Todd Bridges on His New Memoir Killing Willis, Media Lies, and Revisiting His Darkest Moments
Todd Bridges played the adorable older brother Willis on the classic sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, but you may not know that Bridges -- to a certain degree -- continued playing Willis after the show went off the air, despite his best efforts. The title of his new autobigraphy Killing Willis: From Diff'rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted signifies his struggle to cope with his identity and so, so much more. After years of well-documented drug abuse (both using and selling) and hard-fought recovery, Bridges talks to Movieline about surviving, the plights of his costars Gary Coleman and Dana Plato, and his father who didn't believe him when he said his publicist molested him at age 12.
Killing Willis is a jarring title, even among the grimmest of celebrity autobiographies. Where did it come from?
I think we thought that was the best way into it. Somewhere along the line, I was trying to kill myself. So we thought maybe I was trying to kill a part of me that was Willis. It was not only catchy, but it had a lot to do with what I was going through.
I'm sure it's a name you still hear a lot.
I mean, that's going to be a part of me forever. You have to roll with the punches. I'm not ashamed of it. It was a great show, and I'm still happy to be a part of it.
You've written about Diff'rent Strokes now, and people will forever link you to it -- but do you actually think about it much anymore?
The show is quite a few years ago, I mean -- 30 years ago. I think about the good times I had on the set, but I really think when you have a show like that with such big success, you have to get out of the way of it and let it be. I think Gary Coleman has hard feelings towards it, you know. And I don't.
People tend to lump former child stars together. Do you think you prove in your book the singularity of your experience?
I think my story's pretty original, and it's unfortunate that people put me in that category -- that you have too much success, it goes away, and that's why you have problems. I think that's one of the biggest problems today. People want to accuse and blame Hollywood, but Hollywood had nothing to do with my downfall.
Diff'rent Strokes has had more TV movies, E! True Hollywood Stories and TV biographies written about it than most other classic shows. What's it like to be part of a legacy that seems to have been depicted in so many melodramatic forms? Are there a lot of myths out there?
I think that things like the E! True Hollywood Story -- it's all a fabrication, what they think happened. They're still only going to pick out certain things to make it dramatic, or make it their vision of what is wrong. I think that's one of the biggest problems with the media today. They want to put their spin on what went wrong. That's the sad part about it -- how can they continually want to mention, like, all child stars, and how they're lights go out, when it's all over -- there's more to it than that. My downfall has nothing to do with a TV show. When you watch these shows, it kind of misrepresents really happened, or what we think happened.
Why is now the right time for a Todd Bridges autobiography?
With the sobriety it was an opportunity to tell my story of the story. I just felt it was the right time to the right side and not the side of somebody else. I'm happy I did it, and it also relieves a lot of stress, things that I thought I had worked through. I realize I had to work through more stuff. I think I also liked that I wasn't blaming anybody; I was taking responsibility for myself.
Seems like there's an interest in perpetuating what people already think of what happened to you guys on the show..
One time I did an interview, and I was talking about one of my lowest points -- when I was going through rehab when I was on meth, and they put me in restraints and put a diaper on me. And the next [thing] I read is that I have a diaper fetish. That's just retarded. I never said that. That's what they said. You have to just realize that's them and they'll do what they can to sell their story.
Talk about the toughest part of the writing process. When you talk about the molestation, it's horrifying and heartbreaking.
The molestation was tough, really going over that. Getting most points out there and going into detail about happen, that sticks out to me a little bit. I mean, remembering when I told my father about it and he didn't believe me -- that really got to me. I thought that I was completely over it, but there are still remnants. I don't think I'll ever be really over it. I think you learn how to deal with it, but as far as completely being over it, I don't think that will take place.
Were there fun things to revisit in writing this book?
I mean, meeting Michael Jackson, meeting Sammy Davis Jr., doing those big shows and realizing that Roots was the biggest miniseries of all time. Being a child and being with my mom on the set -- there was such comfort and such safety. Really enjoyed that.
Do you think about Roots sometimes and remember that your work is still taught in classrooms?
Well, yeah. If you looked at Roots, schools never really talked about slavery. They never really talked about where we came from. So for a young black kid growing up in America, he's kind of lost in that situation. He doesn't know where his roots are. All the big contributions they've made are not documented, not written about, which is unfortunate, you know?
Has writing this book changed what you think of Gary Coleman and Dana Plato, even long after her death over a decade ago?
Gary is going to be angry; he's angry about the whole thing. He doesn't know how to get past it. With Dana, I just think about all the good experiences we had. The talks we used to have. It was... pretty great writing about that.
As for you, what will readers come away understanding about you that they didn't before
They'll have an understanding on why I took the path I took. Maybe they won't be so hard when it comes to judging me. And cut me some slack. That's all I'm asking for.