What Todd Bridges Is Talking About

By Anna David 04/27/11

As the young star of the TV hit Diff’rent Strokes, Todd Bridges became a bona-fide pop culture icon. Now 45, the actor speaks out about his subsequent life as a crack dealer, his rocky road to sobriety, and why black celebrities can't escape their troubled past.

Sitcom Star Todd Bridges, Then and Now

It’s safe to say that Todd Bridges has been to North Hollywood’s Philadelphia Sandwich Shop before. “Hey, Todd, how are you?” brays the man behind the counter. “When are we gonna get your picture on the wall?” He points a stubby finger at the wall, which is decorated—like many a wall in the vicinity of Los Angeles—with signed headshots of random celebrities.

“Real soon,” Bridges pledges before placing his order.

“You been promising me that your whole life!” the counterman snaps back. The two men share a hearty laugh.

Rest assured, the incident hasn’t been planned simply because a reporter is along for the ride. We’ve arrived at the sandwich shop where Bridges spent many of his formative years—it happens to be down the street from where Diff’rent Strokes was shot—because the cafe I’d selected nearby had been closed. I had driven up to the appointed spot 10 minutes before our scheduled meeting time and discovered Bridges standing sheepishly in front of the locked door. “I always show up early,” he explained as we speed to our alternate destination. “It tends to surprise people.”

That’s no understatement. The 45-year-old actor, who shot to the forefront of pop culture when he was cast as Willis, Gary Coleman’s older brother on the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, is probably best known these days as a Troubled Former Child Star, an all-too-familiar phenomenon. After decades of sobriety, he's grown very tired of that label, and it's not hard to see why.

Bridges was actually the first black child actor to have a regular role on a successful TV series, when he was cast as a young orphan named Josh on The Waltons. But it was his lead role as the wise-cracking Willis in the massive TV hit Diff’rent Strokes that launched him into the stratosphere. Alas, the post-Diff’rent Strokes years were none too kind to the young star: after surviving a traumatic childhood during which he was beaten by brutal father and was regularly sexual abused by a male publicist, Bridges became addicted to crack, which he was also dealing. In 1988, he was arrested for attempted murder (The late Johnny Cochran, the famed O.J. Simpson attorney,  represented him at trial in Los Angeles. He was ultimately acquitted).

While neither of his costars are still alive (Dana Plato, who’d made headlines for various issues relating to addiction, died of a drug overdose in May, 1999, while Gary Coleman, who’d struggled with a variety of legal and health issues, died in May, 2010 after an accidental fall), Bridges has managed to build a sober and healthy life for himself. He chronicled his misadventures in his memoir, Killing Willis, which is being released in paperback this week.

You’re a family man now, with a wife and a 15-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. Is your whole family sober?

No, my wife is just a normal person. We don’t keep alcohol in the house but when we go to parties with her friends, they drink, and I don’t have a problem with it because I don’t care. I can have just as much fun by not drinking. The way I look at it is that I had a good time but I crossed the line somewhere, and that is when my life went bad.

How did you first start using?

Well, [Diff'rent Strokes co-star] Dana [Plato] was smoking pot at her house one day and I just thought, “Hey, okay, I’ll try that.” It didn’t really work for me at the beginning. I would watch Dana be high at work. We’d be in the middle of a scene and she’d just walk off all dazed.

When did your partying get more serious?

When I was 20 and 21. But I could always stop: I’d party Friday and Saturday but stop Saturday night and be fine to go to work on Monday. I’d be fine Monday through Friday. But when Diff’rent Strokes ended, everything caught up with me. People always like to blame Hollywood, but the truth is that Hollywood had nothing to do with my downfall. The managers and producers didn't stop calling. I just disappeared. People would call and ask my agent, “Hey, does he want to do this film?” and he’d be like, “I don’t know, I can’t find him.”

In your book you reveal that your male publicist started to sexually abuse you when you were 12 years old. How did that impact you?

It was very confusing. I tried to tell my parents about it. But when my father believed that guy over me, I wanted to get even with my dad and destroy him. When I discovered there were drugs around, I decided to do it that way—not realizing that it would destroy me and not him. But things are still good. I host World’s Dumbest on Tru TV and I’m on [the Ice Cube T.B.S. show] Are We There Yet? I do a lot of work but no matter where you are, it seems like the public wants you to be somewhere else. But hey, I still make a couple hundred grand a year doing what I do. So that's not so bad.

What was the drug you bottomed out on?

Crystal meth. That’s what got me into the program—that drug nearly destroyed me. I was constantly shooting it for eight months straight. I felt like I could handle crack, but amphetamines drove me crazy. One time I stayed up for like 14 days. That's when you start hallucinating and you get real scared because you think all this freaky stuff is real. I felt like that guy in A Beautiful Mind. He thought he was a secret agent. I thought I had all these girlfriends—I thought all these women were real and they weren’t. I’d say to someone, “Hey, man, let’s not forget about Lisa” and the person would say, “Who? What? There’s no Lisa.” I’d say, “Yes, there is—I picked her up last week and brought her here she’s been here ever since last week.” They’d just shake their head no. And it took me months and months to realize that those people weren’t real. They were very real to me. I was dealing drugs and I was doing the very thing thing that Al Pacino said not to do [in Scarface]: I got high on my own supply.

After you got sober, didn’t you work in recovery?

Yeah, I worked for two years at a place called Washington Medical Center, which isn’t there anymore. At the time, I didn’t really care about acting: all I cared about was staying sober. And then I ran a sober living house in Venice Beach for four years after that. I spent most of my time trying to reach addicted guys, drug offenders who were being tried at the Santa Monica court house. I’d talk to the district attorneys and I'd try to get them to come to sober living instead of jail. I was pretty successful in what I did. Of the 40 or so of the guys who came through my place, I think eight stayed sober—which is not a bad percentage, considering. It was a 12-step program. I had a doctor and counselor on staff. But when I met my wife, getting up at 3 a.m. dealing with all this drama got pretty tiring. Then, I got called to do a film and then my wife got pregnant and I was like, “Uh, I’m not going to be able to deal with our own kid and all the kids in the house." I mean, I felt like these guys were like my own kids, you know? I felt I had 30 kids already.

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Anna David is the New York Times-bestselling author of multiple books about overcoming difficulties and coming out on the other side: the novels Party Girl (HarperCollins, 2007) and Bought (HarperCollins, 2009), the non-fiction books Reality Matters (HarperCollins, 2010), Falling for Me (HarperCollins, 2011), By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and True Tales of Lust and Love and the Kindle Singles Animal Attraction (Amazon, 2012) and They Like Me, They Really Like Me (Amazon, 2013). Find Anna on LinkedIn and Twitter.