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


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When you first came to Los Angeles to film "Diff'rent Strokes" you had some of your first experiences with racism. Throughout the show did things get better or worse?

I lived in the San Fernando Valley. It got worse the longer I lived out in the Valley. I was always the first black family in that neighborhood and we suffered a lot at the hands of racist police officers. It got so bad to where I was pulled over every day for two years by the same officers-- harassing me, making me late for work, just messing with me. They knew that I had a job. They knew I was on a TV show, but they didn't care.

I'd spent most of the time talking about the LAPD, about the things that they were doing, and nobody believed me. It was like, "Oh, he's just making it up because he's out doing [bad] things."

And now people look back and go, "Wow, he was telling the truth. Now, we realize that police officers will raise their hand and tell a lie." They're human beings and they're capable of lying just like anybody else is.

I was from San Francisco, California, so I didn't know racism. It was very much of a melting pot. Everyone got along. Our best friends were white. Our best friends were black. We lived in a very racially mixed neighborhood. But, when I moved to Los Angeles, we found things out that I hadn't ever heard before. The first time somebody called me the "N word," me and my brother were walking and we were with our Spanish friend and we were on our way to football practice. I didn't even know what it meant. My brother didn't know what it meant. My Spanish friend, he was all upset and his feathers were all ruffled. He was ready to go beat those guys up. We were like, "What'd they say?" When he explained it to us, then we were real upset.

Our mother raised us in a way that we didn't know what racism was because she didn't want us to be racist in any kind of way. But, I think that everybody to a certain degree has racist tendencies. The question is, "Why are you racist and should you be?" Just because all those things happened to me through the hands of racist white cops, should I hate all cops that are white? No. It's not everybody.

The thing I've learned is that racism only perpetuates and it will only roll on if you, yourself, really believe that you're less than or you're not like they are. Growing up and experiencing that, you don't understand why somebody could hate you for the color of your skin. It's very difficult to deal with.

How do you think it is now being a person of color in Hollywood? Are things easier than they were 30 years ago?

I can't say it's easier. I cannot blame Hollywood for the discrepancy that blacks have in Hollywood. I have to blame ourselves because we're not taking responsibility enough to really help one another. We're still keeping it very click-y and only helping some of those we want to help. We're too afraid of somebody taking somebody's place. The bottom line is we should be willing to help each other completely, and we would go very far in this business. It's very difficult to get people to respect you when you're not respecting each other.

"Diff'rent Strokes" was such a groundbreaking show. People still love and remember it today. What do you think it was about the show that makes it so memorable?

It broke a lot of racial barriers. It was the first time you had these two black kids hugging a white guy and telling him you love him on a TV show. "Diff'rent Strokes" was really about a family of a mixed people loving one another and making you realize that it takes "different strokes to move the world." It really does.

How were things on the set of the show?

For me, it was a safety zone, a safety net. I was away from my father... I was away from anything bad that could possibly happen to me. I was away from the police harassment. On the set I wasn't treated like a king, but I was treated better than I would have been had I been either driving home or been at home with my father.

What advice do you have for young actors struggling in Hollywood?

If they're struggling, never give up. If you find yourself going down the wrong path, find your way back and make yourself realize that life revolves around how you feel and not about what you think.

Do you have any new projects coming up?

The show I'm on right now is "World's Dumbest Criminals" on truTV. We have fun doing that. We just got picked up again for another season.

I'm sure there's a feature film in the works for "Killing Willis." That's what we're working on right now, so everyone has a chance to see my life--what it was like and where it should be going. I'm sure there's a lot of things that will be lined up for me in the future. It's about me just being patient and letting God do His job.

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