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Dana Plato: Sitcom Star

Published: 5/8/2014
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Dana Plato (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Dana Plato, who died May 8, 1999, at age 34, had a short life and even shorter acting career. Her best-known role was Kimberly Drummond on the NBC sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, a part she played for seven years during which she was largely overshadowed by star Gary Coleman.

As a child, Plato took ice skating lessons and had Olympic aspirations. She acted in television commercials and claimed she was offered the lead role in The Exorcist, but had to turn it down because her mother vetoed the part as unsuitable. Years later, Plato had a small part in the unsuccessful sequel, Exorcism II: Heretic.

In 1977, the 13-year-old Plato was offered the role of Kimberly Drummond on Diff'rent Strokes. "She faced an important crossroads: either compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating team, or star in a new TV sitcom," according to Biography.com.

Plato chose television, appearing as the daughter of a wealthy white man who adopts two African-American children played by Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman. Coleman was the breakout star, and his catchphrase, "Watchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" became part of the American lexicon.

Plato and her young costars lived “a hedonistic lifestyle offset, indulging in pot and cocaine after hours," Biography.com said. During the show's fifth season, Plato announced she was pregnant and she was written off the show. She appeared in a few later episodes as a guest star before the show was canceled in 1986.

By all accounts, Plato struggled professionally and personally after the show ended. In 1989, she appeared in a Playboy magazine pictorial and played small parts in movies such as Bikini Beach Race.

By 1999, Plato was living with a boyfriend in a trailer in Florida. She appeared on Howard Stern's radio program "as part of an effort to jump-start her career," her obituary in The New York Times said. She told Stern she was off drugs, saying, "My life is so good now. I've never been happier."

The day after the interview, Plato was visiting her fiance's mother in Oklahoma when she died. Police initially said her death was caused by an accidental overdose, but it was eventually ruled a suicide.

Following her death, Robert Menchaca, Plato’s fiancé, held a news conference, according to an account in People magazine. “I’ll always love her,” Menchaca said, “and I know the millions of fans out there love her.”

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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