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A Tale of a Falling Star : For eight seasons Gary Coleman --of ‘Diff’rent Strokes'-- was at the top of the world. When the laugh track stopped, he had to scrounge for work. Now, his main role is in the courtroom, in a pathetic fight against his own parents.

<i> Bella Stumbo is a Times staff writer. Her last story for this magazine was about Insurance Commissioner Roxani Gillespie. </i>

THEY WERE a family whose good fortune was nice to see. Natives of the rural Deep South, the parents once mopped floors and washed laundry for a living. They were hard-working poor, reaching for modest middle-class comfort in suburban Zion, Ill., when, storybook style, Hollywood accidentally discovered their cute, cuddlesome little boy on a Chicago bank commercial and turned him almost overnight into the highest paid child star in history. As precocious Arnold Jackson on the NBC-TV comedy series “Diff’rent Strokes,” Gary Coleman charmed a nation and made his parents rich.

Lending the tale its truly magic touch, Coleman was a handicapped child, born with failed kidneys. By the time he was 14, he had survived two transplants and knew that his growth would be permanently stunted by the side effects of dialysis medications. One of the most touching episodes of “Strokes,” in fact, showed Arnold coming to grips with the fact that he would never grow into a full-sized adult. Both Gary Coleman and his parents, W. G. (Willie) and Edmonia Sue, were an inspiration to millions of American families afflicted by kidney disease.

Now, here they are on a gray winter morning inside a Los Angeles County Superior Court room, facing a judge fighting to control her disgust, three of the saddest casualties Hollywood has ever produced, publicly humiliating each other again, ostensibly over money. They sit 20 feet apart. They haven’t spoken in months. Young Coleman, his face rigid with angry embarrassment, is flanked by protective publicists and attorneys. His parents, across a narrow aisle, look like a pair of nervous, middle-aged schoolteachers at a funeral.

What has brought the Colemans together today is the parents’ claim that their son--now 22, 4-foot-8, unemployed and in worsened health--is mentally incompetent, and thus, without the supervision of a court-appointed conservator, incapable of managing what he does have left, a $7-million fortune. Specifically, the Colemans allege that their son has been “brainwashed” by his 26-year-old manager, Dion Mial, “a Michael Jackson impersonator” and former family “go-fer,” and Mial’s mother, Teri, “a cosmetics clerk at the Broadway.” This brainwashing occurred, they say, during a two-week Hawaiian vacation Coleman and Mial took in 1987. Coleman returned, they say, a changed man: He fired them as his managers and hired the Mials. Not only that, but last year, Coleman also sued them, as well as his former business manager, Anita DeThomas, for allegedly stealing upwards of $1 million from him. All three countersued for defamation and breach of contract, and those cases are still pending. Today’s proceeding is but a lurid mini-skirmish, a parental offensive, in the larger legal brawl Gary Coleman has begun.

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Armed with medical studies, the Colemans’ attorney, James Turkin, attributes Coleman’s supposedly fragile mental condition to possible laxness in performing self-dialysis, which can lead to such documented psychiatric disorders as paranoia and depression. Coleman’s own attorneys counter with doctors’ reports proclaiming him as fit as a young man in his condition can be.

Coleman, whose second transplant failed four years ago, now has no kidneys. He is surviving on self-dialysis, a system of draining the blood of impurities normally carried away in urine. He must perform the ritual--an interim measure at best--four times a day. It involves drugs and an obviously unpleasant setup of tubes, pouches and surgical apertures in his body.

These are but a few of the details of Gary Coleman’s personal condition now revealed to us. By the time the Coleman family battle is over, no part of his body will be secret, not even his teeth. (They are fortified with porcelain; medicine for kidney disease also depletes its victims of calcium.)

Such is the price of suing your parents.

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Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin, a no-nonsense woman of maternal bearing, marches Coleman into a private room for a 30-minute chat about everything from his investments to his dialysis habits. She emerges looking ready to crack some heads together. “I do not see any basis whatsoever for proceeding! Mr. Coleman does not come close to requiring a conservatorship,” she snaps wrathfully at the parents. Their son wins today’s round.

THE ONLY WINNER in this bizarre yarn is the fleet of retainers in Gary Coleman’s service. He’s been supporting assorted adults since he was 10 years old, and nothing much has changed, except that now his flock is even larger, with two different interest groups.

The first consists of the usual agents, managers and image makers who attach themselves to any celebrity, even one fading as fast as Gary Coleman. Their mission is now dual--to find him a job if they can, and to make this lawsuit against Willie and Sue Coleman appear to be something more than a bitter young man’s temper fit at parents whose failings have nothing to do with thievery. Neither is an easy task.

