Dana PlatoDana Michelle Plato (1964-1999) endured a roller coaster life of career sabotage, drug addiction, pornography, armed robbery, and Gary Coleman. Placed up for adoption by a sixteen year-old, baby Dana was taken in by an overachieving southern California mother who gently guided her as best she could toward an acting career. Starting at the age of seven, Dana was regularly thrust before the camera, appearing in over one hundred ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Noxema, Arco, Hallmark and other high-profile sponsors. During numerous retakes of one commercial for Dole fruit cocktail, Plato ended up extremely ill after consuming eighty-two bananas which expanded in her stomach.
Shortly thereafter, she was enthusiastically hired for the lead role in The Exorcist, but her adoptive mother refused to allow Dana's participation in "that kind of movie". As Linda Blair enjoyed overnight superstardom, Dana plodded through roles in Beyond the Bermuda Triangle.
During a brief appearance on The Gong Show, Dana was spotted by a producer who helped her land the role of Kimberly Drummond, the older sister on TV's Diff'rent Strokes. Her character served a dual purpose: she'd cast disapproving glances at the crazy schemes of her younger brothers, and she'd periodically proclaim she was no longer using the bathroom.
Regardless, this part earned the child star tremendous fame and the unprecedented salary of $22,000 per episode between 1978 and 1984. Her role was terminated after she became pregnant in real life, a condition Diff'rent Strokes writers and producers ruled impossible to reconcile with the virginal, goody-two-shoes character of Kimberly. Plato then married guitarist Lanny Lambert, and named their son Tyler.
Lambert divorced her in 1990, winning custody. Everything associated with Diff'rent Strokes became an obscure novelty. Her co-stars Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman had problems with both the law and their personal lives. Their names became punch lines in the public discourse, and privately Dana began to express an interest in developing an identity wholly separate from them. She wanted to exhibit the real Dana.
She believed a five-page spread in the June 1989 issue of Playboy magazine might lead to some positive attention, but her pictorial was overshadowed by the centerfold: Playmate of the Year Kimberly Conrad, Hugh Hefner's new bride. Two Kimberlys were bad enough, but Conrad [Bain] was the name of the actor who played Kimberly's father on Diff'rent Strokes. It all proved too confusing for American masturbators, and Plato's career seemed permanently shelved. Leads were drying up, and she found herself unable to pay the rent. She was even developing a cocaine addiction. Had the Just-Say-No episode featuring First Lady Nancy Reagan all been a dream?
In 1991, she was arrested for the armed robbery of a Las Vegas video store while wearing a clumsy disguise consisting of a curly blonde wig and jumbo-sized dark sunglasses. Dana pointed a pellet gun at the clerk, walked out with $164, removed the disguise, and immediately returned to the video store as though nothing had happened.
Astonishingly, it was legendary entertainer Wayne Newton who posted her $15,000 bail bond. Plato was given five years' probation. News of her arrest, coupled with a timely increase in America's warmed-over kitschy nostalgia for all things Diff'rent Strokes, garnered her more publicity than ever. She was able to enjoy roles like the scantily-clad victim in the video-based interactive game Night Trap, and a string of B-grade movies like Bikini Beach Race.
"If I hadn't gotten caught, it could have been the worst thing that happened to me because I could have died of a drug overdose," she mused.
Later that year, she was arrested after forging prescriptions for Valium. As this was a direct violation of her armed robbery parole arrangement, she served thirty days in jail. This was to be the first of numerous arrests, jail terms, and drug-and-alcohol treatment centers for Plato, who ultimately exited her last prison sentence a lesbian, according to a 1998 issue of the Sapphic pride magazine Girlfriends. This was less of a revelation, since one year earlier she'd starred in an X-rated film cleverly titled Diff'rent Strokes. Plato contributed one skinny-dip, two soft-core lesbian sex scenes, and a sudsy threesome in a shower.
Says Plato, "When the role came along I was very happy to do it because this is life. It's something people need to see and recognize and get healthy about. In my opinion it's not about gay or straight or bi; but attracted to spirits whatever body they're in. There's other reasons too, but that's how I see it. With women and women I think there´s an understanding. Nobody knows what a woman feels or experiences but another woman. We are the nurturers and there are times when we need to be nurtured."
Paul Petersen (The Donna Reed Show) over time observed Plato had become far too hyperactive and way too thin. He relates an encounter which took place backstage at a Sally Jesse Raphael broadcast about former child stars:
Just before we taped I was walking past the women's bathroom when a harried Dana came busting out the door. She apologized wildly for a collision that was no one's fault. I took her arm and held her fast. She had the cocaine user's tell-tale ring around the collar. Dana, I said to her. Wipe your nose. In less than ten minutes she was in front of the camera telling everyone she was clean and sober.
Dana Plato's last public appearance took place May 8th, 1999, on the Howard Stern radio and television program, to clear up "misunderstandings" that she was a drug-addicted lesbian. Plato replied that she'd been sober for ten years. Then she wept. She volunteered a strand of hair for a drug test, only to plead with Howard to return it. Even the King of all Media seemed taken aback. He exhibited sympathy and restrained his remarks, avoiding easy pot-shots. She announced that she'd never been happier in her life.
The next day, coroner officials at an Oklahoma trailer park would be ruling her death a suicide; the result of an intentional overdose on a toxic combination of Valium and Loritab. She died peacefully in her sleep at the age of thirty-four, and didn't leave a note.