Court Report Due on Gary Coleman Conservatorship
Former child star Gary Coleman’s life these days is reading like a script.
It is a complicated and emotional story line in which the principal players on both sides are making allegations which would keep any soap opera in material for months: sidelined careers, failing mental health, parental greed, questionable friendships, stolen money.
Coleman, now 21, who played the precocious Arnold on the TV series “Diff’rent Strokes,” is scheduled to appear today in Los Angeles Superior Court to fight his mother’s efforts to have him and his assets placed under court conservatorship.
Edmonia Sue Coleman, who lives in Illinois, has alleged in court papers that her famous son is being “brainwashed” by his former chauffeur, and that kidney problems have left him disoriented and made him incapable of managing $7 million in assets he accumulated during years as one of Hollywood’s highest-paid child stars.
At today’s hearing, an attorney appointed by Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin will submit a report detailing Coleman’s condition and if there is enough evidence to warrant a conservatorship hearing.
Coleman, who declined to be interviewed, said at a court hearing earlier this month that his mother’s effort to place him under a court conservatorship is an “attempt to control my life.” He also called it a “vicious response” to a lawsuit he filed early last year against his parents and his former business manager for allegedly mishandling his money and diverting funds to themselves.
Under a conservatorship, a judge appoints a third party to make decisions for an individual who has been declared unable to care for himself.
“Someone tells you where to live, who to write the checks to, when you can go to a doctor, whether you can have a telephone,” said Coleman’s attorney, Charles Wake.
Coleman’s mother said she filed for the conservatorship out of her concern for his well-being. She insisted that her son’s allegations against her are untrue.
She has argued in court papers that her son’s health is deteriorating and that his assets are at risk of financial exploitation by Dion Mial, a close friend of Coleman’s who now lives with him in Denver. She is asking that a professional trust company be appointed to handle his business.
Mrs. Coleman, who refers in court papers to Mial as a “gofer” and “Michael Jackson impersonator,” said the actor’s friend has no “aptitude or qualifications” for managing her son’s career and money.
While the transition into adulthood is difficult at best for many child actors, Coleman’s was especially traumatic, associates say. His diminutive size made it possible for him professionally to play children’s roles. But his size and health problems have come to haunt him both personally and professionally as an adult.
Born with an atrophied right kidney, Coleman lost his other kidney when he was 5. He underwent two transplants, one in 1973, and another in 1984, both of which failed. During the ordeal, he took immunosuppressive drugs which stunted his growth at 4 feet, 8 inches.
In spite of his medical problems, his personality enabled him to carve out a successful career in Hollywood.
Vic Perillo, who worked at the Chicago agency that handled Coleman, recalled: “The minute I saw him, I thought he had everything going. He is warm, sympathetic and has comedy instincts that even Lucille Ball and Bob Hope called the finest.”
Perillo was Coleman’s agent for 14 years before being fired two years ago along with the actor’s parents, who had been Coleman’s personal managers.
Perillo said he introduced the youth to Hollywood. Coleman’s first major appearance was on the soap opera “Edge of Night,” and he made appearances on several television comedies before garnering a role on “Diff’rent Strokes,” playing a smart-mouthed ghetto kid adopted by a rich patrician.
Coleman was an immediate hit and was one of the highest paid actors on television, Perillo said.
When the series was canceled in 1986, it was a time of reflection and concern for Coleman, who wanted to play adult roles, former associates say.
“He wanted . . . to play a swashbuckler and he’s 4-foot-8,” Perillo said. “Of course, I think he could have done it, but the talent buyers didn’t.”
Perillo said that after “Diff’rent Strokes” was canceled, he was able to obtain three major contracts for Coleman, including a TV series in Canada, a show for young people called “Great Book Adventures” and a series called “Kid’s Court.” But Coleman turned them down, Perillo said.
Since then, his work has consisted mainly of guest appearances on talk shows and cameo roles on situation comedies.
In California, child actors are protected by what is known in Hollywood as the “Jackie Coogan law.” The statute was enacted to protect children’s earnings from being squandered by their parents, guardians or others. It was named after the late Jackie Coogan, who lost a fortune as a child actor.
A guardianship was established for Coleman in 1979. His parents, Willie and Edmonia Coleman, were named his personal managers and a business manager named Anita DeThomas handled his financial affairs.
By law, the Colemans were entitled to 70% of their son’s earnings, said James Turken, a Los Angeles attorney who represents the actor’s mother.
When Coleman turned 18, the guardianship was dissolved. DeThomas placed his assets in a trust fund administered by the parents.
This was a rocky period for Coleman, who associates say, was upset with how his career was going. He wanted mature roles, but the scripts kept him forever young.
Coleman left his parents and moved in with Mial, a would-be actor who worked as Coleman’s driver and errand runner. Coleman felt Mial, 25, was the only person he could turn to, associates say.
Coleman’s family now alleges that during a vacation in Hawaii, Mial brainwashed their son. “Mial had talked Gary into believing that his parents had stolen money from him,” Turken said.
Mial declined to be interviewed.
Coleman then fired his parents as his personal managers and DeThomas as his business manager. Last June, he filed suit against the three, alleging they had mismanaged his funds and misappropriated more than $1 million for their own benefit.
Coleman’s attorney, Charles Wake, contends that part of the money was an unrepaid loan that DeThomas used to open an interior decorating business that failed. DeThomas declined to be interviewed.
Wake said Mial is only an “adviser” to Coleman and that the actor’s career and finances are being handled by a professional accountant, a trust attorney and an entertainment lawyer.
Coleman’s parents also declined to be interviewed--citing today’s court hearing--but their attorney said they have not stolen any money and the mother sought a conservatorship out of “parental love, not parental greed.”
Furthermore, Turken said, Coleman’s mother asked for an independent conservator appointed by the court to handle her son’s affairs because she believed that he is in poor health and unable to handle his money.
Turken also said the parents only received 20% of Coleman’s income in an arrangement they had reached with the court. The remainder went into an account they could not touch, he explained.
In making such an arrangement, the parents waived their rights to nearly $1 million that they were entitled to, Turken added.
At the center of the conservatorship battle is the question of Coleman’s health.
His mother believes that prolonged use of prescribed drugs, dependence on dialysis machines and failure to follow a medically recommended diet and regimen has had a “debilitating effect” on him.
In court papers, she described Coleman’s face as “puffy” and said “he appeared disoriented and unable to understand or respond to simple questions.” She also alleged that her son did not even know the names of the companies he owns, where his income goes and the names of those administering his assets.
But Coleman told reporters before the earlier court hearing: “I’m here to end the rumors that I’m not feeling well or that I’m crazy.”