Hollywood has not been kind to Coleman since “Strokes” folded nearly four years ago. He can’t find a job that doesn’t demean short people. In his only role, apart from an appearance on a “Howdy Doody” special, he recently played a midget mobster lusting after a 7-foot transvestite on an episode of NBC’s “227.” He sometimes turns TV talk-show appearances into such pathetic appeals for work that he recently made even Arsenio Hall wince. “A lot of people say they want me to be on ‘L.A. Law’ because I speak so well. They find me to be eloquent,” Coleman announced, apropos of nothing.

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“Face it, there just aren’t that many jobs out there for a 4-foot, 8-inch black man,” says Coleman’s former agent, Vic Perillo, who was fired along with DeThomas and the parents. One reason he got the ax, he says, is because, after “Diff’rent Strokes,” he tried to pressure Coleman into more acting projects with children’s themes. “He wants to play a swashbuckler,” says Perillo, eyes rolling. “Sheesh. I was just trying to find the kid work.” Perillo, who was Coleman’s child modeling agent in Chicago, came to California with the family, and is now a middle-aged man with a painfully flagging career. He therefore loathes the Mials just as much as the Colemans do. “I was a millionaire,” he wails. “They’ve ruined my career. They’re vicious. . . . Face it, if he wasn’t Gary Coleman, these people wouldn’t have anything to do with this little schwartze.

Following Perillo, Coleman went vintage Hollywood, and hired natty, silvery-haired veteran agent Budd Burton Moss, whose clients have included Rita Hayworth, among other legends. “Blake, my dear,” croons Moss at director Blake Edwards, from a choice table at the star-stuffed Ivy restaurant while blowing wet, absent-minded kisses hither and yon. It’s not easy to picture Moss hustling work for Gary Coleman.

Actually, says Moss, he met Coleman by accident, during lunch one day at the Beverly Hills Benihana. “He told me, ‘I haven’t had a job in two years. Nobody wants me.’ I felt so sorry for him. Here’s a kid who was the biggest child star in history, without a job, an agent. . . .” During Moss’ tenure, Coleman appeared on two talk shows, got invited to the Reagans’ welcome-home party and was grand marshall of the Winchester, Va., Apple Blossom Festival. Then Moss got fired, too.

Coleman’s current agent is Tom Korman, of the Agency for the Performing Arts, one of the city’s heavyweights. He says what all agents usually do. “We have several projects under discussion--movies of the week, a series. . . .” He also hints that somebody might even be writing a new series especially geared to Gary Coleman’s personality. Another “Highway to Heaven,” for example. Korman may be the single most tasteful agent in Hollywood. He won’t gossip one bit, not even about Dion and Teri Mial.

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As for the image problems attached to Coleman’s lawsuit, his publicists have come up with a sensible solution. Last year, they let him run his mouth to the national media about what crooks his parents and DeThomas were. This year, they’re keeping him under wraps. “He doesn’t wish to discuss this ordeal (the parents) are dragging him through,” sniffs Michael Gerety of the L.A. public relations firm Hanson and Schwam. Lately, Coleman’s image makers have agreed only to select TV talk shows where they hoped to control the questions, while demonstrating at the same time that Gary Coleman was perfectly happy and healthy. Results have been poor.

On Arsenio Hall’s show, Coleman started out prim-lipped and cocksure. “If somebody does you wrong, no matter what their relationship is, you take care of yourself,” he told Hall. Fliply, he added that he might forgive them, “maybe in 20 years.” Then he lost it, thinking of his mother. “She wants to keep me a mama’s boy.” She’s being “vindictive. . . .” But “I’m just waiting for the smoke to clear,” he mumbled, glancing away from the cameras, ". . . for her to calm down and be Mom again.” He looked ready to cry.

Which brings us to the second, even larger and more intriguing group of retainers now in Coleman’s employ. These are the attorneys, bankers, auditors and clerks, a virtual mini-army now pleased to advance Gary Coleman’s legal wars for as long as he can pay for them--despite the remarkable fact that nobody, Coleman included, actually believes his parents deliberately cheated their son. Not even his lead attorney, Charles K. Wake, 37, of Cooper, Epstein & Hurewitz, another big L.A. glamour firm.

“We’d prefer to think they were just naive in accepting the money (from DeThomas). We’d actually like to see her pay it all back. But,” shrugs Wake, “we’re not social workers.”

