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Remembering Gary Coleman as The Kid From Left Field

His widow sold the final photograph of his life to The Globe, a supermarket rag that specializes in stories like BOOZE REHAB FOR SUICIDAL FERGIE! and BETTY WHITE SNUBBED DYING RUE! The image -- plastered across this week's cover, naturally -- shows Gary Coleman in a Utah hospital bed, tubes emerging from his nose, his head wrapped in bandages.

Shannon Price-Coleman reportedly received $10,000 for the picture. Which, in the saddest of ways, sounds just about right. This is, after all, what Hollywood does to its tot actors: rob them of their childhood, leave them uneducated, uninsured and unprotected, then watch them age (usually badly) as channels like E! and tabloids like The Globe swoop down to gnaw on the remains.

I, for one, refuse to let this happen.

I, for one, loved Gary Coleman's work.

I know ... I know -- a punch line inevitably awaits. Surely, there's a catch; a gag; a journalistic trick up my sleeve. Nope. Not today.

Back in 1979, when I was a gangly 7-year-old in Mahopac, N.Y., my favorite film wasn't Alien or Manhattan or even The Muppet Movie. No, it was a lightly regarded made-for-TV remake titled The Kid From Left Field. Starring Robert (Benson) Guillaume as a San Diego Padres vendor and Coleman as his son, Jackie Robinson Cooper. The plot was, admittedly, ludicrous: The Padres stink, but turn things around when little J.R. Cooper takes over as manager and guides them to the World Series (if memory serves me right, they play the Chicago White Sox in a battle of God-awful '70s uniforms). The Kid aired on NBC on a Sunday night in September, and reviewers went to town ("There is no point in listing the credits," wrote Tom Shales in the Washington Post, "because no credit is due.").

Reviewers, however, often miss the point. Through adult eyes, films like The Kid From Left Field stink. The acting is atrocious, the cinematography substandard. Established cast members like Guillaume and Tab Hunter generally eye the work as easy pocket dough.

For my friends and I, however, Coleman's debut made-for-TV movie was a blessed opportunity to fantasize; to actually visualize what it'd be like to guide a baseball team as a child. Nary a wacky managerial cliché was overlooked -- Coleman kicking dirt on an umpire; Coleman giving a feisty, you've-gotta-believe pep talk; Coleman being carried off the field -- and that was fine with me. When you're 7, there are no clichés.

"The goal was fun," says Adell Aldrich, the film's director. "We weren't trying to win awards, but we did want to make something people would enjoy."

Now 67 and a grandmother of seven, Aldrich, whose father is the famed director Robert Aldrich, joyfully recalls working with a 10-year-old Coleman, at the time Coleman the star of the hit sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. It was no secret on the San Diego-based set that the film was strictly a vehicle for the young thespian; a chance for NBC to increase his name recognition and up his commercial value. Aldrich was actually brought in when, after two days of filming, the first director quit because of his inability to work with children.

"I was a mother, and that's part of the reason they hired me," she says. "Gary was brilliant. Just a natural actor who could memorize his lines after one reading. But his people -- his parents and his representatives -- didn't care how long the kid worked or what he was doing. So it was my job to direct, but also to make sure he was OK. I hugged him every day and let him know I was there for him."

By the time the clock hit 10 p.m. and the credits proceeded to roll, the power of Gary Coleman had been fully unleashed. I was convinced that I, too, could manage the Padres to the Fall Classic (even with Juan Eichelberger, Billy Almon and Dan Briggs on my roster).

Alas, I was left itching for more. More wacky sports adventures. More Gary Coleman. More wacky sports adventures starring Gary Coleman.

Sadly, I had to wait three years.

Gladly, the wait was worth it.

In 1982, Coleman returned to the tried-and-true made-for-TV-movie format with The Kid with the Broken Halo, an ode to both the actor's mid-'80s mojo and the lack of originality in television (Try and explain this one: Within a five-year span, Coleman would star in three made-for-TV movies whose titles began, "The Kid ..." In 1983, he was the lead in The Kid with the 200 I.Q., a flick so dreadful that only a kid with an I.Q. of 2 could stomach it). Though technically not a sports movie, in Broken Halo Coleman plays Andy LeBeau, a 12-year-old wayward angel who, in order to earn his wings, must help solve the problems of three humans. Once again, I dug it -- though few others seemed to. "The movie was corny," says John Pleshette, a veteran actor who landed a supporting role. "All of those made-for-TV movies were like episodes of Highway to Heaven."

One of the poor souls LeBeau assists is Rudy Desautel, an aging NFL wide receiver battling injuries and family problems. At the time I absolutely loved the name Rudy Desautel, in the same way I thought it was cool how Garry Templeton boasted two Rs and J.R. Richard was actually James Rodney. It just sounded athletic. I wish I could tell you which team Rudy Desautel played for (I'm pretty sure it was either the Los Angeles Rams or San Diego Chargers), but I feel mildly better in knowing that even Rudy Desautel doesn't know what team Rudy Desautel played for.

The actor who took the part, Georg Stanford Brown, only did so because the writer of Broken Halo was George Kirgo, his uncle. Brown still lives in California, and boasts a thick resume ranging from Roots to the Jesse Owens Story to House Party 2: Pajama Jammie Jam. When I called to discuss Coleman's second -- and last -- sports film, he laughed aloud. "What was my character's name again?" Brown asked.

Uh, Rudy Desautel.

"I wouldn't have come up with that in 100 years," he said. "I couldn't tell you much of the plot, or what the experience was like. I do remember that they used my Mercedes as the character's car in the movie, which was unusual. And one day they took it to get washed, and when it came back there were swirls scratched into the car. That was the last time I ever let a production company drive something I owned."

Brown paused, perhaps re-channeling the emotion from that gut-wrenching scene when Rudy Desautel and his daughter Teri (played by Kim Fields) argue about love or football or, er, something.

"I do remember that Gary Coleman was a sweet young man," he said. "A very sweet, very nice young man. And that I certainly hoped everything in life would work out for him."

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