"Diff'rent Strokes" Kid Dana Plato Dead

Troubled former child star victim of apparent OD one day after declaring herself happy and sober; she was 34

By Joal Ryan May 10, 1999 6:45 PMTags
Actress Dana Plato, who as a kid costarred on the wholesome sitcom Diff'rent Strokes and as an adult seemed bedeviled by its reputed curse, died of an accidental prescription-drug overdose Saturday in Oklahoma, just one day after declaring on nationwide radio, "I've never been happier."

She was 34.

Police said Plato apparently OD'd on Valium and the painkiller Loritab. Autopsy results today showed no sign of illness. Toxicology tests are pending.

On Howard Stern's radio show on Friday, the ex-sitcom star proclaimed herself drug-free, save for painkillers she'd been on since a wisdom-teeth extraction some 18 weeks ago.

"My life is so good now," Plato said. "I've never been happier."

Plato, Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges were the TV kids (adopted and otherwise) of wealthy Phillip Drummond, the patriarch of Diff'rent Strokes, played by Conrad Bain. Plato was Kimberly, the dutiful daughter. She appeared on the show from 1978-84, her run ending when she became pregnant in real life--the condition deemed unsuitable for the virginal Drummond lass.

Costar Bridges was "pretty down" Sunday from the news of his TV sibling's death, his mother, actress Betty Bridges, told E! Online.

"More than anything, Todd and Dana were good friends," Betty Bridges said. "He says he can't believe it."

In their adult years Plato, Bridges and Coleman each had run-ins with the law, fueling talk of the Diff'rent Strokes "curse." Plato's police-blotter woes began in 1991 when she was arrested for robbing a Las Vegas video store. And in 1992, she received five years' probation for forging prescriptions to score Valium.

In 1997, Plato told a reporter she didn't blame her years as a kid star for her adult troubles, including alcoholism. "I would have crashed and burned no matter what," she said.

But former child star advocate Paul Petersen, of the group A Minor Consideration, said Sunday such talk was "nonsense."

"Unless you've been down this road, you can't possibly comprehend the complications of being a former kid star," said Petersen, who as a teen costarred on The Donna Reed Show. "Of course, she was a product of her life on a television show."

Petersen said he saw Plato's death coming--"It was coming nine years ago"--when he bumped into her coming out of a bathroom on the set of the Sally Jessy Raphael talk show, with a substance he said looked like cocaine dripping out her nose.

"We tried and we tried and we tried and we tried," Petersen said.

In the end, Petersen said, intervention efforts were stymied by people who sold the young woman on the idea of the next, great comeback vehicle that never was.

Fellow former child star Johnny Whitaker (Family Affair), who works with A Minor Consideration, stepped in last September to help manage Plato's career--and be a friend.

"She was supposed to be contacting me every day," Whitaker said. "But she hadn't for a couple of weeks."

Whitaker said he'd been unaware of Plato's Stern appearance. On the shock jock's show, Plato said she wanted to clear up a tabloid report that said she was a drug-addicted lesbian.

"It's a total misunderstanding," Plato said.

The ex-kid star said she was engaged to be married--and clean. "I have been sober for the longest time," she said. "Oh, it's a decade now. No joke."

After a caller suggested Plato sounded a "little wired," she offered to take a urine test. She later changed her mind and opted to give the Stern crew a strand of hair for analysis. After the show, she changed her mind again--and asked for the hair back. (She got it.)

Today Stern said he, for one, didn't think she was "on" drugs. He described Plato as seeming in "pretty good spirits."

"It's really kind of sad," Stern said of her death. "It's a little freaky."

Buzz has it the Plato interview--her final one--will not be featured on either Stern's CBS or E! television shows. The host's spokesman could not be reached for comment today.

Whitaker said Plato recently had purchased a motor home with plans to travel the country this summer with her teenage son.

"She told me that she had been working on her life, like we all do, one day at a time," Whitaker said.

Plato died at her fiancé's parents' house in Moore, Oklahoma. The couple stopped there during a drive back from New York, en route to Los Angeles. Police say Plato complained of being tired on Saturday afternoon and retired to take a nap.

At 9:40 p.m. fiancé Robert Menchaca, 28, found Plato "unresponsive and cold to the touch," police said. Menchaca's mother--a nurse--and brother attempted to revive the actress, but couldn't. Plato was pronounced dead on arrival at nearby Southwestern Medical Center.

"She's a beautiful girl," Whitaker said. "She was really planning on getting everything together."

Plato was born November 7, 1964, in Maywood, California. She broke into commercials as a preteen. In 1973 she was offered the possessed child lead in The Exorcist. Her mother vetoed the job, the demonic horror film deemed an unsuitable work environment. Diff'rent Strokes, however, was okayed. The family sitcom rode Gary Coleman's preternatural comic timing to the top of the Nielsens, making young stars of all its kid actors.

After a stint in rehab, Plato struggled to revive her career in the 1990s (a 1989 Playboy spread failed to do the trick). She did manage on-camera work--in would-be steamy B-movies such as Different Strokes: The Story of Jack & Jill...and Jill (1997).

Survivors include her son, Tyler.

Said Petersen, ticking off names of ex-kid actors who met premature ends: "Dana Plato is now part of legacy that includes Anissa Jones [Family Affair], Alfalfa [Carl Switzer], Bobby Driscoll...It's a long list."

(Originally published at 9:40 a.m. 5/9/99.)