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What happened is this: Gary Coleman and his friend Mial went to see the lawyers with his “suspicions” that he had been exploited. But he had no substantiating evidence. So, the accommodating lawyers simply filed an open-ended lawsuit against his parents and DeThomas, alleging misappropriations, ranging from negligence to outright fraud. No sins were listed, no dollar amounts mentioned, no reasons cited. They were so eager they served the court papers on Willie Coleman while he was recovering from colon-cancer surgery.

Then they began combing business records to determine whether they had a case. It took them nearly a year before they discovered that, sure enough, their client’s suspicions had all been true. At last report, according to Wake, the parents owe Coleman at least $1.3 million--mostly in unpaid loans and disputed pension-fund allocations. DeThomas is being dunned for much less, maybe $200,000.

In their countersuit, the parents are primarily aggrieved over breach of contract. While serving as their son’s managers, they paid themselves 20% of his earnings--$3 million a year at his peak--and, as Willie Coleman complains bitterly, “we haven’t received a dime of our residuals since 1986.” In the meantime, DeThomas--an established business agent whose clients have included Danny Thomas and Frank Sinatra (and who also refuses interviews)--is said to be so furious over defamation that she intends to leave Gary Coleman penniless in a damage settlement if she can.

If any of this concerns Coleman’s lawyers, it doesn’t show. They just keep churning out the lawsuits--after Sue Coleman’s conservatorship petition was thrown out, they sued her again, for $25,000 in “malicious prosecution.” With all due solemnity, they have also filed another, peripheral defamation suit on behalf of Dion Mial, who complains that Willie Coleman called him “a leech.”

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And one last lurid legal curiosity: Although Gary Coleman was obviously angry enough to be easily persuaded, he originally didn’t even intend to sue his parents. In fact, he said in depositions last fall that he thought “their hearts were in the right place” and that they were “honest.” He only sued them because his lawyers convinced him, he said, that it was the only way to get at his real target, Anita DeThomas. (His guardianship was shared by all three.)

Besides, he added, his parents always sided with DeThomas against him, and, “I felt I could get my parents back and have them do the right thing for me if I did that.”

AFTERJudge Goldin’s icy dismissal, Coleman is hustled out a back door, celebrity style, past the mob of cameras waiting in the corridor. But for his parents there is no escape.

“Why did you drag your son through this?” a reporter demands of Sue Coleman. A mild, attractive woman, 46, who worked as a practical nurse before her son became a $64,000-per-week superstar, she flinches, near tears.

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“We filed (the petition) out of love,” she says in a waivering voice. “I agonized about it long and hard, because I don’t want to make Gary feel like we’re trying to hurt him. . . . And, of course he’s not crazy! Of course he can take care of himself. . . . But that’s not to say that there aren’t some times when things go on that he’s not, well, focusing in on, because of the treatment and the medications and all that. . . .” She flounders, then cries, “I’m his mother! All I want is to make sure he’s OK, get him some medical observation! I’ve seen him when he doesn’t do his (dialysis) exchanges properly! (During depositions last fall) his face was bloated, his body was puffy, his sinuses were plugged. And,” she finishes, almost in a whimper, ". . . they said he was lying on the floor the day before, vomiting.” (Coleman’s attorneys say he “had the flu.”)

“Where was all these others, when he was on his sickbed, and we was scraping just to get by?” mutters Willie Coleman later, in their lawyer’s office. “These lowlifes really put one over on my kid. There’s got to be something wrong with his head that he can’t see these things. . . . But it isn’t Gary,” he adds, firmly. “It’s all these others, come on board since he got money. We was there when none of us had a dime.” A big, solid, aggressive man of 51, Coleman is a former factory inspector. He was making $9.42 an hour when Hollywood opened its toothy maw, and his family stepped right in.

Today both Colemans have a worse case than most parents of the after-all-I’ve-done-for-you blues. “We gave him life!” Willie Coleman frequently says, in bursts of angry incredulity at the little ingrate. Sensitivity and tolerance do not appear to be his strong suit. She is the quiet, passive, maybe meek one in this duet.

One of 12 children of a Mississippi sharecropper, Willie Coleman is a high school dropout; Sue Coleman was reared on an Alabama subsistence farm and finished school. They grew up in the days before Selma and the freedom marches, and met in Ohio where their families had moved in search of a less grinding, racist environment. After their marriage 27 years ago, they worked together in janitorial and laundry services in a Chicago hospital before they attained enough night-school education to move up in the world.

