Which is worse: having it all and losing it, or never having it in the first place?
For the sad and stunning Dana Plato the lethal combination of losing it all, typecasting woes, drug abuse, and depression led to her suicide in 1999. This was a morose young woman; her melancholy is clear in almost every photo taken of her in the years immediately before her death. And,
The television sitcom phenomenon of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Diff’rent Strokes, mined a surprisingly familiar story for its success. Barring some very slight character and situational changes (superficial to anyone recognizing it) the show was nothing more than a re-boot of a popular 1960’s sitcom, Family Affair.
The CBS show Family Affair ran from 1966 to 1971. The premise was a twist on the fish-out-of-water story. The “fish” in this case was Uncle Bill, played by Brian Keith. This man-about-town, the swinging bachelor with a butler named Mr. French (character actor Sebastian Cabot), lived a free-wheeling life of wine, women, and song in his New York City luxury apartment. And then, one day, he learned his two nieces and a nephew, having recently lost their parents in a car crash, would be moving in with him from their native Indiana. Thus, the swinging bachelor had to settle into a life of parenting and domesticity overnight.
The show’s stars were its three children. The youngest, portraying fraternal twins Buffy and Jody Davis, were played by child stars Anissa Jones and Johnny Whitaker. The older sister of the twins was named Catherine, but everyone called her “Cissy”. Cissy was fifteen in the show at its start, but she was played by
Cissy, like Kimberly later in Diff’rent Strokes, was not fully developed as a character as the show’s comedy derived more from Buffy’s and Jody’s pranks and bad behaviors than her “teen” angst. Kathy Garver was a veteran, though; she had first acted at age 9, and when she was 10 she played a child slave in the 1956 blockbuster, The Ten Commandments. Up until her appearance in Family Affair, she was fast-tracking as a rising starlet, working with others in her peer group such as Kurt Russell and Patty Duke, but also opposite veterans like Richard Chamberlain and Peter Graves. She was attending UCLA when she got the role of Cissy, and she finished her degree, while working, in 1968.
When the show folded its tent, Kathy carved a niche for herself doing a very impressive number of voice character roles in cartoons and in commercials. She married and had a son. She has written songs for audio books and directed Amy Tan when the author narrated her own novel, The Opposite of Fate. Today, Kathy is a well-adjusted adult whose voice work is sufficiently in demand that director Ron Howard has used her for sound in four of his films (one of which was Apollo 13, coincidentally an Academy Award winner for its sound).
Johnny Whitaker, as Jody, was likewise a child star by the time he reached Family Affair. He had appeared at the age of three in a local TV commercial. In 1965, he had a continuing role on General Hospital. When Family Affair began, Whitaker’s true age of seven was close to the six-year-old he portrayed. During Family Affair’s run he appeared in a TV film called The Littlest Angel, and he also appeared in an episode of The Virginian in 1969. After his show’s demise, Whitaker went on to star in Saturday morning fare (Sigmund and the Sea Monsters) and in several Disney films. He acted last in a musical stage production of Tom Sawyer in 1973. He spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Portugal; back in the United States he attended Brigham Young University, getting a degree in Communications in 1986. He then entered the regular working world, got married (1984), and divorced (1988). He joined his sister’s talent management company, Whitaker Entertainment. He also became a certified drug counselor.
As a former child star, he knew the exploitations of finances and other pitfalls of child stardom, and he sincerely wanted to be a good guide for new, young talent. His motivation was the first-hand experience of watching his TV “sister”, Anissa Jones, spiral into drug addiction and an early death at the age of 18.
The parallels between Family Affair and Diff’rent Strokes extend past the small screen. For the girl Anissa Jones, who played Elizabeth “Buffy” Davis on the hit sitcom, one would think life would be great afterward.
Anissa Jones (full name Mary Anissa Jones) was a Midwestern kid, born in West Lafayette, Indiana. She was about 18 months older than Johnny Whitaker – her 6-year-old Buffy was played by an 8-year-old Anissa. When she got the role of Buffy, the celebrity that attended this character had not been predicted. However, within just a few years, the Buffy character figured on everything from lunch boxes to paper-doll cut-outs. She was hugely popular. In 1969 she had a bit part in an Elvis movie, The Trouble with Girls.
