Gary Coleman the focus of a broadcast museum exhibit

Gary Coleman

Gary Coleman

Hearing that Gary Coleman will be the focus of a major Chicago museum exhibit this summer called to my mind the Diff'rent Strokes star's famous catchphrase of utterly adorable incredulousness: Whatchoo talkin' 'bout?! 

"The Life & Times of Gary Coleman" at the Museum of Broadcast Communications will run from June 26 to September 14, "chronicling Coleman’s popularity and his impact on pop culture in the 1980s" and displaying personal ephemera donated by the late actor's parents. William and Sue Coleman also are scheduled to make an appearance during a seminar at the River North museum July 20 to discuss their adopted son, who died in 2010 at the age of 42 after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

Of all the personalties in the pantheon of broadcasting—all the big names in late-'70s and '80s sitcom TV alone—why mount a show about someone whose face today most commonly appears on ironically worn T-shirts? According to the MBC, Coleman ("one of the biggest stars of the '80s") deserves a local retrospective in part because he's a native of Zion, Illinois, a city 50 miles north of the city. Coleman's quick rise to fame began here, when a talent scout for legendary producer Norman Lear spotted the small wonder in a commercial for a Chicago bank. That led to Coleman landing the central role on Diff'rent Strokes, Arnold Jackson, the chubby-cheeked Harlem kid adopted by wealthy white guy Mr. Drummond.

Coleman's youth was perhaps more harrowing than that of his character. Born with nonfunctioning kidneys, he underwent a pair of transplants by the time he was a teen. Dialysis meds permanently hindered his growth, leaving him a diminutive four feet, eight inches. Professionally, the pint-sized cutup peaked early, burned out when the cute wore off and spent decades wallowing on Hollywood's D-list. Alongside Diff'rent Strokes costar Todd Bridges, Coleman's image became synonymous with the perils of childhood stardom and a go-to punchline.

The involvement of Coleman's parents in the MBC show is curious. In 1993, a four-year legal battle Coleman was waging with his 'rents ended when a judge awarded the actor $1.28 million. The ruling: Mom, Dad and Coleman's former business manager had wrongfully profited off of a minor.

After bit roles serving as mostly a sight gag on Martin, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Married with Children, Coleman filed bankruptcy in '99, surfacing on the occassional TMZ segment and in a widely-circulated mugshot (he was arrested after failing to appear in court on a domestic assault charge). In the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, Coleman joined a field of more than 130 candidates, including watermelon-obsessed "comedian" Gallagher and melons-obsessed publisher Larry Flynt. (He eventually backed Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

"The Life & Times of Gary Coleman," according to the museum release, features Lear and former NBC president Fred Silverman reflecting on "Gary's special talents and career in a special video produced by MBC. There also will be daily screenings of classic Coleman shows donated by Sony Television and other examples of his work shown in MBC's Polk Theater." You gotta wonder if those "other examples" include some of Coleman's latter-day projects: playing Bacon Stains Malone in An American Carol and appearing in something called Midgets Vs. Mascots.

The exhibit coincides with the museum's big-ticket June 22 gala, "A Salute to the MBC: Celebrating the Sights, Sounds & Stars of the '80s." The dress code? Black tie or parachute pants.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)