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Gary Coleman, 2003 Calif. Gov. Candidate, Remembered

Gary Coleman and NPR's Mandalit del Barco in 2003. NPR.org hide caption

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Gary Coleman and NPR's Mandalit del Barco in 2003.

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By Mandalit del Barco

The late actor Gary Coleman was once a star of the popular 1970's and 1980s TV sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes."

But in 2003, he had somewhat dubious political aspirations.

Coleman was among a bevy of serious and not-so-serious candidates who ran, unsuccessfully, against Arnold Schwarzenegger to be governor of California in 2003.

His campaign included an appearance on a one-time-only TV game show called "Who Wants To Be Governor Of California? The Debating Game."

Coleman was billed as "The pint-sized terminator at 4'8" tall, weighing in at 135 pounds. He played Arnold on 'Diff'rent Strokes.' Ladies and gentlemen, Gary Coleman."

After the show was taped, I caught up with Coleman to talk about his tongue-in-cheek platform. He pledged that as governor, he would reduce the state's deficit by cutting jobs in the state capitol.

"The first salary I'm going to cut is my own," he said, somewhat sarcastically. "You know, $175,000 a year? Uh, No."

Coleman was 35 years old then, a former child actor and one-time shopping mall security guard.

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He told me the election to recall the sitting governor was extremely silly but entertaining. "Well, we are the entertainment capital of the world, you know?" he said. "Why should Italy have all the fun?"

At the time, Coleman was running against 135 other candidates in a bizarre recall election. "I know it's pretty creepy," he admitted to me. "I could actually end up being governor by default."

Actually, Gary Coleman finished in eighth place for governor, just behind Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt.

I remember how bitter he seemed about his candidacy, his acting career and his life. I couldn't tell how serious he was, or wasn't, about his bid for governor.

Still, he was nice enough to pose next to me for a photo.