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    Saving Gary Coleman?

    Gary Coleman is back--and this time, he takes Visa.

    The beloved (and disparaged) tube icon of Diff'rent Strokes fame (and infamy) today enters a most curious phase of a curious post-prime-time career--becoming the subject of a cyberspace charity fundraiser, a virtual one-man Jerry's Kid.

    "I'd like to be thought of as not a charity," the 31-year-old former child star says, "but somebody worthy of giving something to."

    Before you utter the inevitable, if obvious, "Whatchu talkin' 'bout?," here's the deal: The Gary Coleman Web-a-Thon (http://webathon.ugo.com). It's the brainchild not of Coleman, but of UGO Networks, a New York-based, self-described underground entertainment Website. The event, running through November 28, is designed to raise money for the ex-kid actor, who in August filed for bankruptcy, citing $72,000 debt. (And, yes, credit cards are accepted.)

    "It's undeniably humorous," says UGO chairman Joe Robinson, "but it's undeniably real."

    As real as the Coleman-branded T-shirts, stickers, lighters and commemorative plates being hawked on the site. As real as the cyber-auction, featuring the Coleman-approved "tiny pimp" suit. As real as the Christmas-themed contest promising to offer up Coleman as "your shopping elf." (Net proceeds for all the above to go the former child star.)

    Oh, the thing is real all right--but is it sincere?

    "I am just the honored and cautious recipient," Coleman says. "I try not to figure out why really they want to do this other than the fact than what they've said--they love and respect me as a person and an artist."

    The way Robinson tells it, UGO hatched the idea of a Web-a-thon after hearing news of the actor's bankruptcy--the latest setback for television's one-time top-paid kid star. In the past 18 months, Coleman has been arrested, tried and sentenced for an attack on a reputedly abusive autograph seeker. In July, he was taken into custody for failing to pay the court-ordered $400 fine. Then the Chapter 7 filing.

    "Somebody said this guy's in trouble--wouldn't it be great to throw a Web-a-thon for him," Robinson says.

    The original plan was to solicit donations--Coleman's blessing or no. But then the Website sucked it up and approached the man himself about the grand scheme. Coleman, who once took his adoptive parents to court for mismanaging his Diff'rent Strokes millions, signed on--eagerly, if not entirely without reservations.

    "I am still chagrined at how they want to do this for me," he says. "I mean, I've never had anybody raise money for me for anything."

    But, as he says, he's not going discourage the effort, either.

    At his bankruptcy filing last summer, the face that once sold a top-rated TV sitcom, pulling down as much as $64,000 a week, said there was plenty of blame to go around for his financial straits--from accountants, to parental units, to himself. Since ending his run as the smart-mouthed Arnold Drummond (nee Jackson) on Diff'rent Strokes in 1986, Coleman has bounced from the occasional business venture (a failed video arcade, included) to occasional TV work (most recently a bit in UPN's Shasta McNasty). But so far, nothing--paycheck, wise--has come close to the bank ensured by Coleman's three magic words: "Whatchu talkin' 'bout?"

    "Just not having an income can be a really distasteful existence," he says.

    In a year that saw former castmate Dana Plato commit suicide at age 34, Coleman says he personally is enjoying one of his better post-Strokes periods. There are advertising prospects, he says. There's an on-air gig (described as an intership) at an FM radio station in Tucson, Arizona.

    And there's the Web-a-Thon.

    Coleman says he doubts proceeds from the fundraiser will erase all his debts: "But, hey, if people want to get behind it...then thank you, thank you, thank you."

    In hyping the event, Coleman has found that, no, not everbody does want to get behind it. In a guest appearance on a local New York radio show in September, Coleman was accused of being a panhandler by angry callers.

    If the morally outraged thought they'd discourage Coleman (or UGO), they were wrong. Gary Coleman, for one, has the sort of thick skin that gets thicker with each monologue gag that names him as its punchline.

    "I just happen to be one who has survived being chewed upon and will always continue to survive being chewed upon," Coleman says.

    "There's nothing anybody can do to stop me."

    American Express also accepted.

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