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Their life with Gary Wayne Coleman began on a poignant note. He isn’t actually theirs. He is adopted. They won’t say how they acquired him, only that they brought him home from a Chicago hospital at 4 days old. Eighteen months later, they learned that he had been born with one atrophied kidney, the other soon to fail.

Life thereafter became a permanent waiting game, time measured out in dialysis exchanges, surgeries, rejections--the sort of specialized hell that probably only other victims of chronic kidney disease (an estimated 13 million Americans) can fully appreciate. For the first 20 months of his illness, for example, Gary Coleman, too young to be equipped with a pouch, wore diapers pinned together and wrapped around his middle over free-flowing drainage incisions. Sue Coleman spent hours applying antiseptics while her husband devoted his evenings to washing diapers at the Laundromat. He is proud of that still.

“A lot of parents go out and buy Pampers. Well, Gary has never had a Pamper on his body,” Coleman beams. “I made sure of it! I bought him 12 dozen of diapers, and every other day I went to the Laundromat, and I washed and dried and folded ‘em. I did that myself. Gary has never wore a Pamper!” He clings to tales of these early days with touching tenacity. It was the only time in life that W. G. Coleman was the main attraction.

By the time Coleman was 7, he had been through two major surgeries, including his first transplant at age 5, and he had long since learned to accept mockery over his pint size and shock from other kids when they discovered his handicap. He was always a sunny, good-natured child, even when he was ill, Sue Coleman says. Back then, it was harder on them than on their 5-year-old when they learned that his growth would be permanently stunted. “I had just hoped he might make it to 5 feet,” she says, in a still sad sigh.

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And it killed her inside, every time, to see him sitting on the sidelines, watching quietly as the other children romped and roughhoused and chased balls. Sue Coleman spent a lot of time in those days “just looking for things he could do that might be fun for him.”

And so it was, one day in 1975, when Gary was 7, that she signed him up as a model in the local Montgomery Ward’s Easter fashion show. Even she was surprised at the way he stole the show from the other kids, stomping down the runway, jerking his fancy three-piece suit every which way, making faces, rolling his eyes, grinning: It was cute, chubby-cheeked, little Arnold, cracking them up even then. From there, Coleman advanced to TV commercials, where his expressions and grown-up voice soon had the whole city giggling. Enter a scout for Norman Lear, in town on other business, who spotted Coleman on a bank commercial. The flight to L.A. was the family’s first plane ride.

Coleman charmed the famous producer, and within months “Diff’rent Strokes” was created for him. The Colemans never made fools of themselves during their Hollywood years by trying to crash the glamour set, friends say. They bought a house in Cheviot Hills, not Beverly Hills; they drove a new Mercedes, not a Rolls.

“There’s no way we would ever take anything from Gary,” says Sue Coleman. “We spent years just keeping him alive. We spent every cent we had, and some we didn’t have. When he got into show business, I said, ‘Thank you, Lord. Now he can take care of himself if something should happen to us.’ ”

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“Why would we cheat him when we could’ve just taken it?” bristles Willie Coleman, pointing out for the 10th time in an hour that, under provisions of the so-called Coogan Act to protect child stars, they were entitled to as much as 50% of their son’s earnings. Jackie Coogan, Charlie Chaplin’s 6-year-old sidekick in “The Kid” (1921), was the first child star to sue his parents. But, unlike Coleman, by the time he got to court in 1938, the $4 million his parents were supposedly investing for him had all been spent, inspiring the legislation.

“We must have been doing something right,” Willie Coleman growls in sour satisfaction. “Where’s Gary think all that money he’s spending suing us came from?”

That’s it for candor. From here on out, Willie and Sue Coleman are going to play dumb. When their son fired them, “we were completely shocked,” she says. When he sued them, “I was devastated,” the father says. “We knew he was feeling depressed because of (the rejection of his second transplant), and (the cancellation of) ‘Strokes,’ but . . .” she trails off. “Maybe part of it is just growing up, maturing; he’s at a difficult stage.” She looks away.

AS ANY “STROKES” fan knows, Gary Coleman had been in trouble for years.

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When he first strutted into our living rooms in 1978 as Arnold Jackson, the ghetto child adopted by a wealthy white widower, Gary Coleman was 10 but looked like a lovable, smart-mouthed 6-year-old thrilled to be playing some new game. America loved Arnold’s weekly adventures amid the staid snobberies of his new upper-class world. He shattered bigotries and pretensions alike. He was sunshine, contagious joy. He could delight us with his wit, his timing, sometimes with no more than the booming delivery of his trademark one-liner, “Whatcha talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” Such was his natural comedic gift that he was soon hailed as a child genius by veterans like Lucille Ball and Bob Hope.

