For eight seasons in the '70s and '80s, Todd Bridges played the lovable Willis Jackson on the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. Bridges famously starred alongside one of the all-time great child actors, Gary Coleman, whose catchphrase, "what you're talkin' 'bout, Willis," was all about him. The pair rose to astronomical heights of fame for their beloved performances on the series. Yet for all of the show's success, Bridges went down a dark path in the years that followed, forming a drug addiction that nearly cost him his life. Today, the actor has almost 30 years of sobriety under his belt and is helping better the lives of others. Read on to see him now at 56.
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He had a difficult childhood, made worse by his years in the spotlight.
Many young actors have opened up about how difficult it can be to grow up in the spotlight, but Bridges had a particularly difficult childhood before he ever was on TV. Cast on Diff'rent Strokes at the age of 13, he found himself turning to drugs as a young adult to cope with traumatic experiences, which included years of physical abuse at the hands of his father, and sexual abuse from another adult in his life.
"I was 20 years old when [the drugs] started, because I was trying to cover up the pain and suffering from what I saw in my family," he shared in a 2013 interview with Katie Couric. "My earliest recollection of my father is him punching my mother and knocking her under a table when I was five years old. And then later on I was molested, and when I told my father and mother about it, my father took his side," he said. "That just destroyed me as a child, because the guy who was supposed to protect me didn't protect me. So when I found drugs what happened was it covered up the pain and suffering."
This led the actor down a dark path of serious addiction and arrests.
He turned his life around and went to rehab.
Bridges was able to turn his life around in 1993, when he finally entered a rehab facility. "I realized that something had to change," he told Couric of this difficult period in his life. "I love my life today. My life is just totally amazing," he said in 2013, adding that he's grateful to have "two beautiful children."
Today, the actor and recovering addict has been sober for nearly 30 years, and he uses his platform as an actor to connect with kids who may be going through similar things. "I go around the country speaking to people about anti-drugs," he explained. "I can identify with most of them, and most of them identify with me."
In 2010, Bridges published a memoir about his experience called Killing Willis, which he says is the story of "how I ended up the way I did, and how I found my way back. The book actually details my life from early childhood all the way up until I'm an adult when I'm married. It describes my drug trials, it describes a history of abuse from my father, but it also describes a loving and caring moment when I really and truly learned how to forgive myself, and by doing that it made it possible for me to even write this book."
Bridges says his own upbringing made him a "better father."
It would have been easy for Bridges' own upbringing to limit him as a parent, but the actor says that today, his greatest triumph is his relationship with his own two children. "It made me a better father," he said of his difficult relationship with his own dad. "It made me realize that it's really about loving my son, and telling my son and my daughter how much I love them, and spending time with them, and doing things with them that our father never did. One thing that me and my brother really pride ourselves on—and my sister, too—is being great parents for our children, and really being there for our children," he shared.
The key to his parenting philosophy, he says, is admitting to his kids when he's wrong. "One of the biggest problems in America is that parents do things and they won't tell their kids they're sorry," he said in 2010. "I think as long as you treat kids like mini-adults, and you know, you let them know you're wrong, then they realize that 'my parents can make mistakes, therefore when I make mistakes, I won't have to beat myself up for it, and carry that with me for the rest of my life.'"
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He's proud of the legacy of "Diff'rent Strokes."
Though his family life and his experiences as a young actor may have brought more harm than good, Bridges still says he's honored to be a part of the Diff'rent Strokes legacy. In particular, he's proud to have been "on a show that really pushed the envelope as far as racism."
"It came into America at a particular time in our lives when there weren't very many black kids hugging white people and saying they love them," he explained in a 2010 interview. "And what made it so groundbreaking was that it was two former maids of Mr. Drummond, who Mr. Drummond adopted, which made people realize that it's really about love, it's really about different strokes for different folks. It doesn't matter what color you are or what you look like or what background you're from, it's really all about love." he added.
Today, Bridges continues to act, and currently has several projects slated for release this year. He may always be remembered as "Willis," but the actor is focused on his future.