As the anniversary of Gary Colemen’s (May 28) tragic death quickly approaches, folks old enough to remember are reminded of how his passing marked the end of an era. More so, the end of an archetype—the Black child TV star. I’m talking about those kid stars whose onscreen celebrity exploded beyond age, race and the boob tube to create a supernova that could forge a Black media presence as an unprecedented phenomenon as well as a tragic Hollywood burn-out.
We were introduced to the pioneers of this elite group via ‘70s repeats of the Our Gang short film series on television. Allen “Farina” Hoskins—the first Black child screen star—may have appeared the typical pickaninny with his ratty clothing and signature pigtail braids. But Hoskins’ increasing popularity in the ‘20s didn’t just reportedly earn him more pay than his white co-stars but the clout to evolve Farina into an on-screen leader of his crew. Ditto for Hoskins’ replacement, Matthew Beard, whose slick-tongued, con artist character “Stymie” earned him such star-power for his comedic ability, Stan Laurel (half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team) presented him with the gift of a derby—the highly-regarded crown of a good comedian.
The resurfacing of Hoskins’ and Beard in the ‘70s, via TV, was the perfect accompaniment to the rise of the Black child TV star. Rodney Allen Rippy, with his adorable cheeks and manicured afro, kicked the party off, becoming a pop culture superstar after appearing in a commercial for the Jack in the Box fast food chain. Rippy’s TV appeal—and appearances—opened America’s living rooms to the ‘70s B.K.W.A. (Black Kids With Attitude), including Ralph Carter’s midget militancy (and, later, Janet Jackson’s Mae West-impressions) on Good Times. Though it was one of the show’s guest stars, Gary Coleman, who marked the high point of the Black child star on television.
Playing the lovably smart-mouthed Arnold Jackson on Diff'rent Strokes, Coleman became the kid America—young and old—couldn’t get enough of. With TV movies, a Saturday morning cartoon, merchandising and not to mention that iconic phrase (“Wut’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”), Coleman created the Black child TV star industry, opening doors for the popularity of the Cosby kids, Raven-Symoné and, the last of the major Black child TV stars, Jaleel White (a.k.a. Steve Urkel).
Although this archetype has completely disappeared off network TV in the 21st century, there are remnants of them on cable, translating fame in a niche market—primarily among kids—into power and wealth. But can their stars ever shoot into a galaxy beyond? Don’t bet on it.
(Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images)