American actor Todd Bridges was born on May 27, 1965, in San Francisco, California. As a young child, Bridges appeared in commercials and on television shows. His big break came in 1978 with the part of Willis Jackson on the hit TV sitcom Diff’rent Strokes—a role that he retained for eight years. Like many former child actors, Bridges ran into trouble with the law. From drugs to firearms, his lawbreaker reputation throughout the 1980s and '90s affected his ability to work. In 1998, Bridges found Christianity and turned his life around. He continues to act in small roles on TV.
'Diff'rent Strokes' Fame
Actor Todd Anthony Bridges was born in San Francisco, California, on May 27, 1965. Todd Bridges grew up in a Hollywood family; his parents, James and Betty, were both actors, as were his older siblings Jimmy and Verda. His parents, finding little success as performers, found more stable work as agents and acting coaches. The Bridges' clients included their own children, and by the time Todd was 4 they had already begun managing his career. That year he got his first modeling job, posing for a magazine ad. When he was 9, Todd made his acting debut in a Jell-O commercial with his family. The gig resulted in more acting work for Bridges, including a 1975 appearance on the TV show Barney Miller and a role in the made-for-television movie, Katherine (1975).
In 1977, Todd appeared in the critically acclaimed mini-series Roots, as well as the popular TV dramas Little House on the Prairie, Love Boat and The Waltons. Around that same time, thanks to his earlier appearance on Barney Miller, Bridges secured a role on the Barney Miller spin-off, Fish. In his first co-starring role, the 10-year-old played a streetwise jokester named Loomis. While Fish was canceled after only one season, Bridges' performance caught the attention of producer Norman Lear. At the age of 12, Bridges finally got his big break: a starring role on an ensemble comedy show called Diff'rent Strokes. The role would change Bridges' life.
Diff'rent Strokes featured Bridges, as well another rising child star, Gary Coleman. The boys played orphans taken in by a wealthy white businessman (played by Conrad Bain), his teenage daughter (played by Dana Plato) and their housekeeper (played by Charlotte Rae). An instant hit, Diff'rent Strokes became NBC's highest-rated sitcom. Bridges would continue to star on the show for eight years, making straight-As at the Hollywood Academy high school in between shoots. The teen heartthrob made more than $15,000 an episode at the show's peak and, by the age of 18, owned a home in Los Angeles, had his pick of girlfriends, and held the keys to a promising career.
Trouble with the Law
Yet Bridges faced many personal challenges off the set. His father, who worked as his agent, and his mother, who became his manager, divorced in 1982. Although the couple remained friends, the split hit Todd particularly hard. To make matters worse, Bridges said he was terrorized by white supremacists in his Canoga Park, California neighborhood the summer of 1983. Following an incident in which the actor faced sniper shots from his harassers, Bridges said his car was stolen and set on fire. Frightened by the targeted assault, the actor began carrying a gun. That same month, he was pulled over by police for a traffic violation, and was charged with carrying a loaded, concealed weapon. Bridges paid a $240 fine for the offense.
This did not end Bridges' run-ins with the law, however. In 1986, shortly after the final season of Diff'rent Strokes, the actor was accused of bombing the car of a person with which he had a business dispute. He pleaded no contest to the charges. The judge gave Bridges three years' probation, 300 hours of community service and a $2,500 fine.
Bridges' legal troubles made finding work difficult, and the lack of substantial roles for Black actors further complicated his career. Depressed and despondent, Todd turned to drugs and crime. In January of 1989, law enforcement officials said the out-of-work actor threatened an auto mechanic with a gun, and removed his car from the shop without paying his $500 bill. After witnesses couldn't accurately identify the suspect, however, the charges were dropped. A month later, Bridges found himself in trouble yet again, this time for the attempted murder of drug dealer Kenneth "Tex" Clay. According to the charges, Bridges' argument with Clay escalated into violence, and the actor shot his victim eight times. During his trial, Bridges admitted that he was abusing cocaine, and that his drug use prevented him from knowing for sure whether or not he had shot anyone. With the help of his lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, Bridges was acquitted after two separate trials. But the bad publicity effectively destroyed his acting career.
In 1993, Bridges found himself on the wrong side of the law again when he got into an argument with a tenant in his home, David Kitchen. Kitchen allegedly refused to pay rent and attacked Bridges with a sword. Bridges retaliated by stabbing Kitchen in the chest with a kitchen knife. Attorneys determined that Bridges acted in self-defense, and charges were dropped. That same year, however, Bridges was arrested for possession of the drug methamphetamine and for illegal firearms. After this incident, Bridges entered a court-ordered drug treatment program.
Rehab helped Bridges kick his substance abuse issues, but it didn't seem to curb his violent tendencies. Bridges was charged in 1997 with an assault on a friend's car, which he rammed over and over with his own car after an argument. He was given community service and a fine.
Life changed for the actor in 1998, when he turned to Christianity for help with his problems. Around this time, he founded the Todd Bridges Youth Foundation, a nonprofit youth center in Los Angeles that provides sports, computer training, and acting courses for inner-city children. He also met future wife, Dori Smith, whom he married on May 25, 1998. The couple welcomed a son, Spencir, in July 1998.
Several years later, in April 2001, Bridges made headlines yet again—this time, for helping to save a paraplegic woman from drowning. The actor, who was on a fishing trip with family at Lake Balboa Park in Los Angeles, saw the woman get her fishing line tangled up in her wheelchair controls. As the woman lurched face-down in the lake, Bridges leapt to action, pulling her out of the chair and lifting her from the water.
Bridges also saw a resurgence in his acting career. He made appearances on multiple reality shows including Celebrity Boxing (2002) and Fear Factor (2006). He also had a recurring role on the Chris Rock sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, which aired from 2005 until 2009. In 2010, he appeared on Oprah Winfrey to promote his new book, Killing Willis, which discussed his acting career, drug addiction and trouble with the law.
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