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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

May 8, 1999

It’s that time of week again!  Today is the day we open up our history textbooks and pop culture reference books for another trip back through time.

The Tuesday Timeline has had phenomenal success since I kicked off this theme day at the beginning of 2012, and it is now my most viewed day of the week.  I know success when I see it, so the Tuesday Timeline will be continuing for the foreseeable future.

Today happens to be the 8th of May, and I have a topic that looks back on a supposed “curse”.  But, we’ll get to that a little bit later.

We have quite a few celebrities celebrating a birthday today.  Blowing out the candles on their birthday cakes today are David Attenborough, Don Rickles, Toni Tennille, Emilio Delgado (better known as Luis from Sesame Street), Gary Glitter, Bill Legend (T. Rex), Philip Bailey (Earth, Wind & Fire), Chris Frantz (Talking Heads), Alex Van Halen, Melissa Gilbert, Darren Hayes, Enrique Iglesias, Martha Wainwright, and Matthew Davis.

Wow...lots of musical talents celebrating a May 8 birthday...who knew?

And, some of the happenings in history for May 8 include the following...

1794 – Branded a traitor during the Reign of Terror, Antoine Lavoisier, a French chemist is tried, convicted, and guillotined on the same day in about the worst day of your life!

1861 – Richmond, Virginia is named the capital of the Confederate States of America

1877 – The first Westminster Kennel Dog Show is held in New York City

1886 – Chemist John Smyth Pemberton begins selling a patent medication...a carbonated beverage known as Coca-Cola

1902 – Mount Pelee erupts in Martinique, killing over 30,000 people, and destroying the town of Saint-Pierre

1912 – Paramount Pictures is founded

1919 – The proposal of a moment of silence to commemorate the Armistace of World War I is made by Edward George Honey, leading to the creation of Remembrance Day and Veterans Day

1927 – French war heroes Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli disappear in the attempt to make the first transatlantic flight from Paris to New York

1945 – Combat ends in Europe, one day after V-E Day is established

1970 – Hard Hat Riot erupts in New York City as blue-collar workers clash with demonstrators opposing Vietnam War.

1972 – Four Black September terrorists hijack Sabena Flight 571

1976 – First steel roller coaster with vertical loop, Revolution, opens at Six Flags Magic Mountain

1980 – The eradication of smallpox is announced by the World Health Organization

1984 – The Soviet Union announces that it will boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California

1988 – A fire at Illinois Bell’s Hinsdale Central Office triggers a wide spread telephone outage...the worst telecommunications disaster to happen on Mother’s Day (Mother’s Day was on May 8 in ’88)

Quite a list of achievements, don’t you think?  We saw the birth of a soft drink, the end of conflict in Europe during World War II, and the end of smallpox. 

So, what date are we going to focus on today?

We’re going to take a look back on May 8, 1999.  On that date, a former child actress ended up taking her final breath in what could be considered a life filled with addiction and terrible choices.  But she wasn’t the only one from the show that made her a star that ended up having a terrible fate.

In fact, this blog entry will talk about a so-called “curse” that befell many of the young stars of a particular sitcom which aired between 1978 and 1986 on both NBC and ABC.  As we talk about the life and death of today’s blog subject, I’ll also bring up some information about this “curse” along the way.

On May 8, 1999, actress Dana Plato was found dead inside an RV in Moore, Oklahoma.  The cause of death was linked to an overdose of Vanadom and Lortab.  She was just 34 years old.

Certainly Dana Plato’s death was a shock to the entertainment world back in 1999.  But, looking back on it, I don’t think that anybody was all that surprised.  And as we look back on Dana Plato’s life, we’ll also talk a bit about the show that made her famous.

Dana Plato was born as Dana Michelle Strain on the 7th of November, 1964 in the town of Maywood, California.  Dana was born to a sixteen-year-old unwed mother who already had an 18-month-old at the time she was born.  Unable to take care of two children, Dana’s biological mother put her up for adoption.  She was adopted by Dean and Florine “Kay” Plato in the summer of 1965, and was raised in the San Fernando Valley.

Dana’s childhood suffered a setback when her adopted parents divorced when she was just three, but as Dana grew up, her mother took her on various auditions all over Los Angeles.  By the time Dana was seven years old, she had already filmed commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dole, and Atlantic Richfield.  A few years later, when Dana was just thirteen years old, she made her film debut in the 1977 feature film, “Return to Boggy Creek”.

TRIVIA:  During this period, Dana Plato had a keen interest in figure skating, and she even went into training to join the American figure skating team for the 1980 Winter Olympics!

But then came the year 1978, and Dana Plato was offered a lucrative acting gig on a new sitcom set to debut on NBC.  Dana’s mother felt that she should cut back on skating so she could take on the new role, and Dana decided that her mother was right.

So, Dana hung up her ice skates and joined the cast of this show, which debuted on November 3, 1978.

I’m sure most of you know what the show is about.  The show chronicled the life of wealthy businessman Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain) who adopted two African-American brothers named Willis and Arnold after their mother passed away.  Willis was played by Todd Bridges, Arnold by Gary Coleman.

And Dana Plato assumed the role of Kimberly Drummond, the daughter of Phillip.

For the first few seasons, Dana seemed to thrive on the show, and Diff’rent Strokes quickly rose up in the ratings.  A spin-off show, The Facts Of Life, came along in 1979, and new cast members eventually joined the program including Dixie Carter and Danny Cooksey.

