Todd Bridges with Sarah Tomlinson. Killing Willis: From Diff’rent Strokes to the Mean Streets to the Life I Always Wanted. New York: Touchstone, 2010.
This is the autobiography of a TV star who became a drug addict who once concluded the only option in his life was suicide by cop. He was a drug dealer who grabbed his gun when stopped by police, deciding it was time to die, He was delivering drugs after being tipped off that the police were searching for him. Bridges, who once had a police commemoration for his services to the Burbank Police Officers Association, chose not to die by enticing police bullets, and he was arrested by the Burbank Police. The Judge offered his jail or rehab. He chose rehab which was the beginning of turning his life around.
Bridges knew when he was about five years old that he wanted to be an actor. His mother acted and she taught him some acting skills, including how to cold read and act to a script one had never seen before. He had a line in a commercial filmed with his mother at age 7. Other commercial work followed. The Mary Grady Agency signed him. He won several roles because he could be emotional and cry or yell when needed.
Bridges did an episode of “Barney Miller”. He then appeared in a TV movie. At age 12 he appeared in the TV series “Roots”. He later had a recurring role on “The Waltons”. Producer Danny Arnold was impressed with his work and hired him for the TV series “Fish”. In between shooting “Fish”, he did a TV movie with O.J. Simpson called, ironically, “A Killing Affair.”
Willis toured with a live show with other teen actors, He was crushed when someone called hi a racism name while he was performing, feeing anger while continuing his performance.
At age 12, his publicist sexually abused him. He soon fought back and his mother chased off the publicist while holding a butcher knife. His father did not believe him and continued being friends with the publicist
“Fish” ended after two seasons when actor Abe Vigoda’s demands for a higher salary were met by canceling the series.
Bridges then got a role on a new series “Diff’rent Strokes”. He was not iin the pilot yet it was felt there should be an additional role for an older brother. The network bought 26 episodes from the pilot, something that was never done before.
“Diff’rent Strokes” reached 27th in the Nielson ratings. It also received some racist mail from people who did not like the show’s premise of an interracial family.
Bridges once found himself mobbed by fans in Chicago. Police were called and they formed a double line to control the crowd so Bridges could leave a restaurant and reach his limo.
Bridges believes his star status made him a target for police racial profiling He was pulled over by police while driving his bike on several occasions, once being accused of riding a stolen bike. Once he was given a ticket for riding on private property and the Judge dismissed the ticket and called the police officer a racist for ticketing Bridges and not his white friend.
Bridges starting drinking beer, smoking marijuana, and making out with costar Dana Plato at around age 14.
Bridges befriended Janet Jackson who was filming the TV series “Good Times”. When her show was canceled and a role was created for Bridges to have a girlfriend, Bridges insisted they cast Janet Jackson. She was cast in the role. They then dated in real life. He gave Janet Jackson her first kiss. He states he cared about Janet Jackson but was still fooling around with Dana Plato.
Bridges noted that costar Gary Coleman’s parents were changed by Gary’s fame. They hired managers, agents, and lawyers who started making demands that caused embarrassment to Gary Coleman. His parents and bodyguards for Gary Coleman were always on the set. They kept Gary Coleman away from the others. His parents wanted Bridges off the show and Bridges notes he was not in four episodes.
John Hughes told Bridges he wanted Bridges to appear in the movie “Sixteen Candles”. One of the associates stated “I just don’t see how to put a Black character int he film” to which Bridges replied “You write for Blacks the same way you write for whites”. He was not cast in the movie.
Bridges bought a Porsche. He was once arrested by the police who assumed he had stolen it. He hired Johnnie Cochran and sued the Los Angeles Police Department for harassment. Some African American police officers warned him the police were instructed to find what they could on him.
“Diff’rent Strokes” was canceled in 2004 after seven seasons. ABC then picked up the show. Bridges believes Coleman’s representatives kept Bridge off the final two episodes.
Dana Plato;s drug use affected her more negatively. She once drove her car through the spinning tunnel on the Universal lot. The spinning made her nauseous. The tunnel, usually open to tram tours for the public, had to be closed while it was determined how to remove her car. Plato got pregnant and was fired from the show, appearing on only a few shows afterwards.
Bridges discovered his accountant had mishandled his financial accounts. He owed the IRS over $200,000. He clais the accountants stole over $400,000. His drug problems kept him from working to pay back the IRS, He had several accidents on his motorcycle, including one that gave him amnesia for eight hours.
Bridges discovered that crack cocaine let him feel high continually which was a feeling he liked Bridges began working with a large scale crack dealer. His life fell so low his own mother was prepared, with a loaded gunm to shoot him if he went to her house. He was arrested for attempted murder when another crack dealer was stabbed and shot.
A neighbor, who was an uninterested party, testified seeing Bridges outside the building when the victim was shot. The jury acquitted him on the attempted murder and manslaughter charges and deadlocked on an assault charge. A mistral on the assault charge was declared. Bridges fell back into the line of drug dealing. He was retried on the assault charge. He was acquitted.
Bridges got a role on the TV series “The New Lassie”. His publicist stole $25,000 from him. Bridges discovered crystal meth and began using that when he hallucinated seeing little green men. His mother showed him the Black outfit she had picked for his funeral. He still kept using days. He once left a hotel for what he thought was an hour and learned he was been gone for three days. He was arrested. He went to prison and vowed never to return to prison, He went to rehab ad improved his life It took his sixth trip to rehab to recover.
The 1992 riots make Bridges analyze his life and community He started the Todd Bridges Youth Foundation to hep youth where he had been a drug dealer. He returned to act appearing and TV movie and then did theater. He started a production company with his actor brother Jimmy.