Gary Coleman’s death is a very sad thing, made all the sadder by the knowledge that, like so many child stars, he never figured out what to do with his life after he grew up. I think the most important thing to remember about him, though, is that he was a really talented child performer; that’s why he became so famous so early. Everyone who worked with him raved that he had the instincts and comic timing of someone much older; just about everyone on the show had more experience than he did — even Todd Bridges had had a role on a previous high-profile show, Abe Vigoda’s Fish (where, weirdly enough, he was also being raised by an old white guy). But he not only held his own with all of them, he was funnier than any of them. And he almost single-handedly made a hit out of a show that wasn’t particularly well written, and would otherwise have been just another show from Fred Silverman’s disastrous tenure as president of NBC. The writers all knew immediately that he was the best asset they had, as did Silverman, and he became sort of an instant breakout character.
Everyone who worked with him seemed astonished by his unnatural professionalism; articles about him frequently remarked that he seemed to be a veteran comedian in a little boy’s body. In late July 1979, as the cast gathered to start work on the second season, Conrad Bain told Knight News service that “I’ve never met an actor who always knew instinctively how to deliver lines. He doesn’t work at it or even try. He hasn’t a negative fiber or a shred of self-doubt anywhere.” The show’s other veteran, Charlotte Rae, agreed in the same article that “he’s a good professional. He’s a natural. He doesn’t mess around. He seems to have more aliveness than most people.” And Coleman himself, asked whether he had learned anything new about acting in that first season, replied: “Nothing. I just do it the way I see fit to be.” It’s part of the sadness of his story that his incredible confidence and instincts as a performer weren’t carried over into real life; but that’s in no way unique to him.
It’s also said that he was primarily responsible for coming up with that catchphrase. On paper, it was not intended as a potential catchphrase. He was just supposed to ask Willis what he was talking about. He chose to deliver the line in a very offbeat way, and it got a gigantic laugh from the audience; the writers decided right then and there that the line should be in every episode. (You know how I said that shows tend to retire catchphrases once they become too familiar? Most do. This one didn’t. He just kept on saying it week after week, because it always got a huge laugh.) The guy had genuine, first-class talent as a comedy performer; that’s what’s most memorable about him.