For those of us who grew up watching Todd Bridges play Gary Coleman’s older brother Willis on the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, the news of Feb. 2, 1989, might have come as a shock: Reeling from a four-day cocaine bender, the then-23-year-old actor was arrested on suspicion of shooting an accused drug dealer at a South Central L.A. crack den.
But if you had kept a close eye on Bridges’ personal life, the news was hardly surprising: In 1983, he was arrested for carrying a concealed firearm (and released after paying a $240 fine); in 1987, he received a suspended sentence after pleading no contest to charges of making a bomb threat against an auto customizer; and less than two weeks before the shooting, Bridges was arrested for armed robbery after being accused of pulling a gun on a mechanic and taking back his BMW without paying the $500 bill (the charge was later dropped after a witness said it wasn’t Bridges).
Prosecutors claimed that on that February night, however, the former child star (who later admitted to a 14-gram-a-day cocaine habit) allegedly shot an accused drug dealer eight times at close range (the man survived his wounds). Bridges was jailed and bail was set at $2 million. (Other Diff’rent Strokes folks have had problems of their own: Coleman punched an autograph seeker in 1998, while TV sis Dana Plato — a convicted robber — died of a drug overdose last year.)
Attorney Johnnie Cochran took Bridges’ case, painting him as a “babe in the woods.” Bridges — who said that he’d turned to drugs to cope with personal problems — testified that he was so intoxicated on cocaine that he couldn’t remember if he’d fired the shots. Two juries eventually cleared Bridges of all charges.
That wasn’t the end of the actor’s troubles, however. In 1993, he pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamines and a concealed firearm, and was sentenced to one year in a live-in drug treatment program. And in 1997, Bridges was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon after being accused of ramming a friend’s car. He claimed it was an accident and was charged with vandalism, for which he did community service and paid a fine.
Today Bridges, 34, insists his scandalous days are behind him. “I’ve been clean and sober for seven years,” says the actor, who has a 19-month-old son, Spencir, with his second wife, Dori. In addition to directing the feature film Black Ball and acting (he’ll appear on an upcoming episode of MAD TV), he is involved in the Todd Bridges Youth Foundation, an outreach program he founded in Carson, Calif.
“The bottom line is I’ve made stupid choices,” he says. “But I got my life together now and that’s the difference. I’m not the same idiot I used to be.”