But by 1983, things began to go sour for the young starlet.

Plato would later reveal in an interview that she had started doing recreational drugs and consuming alcohol while she filmed the series.  In late 1983, Dana had gotten pregnant by her boyfriend, Lanny Lambert, which normally would have been a happy occasion...but when you consider the fact that Kimberly Drummond was being raised as the all-American girl who never acted out at all, the pregnancy caused quite a problem for producers.  So, the decision was made to write out Kimberly Drummond, and Dana was dropped from the show in early 1984.  There were rumours at the time that proclaimed that Dana was fired for her excessive drug use on set, but the producers denied this.

Whatever the case, Dana ended up giving birth to her only son, Tyler, in July 1984.  Afterwards, Dana was invited back for sporadic guest star appearances on Diff’rent Strokes right up until the show’s cancellation in 1986.

With Diff’rent Strokes off the air, Dana Plato tried to get back into the limelight as a serious actress, but ended up doing spreads in Playboy magazine and even consented to her appearance being used in the 1992 video game “Night Trap”.

But a series of personal tragedies in her life would inevitably send Dana Plato down a steep slope of self-destruction.

Nineteen-eighty-eight was a rough year for Dana.  On January 2, 1988, her mother died of scleroderma at the age of 49.  Not even seven days later, her marriage to Lanny Lambert busted up, the divorce finalized in 1990.  To add salt to the wound, custody of Tyler went to Lanny, with Dana only being granted visitation rights.

Three years later, Dana was arrested in Las Vegas for robbing a video store at gunpoint.  The arrest made headlines all over the world, and many people were left wondering what went wrong...not just with Dana Plato, but with the other child stars of Diff’rent Strokes.

With the exception of Danny Cooksey (who has lived a relatively normal life in comparison), all the child stars of Diff’rent Strokes had trouble with the law.  Todd Bridges was arrested in 1994 following an incident involving him ramming into another person’s car following an argument, and his drug use has been widely covered in the media.  But, Todd managed to break his addiction, and can still be seen acting in bit parts today.

Gary Coleman’s story didn’t have a happy ending.  He died on May 28, 2010 at the age of 42 following a fall which caused a fatal hemorrhage.  Prior to his death, he had a charge of assault laid against him in 1998, filed for bankruptcy in 1999, and cited for disorderly conduct in 2007.

Is it any wonder why some people believed in the “Curse of Diff’rent Strokes”?

Dana Plato’s story would end a lot like Gary Coleman’s did.  Desperation soon set in, and eventually, Dana would end up doing acting in roles that could be considered soft core pornography, and ended up getting arrested once more for forging a prescription for Diazepam in the early 1990s, of which she served a 30-day stint in jail for violating her probation.

Dana’s final appearance in the media was an interview that she did with Howard Stern less than 24 hours before her death.  In the interview, she discussed her engagement, her past run-ins with the law, as well as her financial situation.  She was incredibly open about her life.  Looking back on it, I wonder if she was trying to make peace with everything she did, as if she knew that this interview would end up being her last. 

Of course, Howard Stern allowed listeners to call in to ask Dana questions, and while some were quite supportive of her, and offered her nothing but support, there were a few who made fun of her, calling her everything from a ‘has-been’ to an ‘ex-con lesbian drug addict with mental problems’.  But, to Stern’s credit, he defended Dana, and Dana herself even said that she would take a drug test on the show to prove that she was sober.

After that interview, Dana and her fiancé were driving back to California.  Along the way, they stopped off to visit the mother of her fiancé in Moore, Oklahoma, and not feeling well, Dana would go inside their RV to take a nap.

She never woke up.

Thus ended the life of Dana Plato...on May 8, 1999.

So, what have we learned about the life and times of Dana Plato?  There are a couple of things, actually.  Firstly, I don’t believe in curses, and I certainly don’t think that there is such a thing as the Diff’rent Strokes curse.  It was a coincidence that three of the four child stars ended up riding off the rails, but other child stars have had the same problems.  In the case of Coleman, Bridges, and Plato, all three of them were bestowed with success and fame at early ages, and I’m not entirely sure that they were quite ready to deal with the stress and the expectations that the film industry had.  I’m certainly not excusing their behaviour...certainly none of the three child stars of Diff’rent Strokes even attempted to make excuses.  They owned up to their mistakes several times since then.  At the same time, I think that more could have been done.  What exactly could have been done, however, is hard to say.

But secondly, I think that when it all comes down to it, Dana Plato had her own personal demons, and she honestly had no idea what to do to slay them.  Despite the fact that people tried to help her (Wayne Newton reportedly posted her $13,000 bail when she was arrested for the 1991 robbery), Plato somehow ended up losing her way.  I think that had she not felt that drugs, alcohol, and appearing in soft core movies was the only way to get noticed in the entertainment industry, she could have found her way back again.  It may have taken a great many years, but I believe that she could have found a way.  Unfortunately, Dana threw it all away, and we’ll never know now.

One final footnote to add to this grim story...on May 6, 2010, almost eleven years to the day that Dana passed away, her son Tyler committed suicide with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  He was only twenty-six years old.

Before his death, it was reported that he had been experimenting with drugs and alcohol before he died, and that he had never really gotten over his mother’s death.

I know that history sometimes has a way of repeating itself...but having it happen like kind of makes one speechless, doesn’t it?

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