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.
Do you think that for a lot of the former child stars in the media who have "fallen from grace" it is more than just a drug problem? Is it depression from going from being at the top of the game and popular to then not being in demand anymore?
No, because all the ones who were at the top of their game are [still] at the top of their game right now. Look at Robert Downey Jr., Christian Slater, Charlie Sheen, Drew Barrymore. Those people are working like crazy right now.
So, obviously, it wasn't that. It's other things. It's not having the love you need from the right kind of parents. It's going through a lot of things in your life at an early age that you would experience either way it went, whether you were famous or whether you were not famous.
People have got to realize, when we were out there using drugs and buying drugs, we weren't buying it from The Brady Bunch. You're buying it from everyday normal people. And there are people with those other kind of problems. You read the obituaries; you don't read about child stars dying every day, but you read about other people dying every single day. Have you ever heard of a child star going and shooting up a school? Of a child star going crazy and killing his friends? The only thing that we ever hurt is ourselves. I think that that's something that has to be told.
What advice do you have for others struggling with addiction?
If you're struggling with addiction you have to somehow find out how to stop. When you find out how to stop, you have to learn how to forgive yourself. That's why "Killing Willis" is important for people who are addicted and people who are not addicted, people who want to learn how to stay sober, people who want to learn how to get somebody off of drugs and alcohol.
There are all kind of addictions in America. And we seem to want to focus only on drug addiction. There are other addictions that are killing people just as fast. But it just seems like we always focus on the negative aspect of people's problems. We never focus in on the solution.
How do you expect someone to get help if all you're focusing on is the negative? "This guy has a drug problem, that guy has a drug problem." Why don't you help the guy solve his drug problem? Why don't you help him through it? Why are you making him torture himself more by the things that you're saying and the ridicule?
I think, not just Hollywood, but America is great on building people up and tearing them down. We love that. An ordinary person on the street could have had a really bad drug problem when he was a child, but no one would ever know. But, with [child stars], everybody knows because [the media] puts it out there so much.
I've got 17 years of sobriety, but people think I was sober [just] yesterday because the media has made it seem like that's all I've been doing is doing drugs for the last 17 years, and I've been sober for the last 17 years. I really think that the media does us an injustice.
You and Dana Plato, who played your sister on the show, had a very close relationship. How did her death affect you?
It affected me a great deal because she was a good friend of mine. I tried to get her to fight her addiction and to stand up for it. But, she told me three days before she died that "I don't have a problem like you do." The biggest [part of] our disease is denial. A lot of us will deny this disease until the end, until you die.
For a lot of people right now, the number one killer in America is prescription drugs. A lot of people are dying from prescription drugs, not just child stars. It's ordinary people--mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts. But [the media] doesn't focus in on that. They only focus in on the ex-child stars.
When Dana passed away, she had just done an interview with Howard Stern. A lot of people say that interview—the reactions and negative comments she received from listeners--might have pushed her over the edge.
The problem with her doing that show was she didn't tell the truth on that show. They asked her had she ever done cocaine, and I'm listening to the show, and she said no. And I'm thinking to myself, "Hmm, I did a lot of cocaine with her." She got on there and she tried to look great and not tell the truth and she got attacked by a lot of people because they knew she wasn't telling the truth, and she couldn't handle that.
It may have pushed over the edge, but then, she shouldn't have done the show. She wasn't ready to handle that. Don't get on a show like that and not tell the truth. I admit everything that I've done. I have learned to tell the truth—it doesn't matter what someone thinks about me. It matters what I think about myself. And that's the key to anybody being successful in this country. There are plenty of people who strive for perfection but are never going to find it. The only true perfection that's in this world was Jesus Christ, and if it wasn't for Him dying for us, we wouldn't be where we are today.
When He was lying upon the cross and that murderer next to him asked for forgiveness, Jesus gave it to him. You could be forgiven for anything. You just have to know how to go about it and God has to know your heart. He has to see what's inside of your heart.
You cannot get in front of people and not tell the truth when they're looking right at you and know the truth and you just denying it. It's like a guy who robs the bank with cameras on him and he goes, "That wasn't me."
On the show I do, "World's Dumbest Criminals," you get plenty of those guys saying, "That wasn't me," and the camera's looking right at them and it's their face. It's like, come on! How can you sit there and say it's not you? We're looking at you. We see you. Or the guy who's drunk out of his mind and driving his car and a police officer says, "How many drinks have you had?" "Oh, I've only had one." [Meanwhile] the guy can't even stand up. Just say, "I'm drunk, take me to jail." You might as well admit it.
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.