In the late ’70s and early ’80s two new faces appeared on our television screens. They looked like this:
This was when TV entered what I call its Black Midget Phase (BMP). That’s Gary Coleman on the left. He played wise-cracking Arnold Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes. On the right is Emmanuel Lewis who played the eponymous Webster.
Gary Coleman really got the ball rolling as far as the BMP was concerned, when Diff’rent Strokes became a major success, with Coleman as Arnold its most popular character. (In several countries the show was retitled as simply Arnold.) I watched Diff’rent Strokes religiously as a kid, and even then I realised something was not quite right with little Arnold. Rumours in the school playground said that he was actually a thirty-year-old dwarf, or that he had an incurable reverse-aging disease. In short, he was an adult trapped in a child’s body.
Whatever the cause of Coleman’s short stature, for some reason I’ve always assumed that Gary Coleman was indeed an adult when he was hired to play Arnold, as though the show’s producers had found a new kind of loophole in the child labour law; that is, to hire an actor with the appearance of a child but with the sensibilities and work ethic of an adult. But in fact Coleman (born in 1968) was only ten years old when Diff’rent Strokes first aired, his stunted growth caused by a congenital kidney disease. In hindsight, it’s amazing that a desperately ill black kid could rise to such dizzy heights of sitcom stardom. His famous catchphrase – What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis? – still reverberates in the minds of thirty-somethings worldwide.
And then came Webster. I was never a big fan of Webster. This blatant Diff’rent Strokes rip-off (both shows involved poor black kids being taken into an affluent white household) arrived in 1983, when I was moving onto more adult televisual fare, such as late-era Cop Shop. What made the comparison between the two shows even more acute was that Emmanuel Lewis who played Webster (full name Webster Long, now there’s a piece of trivia!) was, like Gary Coleman, a person of small stature, 12 years old when the show began. The BMP was now in full swing.
It’s difficult to find much information on Emmanuel, as even his Wikipedia entry is uncharacteristically sparse. It does give his height as 4′ 3″ – presumably his adult height, and certainly taller than he appears in this humorous clip of his appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
It’s clear that Emmanuel (then in his early teens) had a good grasp of comedic timing, presumably why he was chosen to play a smart-talking eight-year-old on Webster. But as with Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes, Webster’s precocious cuteness could only carry the show so far. Webster limped along until 1989 when it was finally put out of its misery. Thankfully it is yet to see DVD release.
Thus ended the Black Midget Phase, some would argue a low point in American sitcom history. Nevertheless, I liked the Black Midget Phase much more than the earlier Red Dwarf Phase.