think at age 16, was too big for us his classmates to comprehend or take in."
Coleman, who became a child star thanks to his now-iconic role as Arnold Drummond in the 1980s hit sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, saw his career—and the millions of dollars he'd made—vanish thanks to shady management by his parents, who led him to file for bankruptcy roughly ten years after Strokes went off the air. In the following years, Coleman, needing money like most adults do, took on a job as a security guard in Hollywood, which made him an easy target for mockery, someone to kick while they were down—a position he maintained for the rest of his adult life, making headlines only for criminal (assault charges) or reality television (The Surreal Life, Divorce Court) purposes.
Those who knew him say Coleman was a "tortured soul" who simply wanted a normal life, and was desperate, at times, to have the childhood he felt he was denied while growing up: as his attorney, Randy Kester, tells the Salt Lake Tribune: "Down in his basement, he had this huge [model] railroad. This track was 50 feet long, and it's got all these little buildings and trains and train car sets. I think he just loved that because he could do that and no one would bother him. If he could have the perfect day, he would wake up and have breakfast and go play with his trains."
Here, at age 17, Coleman discusses his hopes for the future, and expresses his frustration with Hollywood executives who won't listen to his ideas. He also seems comfortable with the idea of simply walking away, something that he'd never actually get the chance to do: "If someone told me...if someone came up to me and gave me the option and said, 'Here, sign this piece of paper, no regrets, no strings attached, you go back to home, go to school, do whatever you want for the rest of your life,'" Coleman says, "I guess I'd do it tomorrow."
It took about 2.5 seconds for hacky jokes about Coleman's death to start flying around on the internet, which isn't terribly unexpected, as the public has placed Coleman in that role for so long. But that's a shame, and not just for the obvious reasons, but because Coleman's legacy should not simply be that of a cautionary tale or a go-to reference for shitty comedians. Gary Coleman was really funny. He had insanely good timing and the ability to take a so-so joke and turn it into something special. There's a reason his catchphrase has held up for 25 years: the best lines were the ones Gary Coleman delivered, not the ones told about him.
Gary Coleman: Death Of A Child Star [Salt Lake Tribune]
Gary As I Knew Him [Rushfield Babylon]
Gary Coleman, 'Diff'rent Strokes' Star, Dies At 42 [NYTimes]