Buffy lugged around a spinsterish doll the show had named “Mrs. Beasley”. Interest in this one-of-a-kind TV doll was so great that Mattel created one for mass consumption, and it was very popular. When the show shut down production in 1971, the 13-year-old Anissa tried to break into films. She even unsuccessfully auditioned for the macabre classic, The Exorcist, as the main character, the demon-possessed girl Regan MacNeil.
Brian Keith, her “Uncle Bill” from Family Affair, developed a television series. He offered her a job. It ran from 1972 to 1974, but Anissa did not want to work in television. Adding to her mid teen angst was her parents. Her mother and father had divorced in 1965, but had fought continually over custody of Anissa and her younger brother, Paul. Her father, in 1973, was finally granted full custody of the children, but that year he died of heart disease. Her brother Paul went to live with their mother; Anissa decided to bunk in with a friend. She started skipping school, and her mother reported her to police as runaway. She spent months in a juvenile facility in state custody. She was released into her mother’s care, but almost immediately began getting into trouble, shoplifting and taking drugs. She dropped out of high school in 1975 (age 17), and took a short-lived job at a doughnut shop.
Anissa felt she could not get work as she was now typecast as “Buffy”, and she had no offers pending. Cash flow was an issue. Unlike many child stars, the incomes for the children of Family Affair had been protected. [Gary Coleman, earning about $25,000 per episode and more on Diff’rent Strokes, had been systematically bilked out of his earnings as a minor by his adoptive parents. When the show ended, he was broke.]. Anissa Jones’ earnings from Family Affair had been placed in trust and invested in US Government Savings Bonds (a surprisingly prescient move on the part of her management).
When Anissa turned 18 in March 1976, she was given legal access to her accumulated money. At the time this was about $180,000 (roughly $800,000 today). With her newfound financial freedom and emancipation she took her younger brother Paul and the two moved into an apartment near their mother’s house.
In the wee hours of August 28, 1976, less than six months after coming into her funds, Anissa Jones was dead. She was discovered in the bedroom of a beach house where she and her new boyfriend had partied all night long with others. Her death was recorded as an accidental drug overdose, and the cocktail the coroner found led him to comment it was one of the most extreme overdose cases he had ever seen. In her body were found cocaine, PCP, Quaaludes, and Seconal.
Anissa was cremated without a funeral. Her ashes were cast into the Pacific Ocean. She had most of her trust money, however – she had only managed to burn through about $17,000 of it, and she left $63,000 in cash and more than $100,000 in savings bonds. Her brother Paul died of a drug overdose in 1984.
The series then focused on the exploits and adventures of the two younger boys. Kimberly Drummond, the teenage girl played by Dana Plato, was the oldest but her role was largely as a foil for Gary Coleman’s character (she earned about $15,000 per episode, half of what the pint-sized Coleman made). Coleman quickly became the break-out star of the show. At one time he was the highest paid child actor in television’s history (that record today goes to Angus T. Jones, the “half” man in the long-running, embattled sitcom Two and a Half Men).
Dana Michelle Strain had been born to an unwed teen mother on November 7, 1964 (strangely, her death certificate lists her birth date as November 1, 1963. It is possible the 1964 date is incorrect and that Dana purposefully shaved a year off her age to get the job on Diff’rent Strokes). Her mother, Linda, already had an 18-month old toddler and could not cope with another infant. She adopted Dana out to a family named Plato in June 1965. She was given her new surname, the family lived in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley, and by the age of three her adoptive parents had divorced.
Dana’s adoptive mother, Florine “Kay” Plato, began shopping Dana around for commercial work in Hollywood. She appeared in her first commercial at the age of seven and would go on to do over a 100 more and appear in print ads. Dana would later claim that she was offered the part of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist (for which Anissa Jones had auditioned). She also stated she had been offered the child hooker’s role in 1978’s Pretty Baby (the vehicle that launched child model Brooke Shields into the realm of child film star). William Peter Blatty recalled no such offer made to Dana, and similarly the director of Pretty Baby reported he only had Brooke Shields in mind for the role she immortalized.
Regardless, Dana Plato had a similar natural appeal along the lines of the very popular Brooke Shields. She had largish eyebrows which she did not bother to downplay. She was freckled and dark blond, with a Cupid’s bow upper lip. She was a genuinely pretty girl, and a fresh face.