The difference in him in the final episodes seven seasons later, especially to the unprepared viewer, is staggering, and it is more than aging that shows in his face--Arnold’s entire disposition has changed. He is angry, tight, almost haggard, even when he’s smiling. Gary Coleman looked sick of life at 17.

“Gary’s just striking back at life now,” says “Diff’rent Strokes” director, Garren Keith. “I was shocked at the lawsuit, but I think I understand why he’s doing it. He just felt he had to punish somebody. . . . And they were the obvious ones.”

Others are less gentle. What happened to Gary Coleman, friends say, was part inevitability, part human stupidity and greed. According to several colleagues, Willie and Sue Coleman are the parents of a handicapped child star who is now bent upon revenge, partly because he feels he was treated like a golden goose, year after year, never let to rest from his $3-million-a-year obligation to giggle and frolic like 10-year-old Arnold, even when he was 16 and trying to cope with the brutal realities of being forever locked in the body of a child, atop the daily dialysis struggle just to survive. Gary Coleman’s rage, they say, is the direct result of being pampered, badgered and obliged to keep on being a cute freak for hire.

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“He was very bitter at the hand nature had dealt him. He realized that he was lucky. . . . But he still felt the terrible unfairness of it,” says Keith, a friend and now director of “227.”

At first, Coleman seemed to attempt his own therapy. At work, he begged that Arnold be allowed to mature faster, to keep up with his own age, says Keith. But TV moguls weren’t about to wreck a thriving comedy--besides, thanks to Arnold, a network war was on. ABC-TV had come up with its own cute black kid on “Webster,” starring Emmanuel Lewis, another stunted teen-ager who was only 3-foot-9 and looked about 5.

So, Gary Coleman was obliged to continue on a daily basis to exploit his own tragedy. Arnold was never allowed to be more than 12. “We stopped picking him up, putting him on our knee, little things like that. . . . We all tried to be as sensitive as we could, but . . .” says Keith, sadly.

Coleman also begged to quit the show altogether for several years, friends say. But his parents wouldn’t let him. Just one more year, DeThomas lectured him, and he would “be set for life,” Dion Mial alleges in court papers. Besides, teen-agers don’t retire at 15. Especially not those whose parents know what it is to go without, to work night shifts, to count raises in dimes and quarters. Willie Coleman can still tell you what he was earning the day they first brought their baby home from the hospital--$2.39 an hour.

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Says Keith: “Gary desperately needed more breaks, more time to himself. What started him on the road to bitterness, I think, was that he always felt he needed more playtime. But he was so hot, he was always booked. Willie and Sue just didn’t realize that, at his age, with his health, he needed more time away from the business.”

On top of everything else, Coleman was often ill and exhausted, friends say. “He would come in looking terrible . . . puffy, gray,” says one worker on the set. “He was sick.”

Coleman’s second kidney transplant failed during the last season of “Strokes,” just before the show was canceled for low ratings. By then, Gary Coleman had become too depressing to watch. And throughout it all, friends say, Willie and Sue Coleman never seemed to realize that their sick child was trying against awful odds to grow up.

“They nagged him to death about the dialysis, everything. You have to sympathize with them--but they sat on the kid, treated him like a small child. . . . It was humiliating for him,” says former agent Perillo.

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Plus, the adults had their own problems. Particularly Willie Coleman. He never did adjust to becoming, basically, his son’s Hollywood go-fer. “He had a sort of macho thing,” says Keith. “Willie’s harmless, but he was a little bit of a blowhard,” says Perillo.

He is also temperamental. So, apparently, is his son. Tales abound of their screaming quarrels in public places. Once, Coleman had his father thrown off the “Diff’rent Strokes” set, and, later on, tried to run over him with a car in an incident that the tabloids might have dreamed up. When Gary finally landed his first job after “Strokes” (the “Howdy Doody” special), the bristling, brawny Coleman, evidently enraged to be cut out of the action, stalked onto the set, accompanied by the faithful Perillo, and had what he now brushes off as “a little scuffle” with the small, slender Dion Mial. This resulted in his son getting a restraining order to keep his father away from them both.

