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    The "Diff'rent Strokes" Kids: Cursed?

    Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, Dana Plato: As kids, cutesy stars of TV's Diff'rent Strokes; as adults, sometime-entries in the police blotter.

    Coincidence or curse?

    "There's something going on," says Robert Giordano, producer of the would-be steamy erotica flick, Different Strokes, featuring an oft-topless Plato. "It's just amazing."

    As for the principals?

    Coleman, 30, due to be arraigned Tuesday on charges he beat up a bus driver who asked for his autograph, isn't doing interviews right now.

    Bridges, 33, once accused--and acquitted--of the attempted murder of an alleged drug dealer, isn't focusing on the past, says his mother/manager Betty Bridges. He's got a new baby (born last month) and a new pet project (his directing debut, The Cleaner, an indie action drama to roll next month).

    Plato, 33, once bailed out of a Las Vegas jail by Wayne Newton (she was in on charges of holding up a video store), couldn't be reached for comment. But she previously has discounted the notion of a "curse."

    Said the onetime Playboy pinup: "I would have crashed and burned no matter what."

    What a long, strange trip it's been since Diff'rent Strokes left the air.

    From 1978-86, the aforementioned trio made for cheery TV siblings in the sitcom about a widowed, white millionaire (Conrad Bain), his daughter Kimberly (Plato) and the two black brothers he adopted, Willis (Bridges) and Arnold (Coleman).

    Coleman was the blandly amusing comedy's chief distinguishing characteristic. He was the short kid with that crowd-pleasing oneliner: Whatchoo talkin' 'bout?

    It was funnier if you forgot he was short because he had kidney problems (he is totally bereft of the organs today) or that he was only 10 and shouldering the burden of pressure-cooker TV job.

    But during the show's run, anyway, it all seemed okay--they all seemed okay. And then the show ended, and nothing seemed okay.

    To former child star advocate Paul Petersen, the post-TV problems of the Diff'rent Strokes kids aren't unique--they're endemic to ex-kid actors.

    "There is nothing that you can do that satisfies people," says Petersen, who himself grew up on the tube as Donna Reed's TV son on The Donna Reed Show and later founded the support group, A Minor Consideration.

    "They think you're a failure if you do not [continue to be] a television star."

    Wayne State University assistant psychology professor Lisa Rapport also doesn't subscribe to anything as easy or kitschy as a "curse."

    In a two-year study of 75 former child actors, the Detroit-based Rapport says she found kid stars weren't that removed from kid civilians--ones from strong families turned out to be happier, better-adjusted adults than ones who weren't.

    "I think that perhaps our perspective is distorted by the fact that...every time somebody gets arrested we hear about it," Rapport says.

    To whit, even before Coleman's July 30 headline-making reputed punch out, the actor-turned-security-guard was the subject of the same monologue punchlines as the once-chronically troubled Bridges and Plato--even if his only previous courtroom time came in a civil case against his parents over allegedly stolen earnings. (And for the record, the judge ruled in his favor.)

    "Gary has always been the person helping others," says Petersen. "...[But] when people bump into Gary, they think they've got Todd and Dana."

    Petersen, who intends to back up the once top-paid kid star at his court hearing next week, asks what buttons must have been pushed for the under-five-foot Coleman to allegedly strike the well-over-five-foot bus driver. (The woman, Tracy Fields, is now suing Coleman for $1.25 million-plus.)

    According to one reputed eyewitness, the red-hot button was a jibe about Coleman's acting career, or lack thereof.

    "She told him, 'No wonder you're a washed-up star,' or something like that," the owner of the uniform store where the alleged attack occurred told reporters.

    "He's ashamed of himself," Petersen says of Coleman.

    "We're supposed to be impervious to abusive fans."

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