Both Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges appear in interviews throughout this cheap-looking movie, so it’s no surprise the material adopts a compassionate posture toward their exploitation in the late-’70s/early-’80s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” and the various legal run-ins that followed. NBC has so much faith in the project that the network is dumping it on Labor Day, and after significantly better trips down memory lane with “Charlie’s Angels” and “Mork & Mindy,” perhaps it’s time to retire the “Behind the Camera” franchise.
The most damning aspect of this particular movie, as constructed by director Robert Iscove and writer Gregory K. Pincus, is that in the narrative sense, it really isn’t a movie at all. Instead, it’s a collection of chronological scenes (each fastidiously identified as “1978,” etc.) punctuated by Coleman’s and Bridges’ recollections — essentially an “E! True Hollywood Story” with actors.
Eschewing any kind of setup, pic opens with NBC wanting to find a series vehicle for Coleman (played by three actors, beginning with Bobb’e J. Thompson, fresh off his own sitcom-cute role in “The Tracy Morgan Show”). Soon enough, he’s parked in a project designed to star “Maude’s” Conrad Bain (John Innes), back in the day when people developed shows around actors Bain’s age.
It’s soon obvious that Coleman is the star of “Strokes,” and his parents (Bruce Young, Lorena Gale) slowly become hypnotized by the big money, hiding the fact that he has kidney disease while subjecting poor Gary to a horrifying schedule that includes dialysis between shoots. With the help of a slimy agent, they also siphon off much of his money, which later prompted a much-publicized lawsuit.
The diminutive Coleman grew increasingly dissatisfied with playing a tyke as he aged into his mid-teens, still trapped by his trademark line “What you talkin’ about, Willis?” Meanwhile, Bridges and “Strokes” co-star Dana Plato (both played by a mere two actors) fool around with each other and eventually grapple with the fate of many a child star, indulging in drugs that led to Plato’s overdose death in her mid-30s. (In a ho-hum bit of stunt casting, Bridges’ sister, Verda, plays Todd’s mother.)
Unfortunately, there’s no real story here, just snapshots calibrated to make the parents look greedy, evoke sympathy for the kids and paint the network execs as preoccupied with their own needs. NBC’s Fred Silverman (a hyperkinetic Saul Rubinek) and Brandon Tartikoff (Adam Reid) fare slightly better than some of the other caricatures.
If this latest nostalgic trip sheds light on the plight of kid actors, consider that a welcome byproduct of a movie clearly born from modest aspirations. And with NBC having largely abandoned the telepic biz — for now, anyway — other iconic ’70s TV shows likely will be allowed to rest in peace.