Not surprisingly, some say, Gary Coleman’s personality was always as stunted and confused as his body. He turned from sweet Arnold into a spoiled brat, then into an obnoxious hybrid, whipsawing between Arnold’s juvenile antics one minute and grandiosity the next. “Gary could just alienate everybody, barging into rooms--I mean, acting 8 when you’re 18 isn’t so cute anymore,” says his friend Dana Freedman, a publicist. “He was the loneliest child I ever met.”

But, she adds pointedly, “Dion was always there for him. Dion’s no Svengali. He was Gary’s best friend.”

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THE COLEMANS will look at none of it. They might as well have been living on the moon. Sitting in their lawyer’s office with their worried, injured faces, they speak of their son in one of two ways, even now: He is either a willful, but fully responsible, child who has treated them badly, or he is mindless putty in the hands of Dion Mial. Either way, this much is clear: Sue and Willie Coleman are determined victims. If their son hoped to force their attentions through extremist measures, he sadly misjudged. The Colemans are unyielding people.

“It’s all Dion. Gary doesn’t know what he’s doing--he cries himself to sleep every night, I know it,” Willie says, with grim satisfaction. “I think it’s time we detached ourselves from his problems,” Sue says, crisply. “We’ve got our own lives to live. We’ve tried so hard to help him, but he doesn’t appreciate it.”

Willie Coleman seems personally vindicated that his son’s only real job in four years (the midget mobster) was degrading. “What are these people doing to my son? (The “227" episode) was all short jokes! Vic would’ve never let ‘em do that,” he insists. Worse, “he had to work for scale,” says Coleman, scandalized. “We used to get $15,000 for just going on a show, introducing himself as Arnold, $15,000 for a 40-minute promotion! He was an international star!”

From there Coleman’s mind is back on the hated Mials. He broods about his own witless role in setting his son up for the mind-snatchers. In an apt demonstration of the kind of aggressive fathering that has now landed him in court, he explains how Mial came to be Coleman’s first roommate when Coleman wanted his own apartment at 18.

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“See, Gary was always lax doing his dialysis,” he begins. Coleman is an inveterate storyteller; every anecdote is a tedious, solemn saga aimed at establishing parental correctness. “So the only way we would allow Gary to be out on his own was if he would have someone to share the apartment with him--to make sure he was doing his exchanges properly, taking care of his medications properly, getting up and meeting his obligations, like the studio or an interview. . . . And that someone was Dion. He was an intelligent young man,” says Coleman angrily, “and we thought we could trust him!” It would be hard to overstate the venom in his tone.

Then, like an overgrown child himself, he can’t resist spilling the family beans, so eager is he to tattle on his son over the “scuffling” incident on the “Howdy Doody” set. His voice is mimicking, a high-pitched whine. “ ‘I’ll sue your ass, I’ll sue your ass,’ he said to me! Me. His own father and his manager!” And that’s not all. Gary Coleman once even threw a tray of food “at his own mother,” Coleman reveals, “and tried to attack her.” Embarrassed, Sue Coleman brushes the episode off as nothing. She wasn’t hurt, she says, because “I’m bigger than Gary is.”

But nothing sparks the martyr in Willie Coleman so much as his son’s 1986 attempt to mow him down with a car in the family driveway in Zion. “He had just gotten off the phone with Dion,” Coleman recalls. “I think he was all mad because I was coming back to California and Dion didn’t like that. I told him not to start the car, but he did anyway, and then he turned up the radio real loud and put the car in gear, coming right at me. I jumped off onto the lawn. He almost got me. If I would not have been swift enough to move away, he would have broken my legs.”

In Dion Mial, the Colemans have found the perfect scapegoat, one who not only diverts attention from their parental failings but even attaches to their family drama a grander significance. In a scenario they have been advancing nationally ever since Coleman sued them, they are now presenting themselves as tragic examples to parents of all child prodigies: Beware who is allowed to hang around your brilliant youngster.

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And before you dismiss that as too ridiculous to consider, bear in mind that not only do the Colemans like this script, so does their attorney, Turkin, who now sits listening to them trash the Mials with an expression of bemused fascination. He may make the Mials an issue in his defense--along with a handful of letters to Coleman from Mial that are just creepy enough to make you stop and wonder if maybe it’s not all true.

In hindsight, what the Colemans now see, they say, is that the Mials had been plotting their coup all along, in order to one day advance Dion Mial’s would-be singing career through Coleman’s money and Hollywood connections.

When the two families first met in 1978, Teri Mial was working for the Los Angeles Unified School District as a supervisor of child-star tutors on their sets. One day, she brought her 14-year-old son to the “Diff’rent Strokes” set to meet Coleman. The two boys became fast friends. Willie Coleman himself eventually hired Mial as the family’s $250-per-week all-purpose errand boy, charged with everything from driving Gary to work to sorting fan mail.

