Todd Bridges: 'Talkin' 'Bout' Transformation
The star of "Diff'rent Strokes" on being abused a child, his years of drug addiction, and the media's negative portrayal of former child stars.
BY: Dena Ross
If you were a child of the 70s or 80s, you likely know Todd Bridges. And, if you've ever heard the line: "Whatchu 'talkin 'bout, Willis?" you're familiar with his most famous role.
Bridges shot to stardom on the groundbreaking TV sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes" playing Harlem-born Willis Jackson, cool older brother to adorable Arnold (played by Gary Coleman); both adopted sons of the rich, white Phillip Drummond.
Bridges' life took a turn for the worse after the series was canceled. He began using drugs heavily and was in and out of jail. But he turned his life around—he's been sober for 17 years—and talks about his transformation in a new memoir "Killing Willis: From Diff'rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted"(Touchstone).
The actor, who most recently had a reoccurring role on the show "Everybody Hates Chris" and who now stars as a commentator for truTv's "World's Dumbest Criminals," sat down with Beliefnet Entertainment Editor Dena Ross and spoke about embracing Christianity, being sexually abused as a child, and the media's criticism of former child stars.
Photo Credit: Robert Sebree
In "Killing Willis," you mention a belief in God throughout your younger years. Were you from a religious household?
I think that most blacks in America are from households that go to church and serve the Lord, so yeah, definitely. But sometimes we take our own turn and try to go our own direction. It's not that we turn away from God. We just stop doing what God is instructing us to do. But when you do that, there's always a heavy price to pay.
You also describe instances of sexual abuse. What do you hope comes out of going public with this information?
What I hope is that anyone else who's struggling with the same kind of situation will find out how to really deal with it. I hope that victims, including myself, stop blaming ourselves and start putting the responsibility where it lies, which is on the actual molester, the guy who actually did it, because a lot of people who get molested spend so much time blaming ourselves and thinking that we deserved it or we put ourselves in that position, not realizing that we had nothing to do with that whatsoever. That was his sickness and not ours.
So hopefully, they learn to forgive [themselves] and in return, forgive that guy. You don't have to condone what he's done, but you still have to somehow find a way to forgive him because that's what God would want.
During the time of the sex abuse, you say you began to hate everyone, including God, because you didn't understand why it was happening to you and no one was protecting you. When you look back on that time now, do you think differently?
Oh, yeah. I believe that God had nothing to do with that. Man can do what they want to do. I think a lot differently [now] because I realize that what God would do is take a bad situation and clean it up for His glory. I blamed everybody. You wonder why you're not protected or why God allows this stuff to happen. But, this is a part of life. Life happens. God doesn't really interfere with man's life. But when you come to Him, He will take care of you and help you out. But, you've got to be able to reach out to Him.
To blame Him for something bad that's happening is like blaming yourself when you make a mistake. God is there to help you. He's not there to do anything to you, and He's not doing stuff to you directly. Satan puts things before you. He can't make you do anything, but he can put things before you and you can trip and fall and go do them. If God was in control of our lives every single day--if we were puppets--then it'd be different. But God has given us [the ability] to make up our own free mind. And that's where a lot of us fall short. Man does what he needs to do. But it is God's job to clean it up.
You battled a drug addiction for many years. Can you tell us a little bit about what caused you to start and eventually stop using?
What caused me to start using was being sexually molested [by someone outside of the family] at 12-years-old, and my father was [physically] abusive. I didn't know how to deal with that. I thought that drugs would help me feel better. It temporarily took away the pain, but no one told me that I was going to become fully addicted and lose everything.
When I grew up, they never really told us about the do's--they always told us don't do what I do but they still did things. Your parents tell you "don't drink," but they drank, "don't use profanity," but they used profanity.
I think that it's really helpful to explain to children why not to do something. Just like God--when He talks to you or He disciplines you, He shows you the reasons not to do something.
What made me stop was I got sick and tired of going through that pain and suffering. All drugs did was compound it and make it even worse. The drugs helped it temporarily, but it wasn't a long-lasting fix. That's why I had to stop.
How did your faith life change during this period of time?
I started listening to Him, really listening to that inner voice that God is speaking through and realizing that I had choices to make. Most of them were about straightening out my life and getting my life together. I couldn't continue to stay with hate and anger in my heart because God is not full of hate and anger. God's full of love and joy. I just realized that things in my life had to be different.
Can you explain the title of your book "Killing Willis"? Some may get the impression that you resent the character you're best known for.
No, I don't resent Willis. The reason why [the title is] "Killing Willis" is because I was trying to kill me, and trying to kill me is killing a part of me, which was Willis. And because I was so known for Willis, I was trying to destroy Todd Bridges. That's not something I should have been doing, but that's what I was trying to do. I was trying to also to kill Willis, so I was killing Willis.
You had a very close relationship with actor Corey Haim, who recently passed away, and attempted to help him get sober. It seems he's just the latest in a string of celebrities who are dying from drugs—he battled a very public addiction. What do you think is happening in Hollywood?
We can't blame Hollywood. It's not Hollywood. If you look at the obituaries, you're going to see a lot of people dying of drugs or dying of drug-related incidents. But we want to pinpoint Hollywood or ex-child stars. It's a very small percentage [of celebrities dying from drugs].
I always tell people for every child star you name who has gone wrong, I will name you 20 who haven't. But it seems like the media focuses only on child stars that are doing bad. And it's a very small percentage--maybe 2 percent. In my era, there was only like eight, nine of us who had problems, and there were a lot of child stars back then.
Buy It Now
More Interviews with Child Stars