- The Washington Times - Friday, April 2, 2010

KILLING WILLIS: FROM DIFF'RENT STROKES TO THE MEAN STREETS TO THE LIFE I ALWAYS WANTED

By Todd Bridges

Touchston, $26, 288 pages

REVIEWED BY CHRISTIAN TOTO

Leonard Nimoy once declared “I Am Not Spock” in the title of his autobiography, hoping to separate himself from his iconic role. “Killing Willis” by former “Diff'rent Strokes” star Todd Bridges involves an entirely different set of circumstances.

Mr. Bridges didn’t hate his television alter ego. But his life post-“Strokes” descended into the kind of drug abuse that killed more than a few peers - including co-star Dana Plato. How Mr. Bridges reached rock bottom provides a compelling look at the addiction spiral, one crafted with surprising candor. His redemptive arc, unfortunately, isn’t given an equally rugged treatment.

Mr. Bridges and co-author Sarah Tomlinson recall the actor’s bifurcated childhood, one filled with both love and misplaced rage. His mother gave him unconditional love and sound advice when he auditioned for acting roles. Both she and his siblings worked in Hollywood, and they spent hours prepping for roles and otherwise helping each other out.

But the actor’s father did all he could to suffocate the youngster’s dreams. Angry and often drunk, the author’s father would slap his children around for no reason and belittle their attempts at fame. When Mr. Bridges would snag a juicy part, his father couldn’t contain his envy.

The book’s most powerful passages come when Mr. Bridges describes his father’s character flaws. “He was very jealous of any successful black man, and he dealt with it like he did everything else, by being drunk and mean,” he writes. His father’s fury left the young actor vulnerable to Ronald, the man who served as his press agent. Ronald was kind, supportive and engaged, everything Mr. Bridges‘ father wasn’t. But Ronald used that trust to molest Mr. Bridges, a betrayal that shattered the young man’s psyche.

Mr. Bridges blames his fall from grace on the twisted men in his life - and the racism running rampant in his Los Angeles neighborhood. When sitcom success fell away, Mr. Bridges sought drugs, alcohol and sex to assuage the pain. It’s a formula we’ve heard a thousand times before, but Mr. Bridges‘ unaffected storytelling draws us in all the same. He didn’t just do drugs. He became a dealer, one who mentored at the feet of a local legend.

The depths Mr. Bridges sunk to were only hinted at in the occasional “Child Star Goes Bad” stories that circulated in the ‘90s. He bristles at the news coverage, but the truth was much worse. The book offers pinpoint details of his adventures, from the glory of discovering Sammy Davis Jr. was a fan of his acting to watching everything in his life get steamrolled by drugs.

If only his road to recovery utilized those candid insights. His personal redemption feels rushed, incomplete.

“Diff'rent Strokes” devotees won’t have much to chew on here. The show’s long run covers only a small section of the book, and Mr. Bridges gives little space to his complicated ties to his co-stars. The actor bonded quickly with Gary Coleman, but their good vibes ended when the star’s overbearing parents came on the scene. Mr. Bridges is also unwilling to expound on his days with Plato, with whom he had an early sexual relationship. Their stories are so similar it seems a shame not to share more about their time together.

The only real bit of show business dirt comes when he recalls being on a shoot with Henry Fonda. The acting legend exploded with fury when things weren’t going his way, but he quickly apologized after Mr. Bridges‘ mom set him straight.

It’s hard to take all of “Killing Willis” at face value. By his own admission, Mr. Bridges was barely coherent for weeks, sometimes months, on end during his drug days. Mr. Bridges‘ attempts to paint himself as a defender of the weak also rings hollow. The book makes it clear he used plenty of people along the way, both hard-core addicts and innocents caught up in the deadly lifestyle he helped to provide. The actor’s post-sitcom life served as the boilerplate for child stars gone sour. And with the recent news of Corey Haim’s death after years of drug abuse, it’s a miracle Bridges lived long enough to pen his own compelling story.

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