‘What chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?’

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DebbieNorrellBox

The first time I saw Todd Bridges it was on the show “Fish,” with Abe Vigoda. “Fish” was a spinoff of “Barney Miller.” I didn’t realize until I read the book “Killing Willis: From Different Strokes to the Mean Streets to the life I always Wanted” that Bridges was also featured on “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie” and the landmark series, “Roots.” If you don’t remember Bridges from these shows you may remember him from “Different Stokes” where he played the older brother to Gary Coleman. Todd was the subject of the popular catch phrase “What chu talkin’ ’bout Willis?”

Recently I saw Bridges on the “Joy Behar Show” promoting his book. I was happy that Simon and Schuster sent me a copy. In 275 pages Bridges opens up about his life before and after “Different Strokes.” He comes from a two-parent family but all was not happy on the home front. He was verbally abused by his dad and molested by a man that was supposed to be helping him with his career.

Your recollection of Bridges is probably in a courtroom standing next to Johnnie Cochran. For awhile every time you saw him he was “catching a case.” Drugs nearly consumed him. He says that suicide by cop was easy compared to what he had in front of him. He had gone from a teen idol to a tabloid joke. He was broke with no career and had been to rehab five times. Finally the lightbulb came on and Bridges has been clean for more than a decade.

I’m happy for him. Bridges had a recurring role on “Everybody Hates Chris.” He appeared as Monk in 17 episodes. On recent entertainment shows Bridges talks about how he is snubbed by Coleman and that he is always labeled by Hollywood as a drug dealer and addict when he has been clean for 16 years. He doesn’t bite his tongue, he attributes the treatment largely to racism, comparing his situation with many White childhood stars that have been down the same path but continued to work in television and movies.

If you like autobiographies you will enjoy this, if you like reading stories about people who have gone from good to bad and back to good this is the book for you. Let’s hope that Bridges has shaken the “Different Strokes” curse and he will continue to thrive. I would hate to see him go down the path of the late Dana Plato and the angry Coleman. One thing I really admire about Bridges is his relationship with his mother. She stuck by him throughout this whole mess and tried to keep money set aside for him from the days when he was making big bucks.

He has a brother and sister who are both actors, Jimmy Bridges and Verda Bridges. His father, James Bridges Sr., became one of the first prominent Black Hollywood agents, while his mother, Betty A. Bridges, was also an actress and later became one of Hollywood’s greatest managers and acting coaches. Today, Todd is a working actor, director and producer and he and his brother James Jr., have partnered to establish their own production company, Little Bridge Productions. He is married and has a son, Spencir, and a daughter, Bo.

(E-mail the columnist at deb­bienorrell@aol.com.)

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