She appeared in a 1975 episode of The Six Million Dollar Man (in which The Bionic Woman was introduced). She also starred in a made-for-TV movie Beyond the Bermuda Triangle that same year. A couple more appearances of episodic television rounded out her career before she made her big-screen film début at 13 in 1977’s Return to Boggy Creek. She also played in the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s California Suite and The Exorcist sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic. She was a figure skater and was sufficiently athletic to seriously consider training for a spot on the US Olympic team. She also appeared once on the anti-talent variety program, The Gong Show.
Once she landed the part of Kimberly Drummond, though, her mother decided that figure skating was no longer a part of her life, and Dana should concentrate on her acting. However, she had no chance to cast any shadows on Diff’rent Strokes – the show was all Coleman’s, and everyone on-set knew it. There was no upstaging; no one even tried.
Dana played her straight-girl part of Kimberly without complaint for a few years. She smoked pot while working on the show, and dabbled in cocaine usage. By her late teens, though, she was
Diff’rent Strokes wound down in 1986 – during its last season Dana reprised her Kimberly role in several episodes, but she was really not part of the Drummond family any longer. When the show ended, so did Dana’s acting career.
Maureen McCormick had the dubious distinction of being the iconic Marcia Brady on the mega-hit sitcom, The Brady Bunch (which had ended its run just a few years before Diff’rent Strokes started). As Dana would later discover, once the brand of a certain character is stamped upon an actress, Hollywood doesn’t want to hear from her. Maureen struggled to be taken seriously and in short order (like Anissa Jones) she was on drugs and living a reckless life. She became a coke hag – her consumption and need for cocaine was a quiet joke in Hollywood, and she purportedly became a coke whore of sorts, entering into a long-term and destructive relationship with a drug dealer only so her supply could remain steady. She reported once huddling in paranoid fear on the floor of a closet during a several-day cocaine binge. Unlike Anissa Jones, however, Maureen McCormick finally managed to come to grips with her reality as “forever Marcia” and cleaned up her act.
Todd Bridges of Diff’rent Strokes similarly felt the same crunch as Dana in Hollywood. He, too, was typecast, and he, too, entered a world of drugs and lawlessness. He was arrested several times for weapons possession, drug possession, and assault. He, too, like Maureen McCormick, got help for his substance abuse issues, and moved on. He now features in the reality-TV video farce America’s Dumbest… along with other notorious celebrities such as Tonya Harding and Danny Bonaduce.
Gary Coleman suffered as well. He learned he’d lost most of his earnings through his parents’ embezzling. He also was saddled with a liability – his stunted growth was the result of a medical condition (kidney disease). While “cute” as a child, his stature made it impossible for an adult Gary Coleman to work in any serious capacity. As late as the age of 32, he complained to a television interviewer that he was still a virgin, and was tired of that condition. He eventually married a woman (whose motives for marrying him in 2007 were suspect). The couple divorced in 2008, but the woman continued to live in Coleman’s house and avail herself of his bank accounts. He fell down some stairs at home, and died from his injuries in 2010. His death was highly suspicious, with some believing his ex-wife may have “helped” him down the stairs.
Dana, though, suffered in other ways. She was stuck with a nobody for a husband, and she, like Maureen McCormick, couldn’t seem to attract the right kind of attention professionally. She did almost anything for publicity or to generate interest. In the wake of giving birth she got breast implants (of a “normal” size, mostly just to help her feel more feminine). In January 1988, her adoptive mother died of a blood disease.
Despairing of ever being noticed again, the 25-year-old approached Playboy magazine to do a nude pictorial spread. Photos were taken of her in the Arizona desert in late 1988. They appeared in the
Loose ends became normative for her. In March 1990, she and Lambert divorced, with him getting sole custody of their son Tyler (a surprising development since he was also a drug user and allegedly involved in dealing cocaine). Afterward, she floundered. She moved to Las Vegas for a fresh start, and got a low-paying job at a dry-cleaning business in 1991. Her Diff’rent Strokes money had apparently not been managed well, and she was broke. She was also addicted to various drugs. In late February 1991, with little motive except to claim she needed rent money, Dana Plato, former teen sweetheart, held up a Las Vegas video store at gunpoint.
