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Conrad Bain of TV's 'Diff''rent Strokes' dies at 89

By Greg Goodsell
January 17th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Was ""Diff'rent Strokes" a warm, family TV situation comedy that cut across social and racial lines to impart a message of love and acceptance? Or was it a dastardly, implicitly racist program that fostered the notions of a "benevolent white patriarchy?" Conrad Bain, the distinguished actor who played dad Phillip Drummond on that show has died at the age of 89.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Born in Alberta, Canada Bain attended the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta and served as a sergeant in the Canadian Army from 1943 to 1946. He then moved to New York, and spent the next 30 years in the theater, making his New York debut Off Broadway in 1956 in "The Iceman Cometh."

Bain scored his first real television success as Dr. Arthur Harmon, a neighbor of Bea Arthur's title character on "Maude."  He joined the cast of "Diff'rent Strokes" in 1978, the beginning of an eight-season run. Bain played a wealthy Manhattan widower Mr. Drummond who had promised his dying black housekeeper that he would rear her sons, Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges).

Drummond had a biological daughter, Kimberly, played by Dana Plato. The show's plotlines centered on the life of a racially mixed family. The show was criticized by some as simplistic and patronizing.

"Diff'rent Strokes" followed a tradition of "domestication" and "cultural dwarfism" of black men in mainstream entertainment, "in which small black 'boys' (arrested adolescents who were much older than the characters they played) were adopted by tall, successful white males," who "represented the myth of the benevolent paternalism of the white upper class," according to critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The New York Times in 1989.

Actor Gary Coleman, small due to treatments related to a congenital kidney disease said he had come to dislike the scenes in which, even when he had become a teenager in real life, his character continued to hop into Mr. Bain's lap for yet another lecture.

The "Diff'rent Strokes" TV series would become notorious for the real-life problems the three child actors suffered once the series ended. Coleman died in 2010 at 42 after a lengthy illness, broke and recently fired from his position as a security guard. Dana Plato led a rollercoaster ride of bad life and career decisions that ended when she died of a drug overdose in 1999 at 34. Todd Bridges, the only surviving child actor was acquitted of attempted murder in 1990.

Seeing the dashed fortunes of herself and her costars, Plato is believed to have quipped at one time, "That Mr. Drummond sure was a lousy father!"

Bain is survived by two sons, Mark and Kent, and a twin brother, Bonar. His wife of more than 60 years, Monica Bain died in 2009.

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