Too late the Colemans realized that both Mials had ingratiated themselves into the family picture only to be able, one day, to seize upon their son in his most vulnerable hour. When that opportunity came in 1987, Dion spirited him away to an isolated Hawaiian spot, where, they maintain, Mial filled Coleman’s weakened mind with lies about them. Grimly, the Colemans hint that Mial, an expert in Coleman’s dialysis requirements, may even have encouraged improper dialysis habits during the vacation.

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That the Mials triumphed, brainwashing or no, is self-evident. Dion Mial is now the $3,000-per-month manager of Coleman’s $7-million estate, while Gary’s parents sit in Jim Turkin’s office fighting a $200-an-hour lawsuit. Moreover, just as his parents predicted, in Teri Mial’s first act as Coleman’s new manager, she persuaded Coleman to not only finance but also co-star on a record starring her son.

Entitled “The Outlaw and the Indian,” it is not an easy piece of music to describe--a sort of soft rap thing, with Mial singing, Coleman talking. It also flopped--because, Teri Mial suspects to this day, Michael Jackson personally sabotaged it. But its album cover remains a collectors’ item for anyone with a taste for the unforgettable. Coleman is the lonesome little cowboy, Mial the sultry Indian.

Teri Mial is a match for Willie Coleman any time. A smart, crafty, exotic-looking woman, given to miniskirts, 6-inch earrings and four colors of eye shadow, she belongs at the heart of a plot, and she is enjoying it.

Sitting in the Polo Lounge, she dispatches the Colemans with disgusted ease. “Sue is a sweet person,” she says politely, in her little-girl voice. “Willie’s crazy.” It burns her up still that Coleman once physically threatened her boy. “I called him up and said, ‘Listen, you black sucker, don’t you dare ever threaten my son again.’ ”

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As for brainwashing: “I didn’t brainwash Gary Coleman. This is all a very trashy soap opera. He needed a parental figure and a manager, and I tried to be both. Willie Coleman ought to go to a dictionary. My definition of brainwashing is when you force a sick, exhausted child to support two adults and God knows how many other people for years!”

These days, however, Mial is a woman torn. Because she recently got fired, too. Now she and her son don’t speak, either--and she, too, is telling the world that Coleman is the victim of her invidious son. “To his credit, Dion has been very good for Gary on a personal and spiritual level. And he started out with his heart in the right place. But now he’s on a power trip. He undermined me,” she simmers. She may write a book. And, just for the record, she doesn’t sell cosmetics at the Broadway anymore. “I’m in men’s fragrances,” she says.

HAT MOST convinces the Colemans that their son was brainwashed is Coleman himself. He admits he acted on Dion Mial’s counsel. Mial, he says, confirmed his own suspicions that he was being used and abused by everyone around him, particularly DeThomas. Coleman doesn’t call it brainwashing. “I call it enlightenment.”

Among other things, according to depositions, Mial helped convince him that his parents were too unsophisticated to take care of business properly, that they lacked “common sense” because of their impoverished backgrounds and that DeThomas was ridiculing them all behind their backs. Mial didn’t like it, either, that DeThomas once callously urged Coleman to “get his will together.” Mial’s opinions were apparently unlimited.

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“I sang like a canary,” Mial later bragged to reporters. He sounds like a self-possessed young man. Alas, he wouldn’t be interviewed either.

Listing his own credentials to be manager of a multimillionaire, Mial told the court that he had once skipped a grade in school, that he had served for a year as a dentist’s bookkeeper and that he had grown up in a privileged environment (his grandfather is a retired workers’ compensation judge). But, mainly, he said, “I can think, I can reason, I can draw conclusions. I have common sense.”

That notwithstanding, in one of the few comic moments of this story, neither Mial nor Coleman seemed to have the foggiest notion of what they were doing. Seven million dollars constitutes a lot of property and holdings, but neither appeared to know how much money Gary Coleman has, much less where it is, according to testimony. Mial couldn’t name officers at Gary’s several companies; Coleman couldn’t even name the companies. “I guess I own it. . . . I think I named it,” he volunteered uncertainly at one point, of one of his investment holdings called Zephyr.

It begins to sound like two runaway kids screeching down the highway in the family Cadillac. Until Turkin whips out his stack of Mial letters to Coleman, now entered into the public record of this case. They are, to say the least, attention-getters.

