Fending Off Illness and Family, Gary Coleman Turns 21, An Age He Wasn't Sure He Would See

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

It might have been the teary finale of a TV movie—the kind of movie Gary Coleman would have been perfect for. The young hero, dogged since birth by a life-threatening condition, spends his childhood under a cloud, enduring painful medical treatments and listening to ominous predictions about his future. Then, for his 21st birthday, his friends gather around a cake in Los Angeles. The joy in the room is genuine, the laughter unforced. This is a celebration, after all, of survival. "Whenever I felt sick," says Coleman, who starred for eight years on the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, "I never thought I'd see this birthday."

Unfortunately, the script has a few complications. Not everyone is there to celebrate with Gary. Among the missing are his parents, chemical lab inspector W.G. Coleman, 49, and his wife, Sue, 45, a nurse. Estranged from his parents for nearly a year, Gary has accused them of being extravagant with his money and not allowing him to grow up. In turn, they accuse his best friend, Dion Mial, 25, and Dion's mother, Terry Madrid-Mial, of exercising a Svengali-like influence.

"It was difficult not sharing Gary's birthday," says his mother. "But I know he'll come around. Gary went through some very difficult periods with his health. If he feels some anger at the world, that's okay, because I feel it too."

Born with an atrophied right kidney, Coleman lost the use of his weak other kidney when he was 5. He underwent his first transplant in 1973, and that year began taking the immunosuppressive drugs that stunted his growth. The transplant failed in 1983, and in 1984 he had another. When that transplant failed two years later, Gary decided not to have a third operation; instead, he gives himself a form of dialysis four times a day.

His reliance on dialysis worries his mother, who has been told he can use his machine for only seven to 10 years before the lining of his abdomen will start to break down. If he refuses a transplant then, he will have to undergo an intravenous dialysis treatment that Gary finds more painful. "As long as I live, there will be relapses, and I know that in the future I will need another transplant," concedes Coleman, whose activities now are limited only by his need to be near his dialysis machine. "But as long as I take care of myself, nothing can go wrong."

But much has gone wrong between himself and his mother and father. In September Gary left Chicago and bought a house with Mial in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo. "My family situation had deteriorated," says Gary. "Everybody was worrying about money—the agent, my manager, my parents—where their cut would come from if I wasn't working. I didn't care about working. For the first time, I was looking to have fun, make friends, do things other guys my age do."

Gary was 9 years old when he won his role on Diff'rent Strokes, playing a smart-aleck ghetto kid adopted by a patrician WASP. A quizzical munchkin with a vaudevillian's timing, he became a hit almost instantly, earning invitations to the Tonight Show and the White House. But on the Diff'rent Strokes set, Gary had a reputation as an undersize star with an oversize ego. "I took a negative view of Hollywood," Coleman admits. "That gave me a reputation as a brat."

Gary passes some of the blame to his parents. "They didn't tell me what to do," he says. "Whatever I said went. I suffer now because of it." Part of that suffering, he says, involves money handled by his parents and their advisers. "They made stupid investments," claims Gary, who earned $70,000 a week at his peak. "They spent too much on cars, houses, furniture. I did my part, too—I spent thousands of dollars on model trains."

In 1986, when Diff'rent Strokes ended, Gary's income dropped drastically. He did a couple of guest shots, tended to his health—and grew closer to Mial. The two had met in 1978, when Mial's mother, then a supervisor of on-set tutors, brought him to visit the Diff'rent Strokes set, and Mial later appeared in Coleman's 1979 TV movie, The Kid From Left Field. Frustrated by a lackluster acting career, Mial continued in school full-time—a decision that Coleman, who feels his own education was neglected, professes to admire. "I thought I would fail miserably at things Dion was succeeding at," says Coleman.

Today, Coleman, Mial and his mother function as an unconventional nuclear family. Their primary concern, at the moment, seems to be Gary's career. "People in the business don't take me seriously as a 21-year-old man," says Coleman, whose last acting job was in a 1987 Howdy Doody special. "I know I'm hard to write for. I'm only 4'9" and I'm black. It's not the talent or my ability to carry off a role. It's just that I'm so short." As an alternative to acting, he and Mial are trying to peddle a nightclub act. The pair is also shopping a pop single, The Outlaw and the Indian.

Neither project is likely to impress Gary's parents—or former agent Vic Pernio, who accuses the Mials of undermining Gary's relationships "for their personal gain, including Dion's show-business career." W.G. Coleman agrees. "There are people who latch onto you like a leech and suck you dry," he says. "Not just financially, but mentally and emotionally." He and Sue suspect the Mials are "isolating Gary and convincing him not to talk to us."

Rejecting these allegations, Terry Madrid-Mial insists she is concerned only with Coleman's well-being. "I'm trying to help Gary get a realistic understanding of his life and his career," she says. "Then he can form his own opinions. Those are his priorities. Not what his parents feel."

Gary himself claims he's just making up for lost time. Being on Diff'rent Strokes, he says, "did not afford me the chance to grow like a normal kid. I have a social life now. I have friends who are Dion's friends." Gary still doesn't date, he says. "It's not necessary," he explains. "Of course, I enjoy girls. I enjoy looking at girls and acting silly with girls. But I think the friends and family atmosphere I've acquired with Dion's help have taken the place of anything I needed to do on my own."

In their split-level house outside Zion, Ill., in a room they have turned into a shrine, Gary's parents regard photographs of their only child glumly. "I want the world for him," says Sue. "He has already experienced success, but it's nothing like what he could have if he had peace of mind." Gary's father wants something simpler. "I want him to pick up the phone and say, 'How ya doing? How's Sweetie Pie?'—his parrot—and 'How's Venus?'—his dog," says W.G. Coleman. "I want him to get in touch with his grandmothers. It's time for us to be a family again."

—Tim Allis, and Doris Bacon in Los Angeles and Lynn Emmerman in Chicago

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