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Gary Coleman star of Chicago museum exhibit

  • Illinois native Gary Coleman's life will be examined in an upcoming museum exhibit in Chicago.
Illinois native Gary Coleman's life will be examined in an upcoming… (Screenshot )
May 29, 2013|By Mick Swasko, @swasko

He was the biggest little star of 80s TV and pop-culture.

Gary Coleman -- who gained fame with his quip “Whatchu talkin’ about Willis” as Arnold Jackson on 80s sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes" -- is set to be the centerpiece of a summer-long exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communication. The exhibit will explore the Zion, Ill. native’s impact on pop culture and TV during the height of his career in the 70s and 80s.

“What was it that America fell in love with?” asked Bruce DuMont, founder and president of the museum. “I don’t think it’s overstating it to say in the 80s, he was one of the biggest stars on television."

Coleman was discovered after doing commercials for Chicago's Harris Bank, and he grew up doing modeling in the city. 

DuMont said a host of artifacts from Coleman’s career will be on display for public viewing June 26 through Sept. 19. Coleman’s People’s Choice Awards, his scripts, his first contract, childhood scrapbooks and invitations to the Emmy Awards were all donated by the late actor's parents, who had kept the memorabilia in their home. Thirty-five episodes of the show donated by Sony Television will also be screened during the exhibition, as well as  rare footage, such as a never aired pilot for a "‘Lil Rascals" reboot.

The exhibit will also feature a video produced by the museum with interviews with Norman Lear, who discovered Coleman, and Fred Silverman, who as president of NBC picked up the show. Coleman’s parents will also speak at the museum July 20 to discuss the actor's life and struggles.

“It is a cautionary tale,” DuMont said, referring to the financial and legal trouble the child star faced later in life. Coleman sued his parents in the late 80s for misappropriation of his assets. He died in 2010 after a life full of health complications. 

“You have to be careful and aware that what looks to be a successful, happy-go-lucky journey can be complicated with a bumpy road. When you’re no longer perceived to be the cute little kid, there’s adjustments. Some make them better than others.”

All artifacts will be kept in the museum's permanent collection after the special exhibit runs through Sept. 19. The exhibit will kick off a week earlier, with an event titled "Sights and Sounds of the 80s." 

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