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Here’s part of one written months before the now-famous Hawaiian trip:

”. . . Though I hold the position of personal secretary, I move through many positions held by no single individual on this earth in association with you. In addition to performing fundamental duties such as single-handedly tending to your fan mail . . . I am a protector and guardian for you. . . . I act as a sure, yet diminutive physical protector. . . . I have protected you from the bitter truth of . . . your dislike for yourself. All out of a very deep love for you, NOT A PAYCHECK. . . .

“I have been your dialogue coach. . . . I have been your agent/publicist . . . in order for your unfortunate, sagging public image (due to health problems beyond your control) to mend and regain the luster of the past eight years of such a fortuitous career. . . .

“My most important roles in your life have been personal ones. I am your therapist, lending my ears to you as you have poured out your soul when you thought no one else . . . could understand. I allow you to pound upon my person . . . in the hope that it might help you relieve some of the pain . . . which strangles your soul. I advise you . . . that you might avoid a tongue-lashing from your father which you so richly despise. . . .

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“I have been your surrogate father, times when strength and rigidity were implemented by me, and I was in control. I have been your surrogate mother in my waiting on you, by restocking your dialysis solutions, by cooking for you and putting food into your mouth . . . by administering warm caresses in times of your emotional breakdowns. . . . I am your brother, a guy with whom you speak about your sexual frustrations and fears. . . . All these things because I love you and your family ever so deeply, Gary . . . NOT FOR A PAYCHECK.”

“Isn’t that brainwashing in some form--I am your everything?” asks Sue Coleman with a nervous laugh. “We just didn’t see what was going on in time.”

Sue Coleman often looks as if she doesn’t know exactly what it is she believes anymore. But there is nothing new in her concern over Coleman’s mood swings.

“Sometimes he gets so mad at me that he locks himself in his room and won’t talk to me,” she remarked in a book about the family written 10 years ago. “His (moods) I never know about, and that’s part of the problem I face every day. The medications he takes sometimes cause depression and aggressiveness, and I have to get on the phone right away to ask the doctors if there should be a change in the dosages.”

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GARY COLEMAN NOW lives alone in Denver. On Sunday evenings, he hosts a local, one-hour radio program called “Gary Coleman’s Colorado High,” a musical mix of light jazz and new-age sounds that station managers say is quite popular. He donates his token salary to the Colorado Kidney Foundation. He also works part time at a hobby shop, pursuing a lifelong fascination with model trains. Periodically, he visits Hollywood. He appeared at an Academy Awards party this year with a giant iguana.

His parents have moved back to Zion, where Willie seems to spend most of his time bowling. It’s not clear how Sue fills her days.

The various lawsuits continue to wend their way slowly through the system. It may take years. Both sides are still fact-finding, completing painstaking depositions, arming themselves for future courtroom war.

Former “Strokes” co-star Todd Bridges, who played Arnold’s older brother, Willis, called the Colemans recently to offer his condolences, although he has his own troubles. Acquitted of attempted murder, Bridges faces charges of assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly shooting a cohort eight times and slashing his throat at a Los Angeles crack house. Another “Strokes” star, Dana Plato, now 25, is working at a Las Vegas dry cleaner, down from $22,000 a week to $5.75 an hour. Following a nude spread in “Playboy” last year, she complained to the tabloids, she got just one job offer--"for a triple-X-rated hard-core adult film.”

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In the final, miserable footnote to this story, young Coleman swallowed his pride and anger the other day, and called his parents for the first time in nearly a year. He asked them to meet him in Los Angeles to talk it over. They came, and the three of them, along with Gary’s accountant, had dinner together at Hamburger Hamlet. Willie Coleman describes it as a “lukewarm” meeting. The parents would not bend, on DeThomas or, apparently, on anything else, either.

”. . . I told him, ‘Gary, why can’t you see? All these people are just after your money,’ ” Coleman reports. “ ‘Where were they when you was sick?’ I asked him. ‘We gave you life,’ I told him. ‘Your LIFE.’ ”

Coleman mimics his son’s reply: “ ‘Do I have to pay you for it?’ he says to me. And, I told him,” says Coleman, lapsing into the paced, patient tones of one lecturing a very small child, “ ‘No, Gary. You don’t owe us a cent. All we’re asking is love . . . honor . . . and respect. And we’re not getting any of that from you! This is your mother! She nursed you when you was sick, she clothed you, fed you. . . .’ ”

Gary Coleman, having heard it before, went back to Denver.

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