Her notoriety from her criminal behavior at least generated enough publicity to get her some work. She made a Grade-Z movie called Bikini Beach Race in 1992. The same year she featured in another film, The Sounds of Silence, and she did voice work for a video game called Night Trap. It is in this that Dana Plato might have made a very lucrative living, much like Kathy Garver (“Cissy” of Family Affair) did. Dana Plato had a certain melodious timbre, and she would have done well in that line.
However, legitimate work was not to be. She finally succumbed to the pressures of being broke and unknown. She made a hard-core porn movie (featuring her fully nude, with vaginal penetration,
She appeared in six more low-budget legitimate films between 1995 and 1998 (one of which went straight to video). Then, in 1998, she featured in a soft-core porn movie called Different Strokes. This movie capitalized on Dana’s celebrity. She featured nude in it which generated some buzz; more lucrative was the fact she did a love scene with another woman. In 1998, she told a lesbian magazine she really was a lesbian but later recanted this, saying she had only “experimented” with lesbianism. [Her original “outing” was in all likelihood an attention-getting ploy.].
Dana was completely desperate. After the soft-core Different Strokes, she appeared in one more movie, 1999’s Silent Scream (in which she played a prosecuting attorney). Dana, unfortunately, had already found another loser to leech off her. This was a 28-year-old (about seven years her junior). She and he lived in an RV in a park in Navarre, Florida. Still trying for a comeback and in her mid 30s, Dana was booked to appear on Howard Stern’s show in New York City. She flew up to do the show, leaving her boyfriend in Florida (she described him to Stern as her “fiancé”). She also told Stern her money woes stemmed from an accountant who had absconded with over $100,000 of her money (and allegedly made off with a total of over $11 million stolen from all his clients). This man, she said, remained at large.
Her interview with Stern on May 7, 1999, was emotionally overcharged for Dana, with callers to the show heckling her and calling her names. Stern seemed sympathetic to her, and plugged an upcoming public appearance of hers, a concert event she would emcee in Chicago in the next two weeks. She came away from the interview (having aired her dirty laundry thoroughly – drug use, criminal behavior, etc.) feeling perhaps a bit drained. She returned to Florida to her boyfriend and their RV.
The next day, Dana and her boyfriend drove off in the RV toward California. They stopped at the boyfriend’s mother’s house in Moore, Oklahoma, for a Mother’s Day visit. On May 8, 1999, Dana Plato told her boyfriend she was going to lie down in their RV. She never awakened, and it took her boyfriend a few hours to realize she was dead and to call 911. Police were dumbfounded by the time lag, especially when he gave the lame excuse that he thought she was merely sleeping. However, he had the presence of mind to snap off several post-mortem Polaroid pictures (hoping to exploit them and cash in) of her lying dead on the RV’s bed before authorities arrived.
At autopsy, her death was recorded in the category of “violent, unusual, or unnatural”. It was noted she had toxic concentrations of the drugs carisoprodol (Soma) and hydrocodone/acetaminophen (Lortab; hydrocodone is more powerful than codeine). She had several tablets still undigested in her stomach. The cause of death was finally ruled “suicide” though she left no suicide note. Past behavior and old scars from cuts on her right wrist led to this ruling.
Although her boyfriend came under scrutiny for his opportunistic behavior and poor judgment about her condition, he was eventually cleared of any suspicion in her death. Police believe that (like Marilyn Monroe) she simply kept taking pills and in her drugged state forgot how much she had taken. Current thinking is she died from an accidental overdose and not an intended suicide.
Child star deaths are perhaps the most sensational simply because the public always wonders, “What went wrong?” It seems inconceivable that a child who had a wealth and fame that most people never achieve, would, in adulthood, take his or her own life (accidentally or otherwise). The dichotomy between fame and obscurity is not understood by the average news reader.
Dana Plato was a pretty but sad young woman who enjoyed early celebrity only to see it slip from her grasp. Her decline and demise are pitiful and sympathetic despite the circumstances. Her drug and alcohol use exacerbated her already shaky self-confidence and sense of self-worth. Dana Plato’s depression and isolation killed her as surely as did her drug use. Tragic? Absolutely. Avoidable? Probably not: without help from a genuinely caring party, the death of Dana Plato was inevitable.
Dana's "Playboy" layout is in here
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