She wasn’t the first First Lady to have worked as a professional actress, but Nancy Reagan’s cameo appearance on the popular 80s television sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” (which actually ran from 1978 to 1986), starring as herself, made headlines.
Appearing in an episode titled “The Reporter,” which aired on Saturday, March 19, 1983, the premise of the NBC series posed the First Lady as being in New York and reading the local paper to discover the story of Coleman’s character “Arnold Jackson,” making the claim that some of his fellow grammar-school students were experimenting with illicit and dangerous narcotics.
Mrs. Reagan suddenly appears with two Secret Service agents at the apartment where Arnold lives with his brother and adopted sister, (played by Todd Bridges and Dana Plato) and adopted father (Conrad Bain), listens to his story and believes him. She then asks if she can come with him to his classroom where she warns the children, gently but firmly, about the dangers of using drugs and alcohol. Several of the students raise their hand to admit having purchased drugs, although which type isn’t specified.
The episode was one of what the show producers called “very special episodes” in which real problems or dangerous scenarios (racism, molestation and assault, hitchhiking, kidnapping, bulimia, epilepsy) which young children might find themselves confronting were addressed with simplicity and some humor.
Her appearance was a turning point in the “Just Say No” national media campaign the First Lady was then waging to raise awareness among parents, teachers and children. Her effort initially led to critics who claimed it was too simplistic a way to handle a complex problem or those who said it bred mistrust among children. Reagan’s objective had never been to eradicate worldwide drug use; rather, it was always directed specifically towards small children who were most vulnerable to peer pressure. The “Just Say No” catchphrase provided an immediate and simple response that could be memorized and used y kids who might find themselves unsure how to react. At the time, there was statistical evidence that drug use in the U.S. may have been rising among “tween” kids. While it was difficult to accurately gauge, there is some suggestion that drug use did drop among this specific demographic targeted by Nancy Reagan.
Here is a “mini-episode” which includes all of the First Lady’s “Diff’rent Strokes” scenes. It previews with a brief add from the carrier Crackle, but Mrs. Reagan first appears at 2:23:
Before the show aired, Gary Coleman did get a trip to Washington and visit to the White House with Mrs. Reagan where publicity pictures of the duo were taken.
There proved to be a bitterly ironic epilogue acted out off-screen, however. Coleman and his “brother” and “sister” on the series, actors Todd Bridges and Dana Plato all went on to use drugs as they faced deeply-set personal problems then unknown to the public.
Bridge, who struggled to finally recover from his addictions, recalls that it Plato who first introduced him to drugs while they were co-starring in “Diff’rent Strokes.” Plato died of an accidental suicide from mixing prescription drugs in 1999 – her twenty-four old son shot himself in 2010 on Mother’s Day, the anniversary of Plato’s death.
More famously, Coleman endured a number of overwhelming challenges stemming from a lifetime kidney ailment (the cause of his limited growth), misappropriation by his adoptive parents of his substantial earnings, bankruptcy, domestic violence, and public confrontations when approached by curious fans. Never losing his essentially sunny outlook, he died in 2010 at the age of 42.
During the 2003 California Governor recall election, Coleman ran as a satirical candidate and ranked 8th among 135 candidates, with fourteen and a half thousand votes. Another actor – Arnold Schwarzengegger won, the second actor after Nancy Reagan’s husband – to serve as California’s Governor.
Nancy Reagan continued her efforts throughout her tenure as First Lady, making a joint television appearance with the President tied to his signing of the 1986 Drug Abuse Act. Two years later, she became the first First Lady to address the United Nations General Assembly Joined by Secretary of State George Schultz, she expounded on a more expanded agenda of international drug interdiction.
Latter in her tenure, the First Lady’s campaign took a more serious tone in a series of public service ads that were screened before feature films. Less well-known than the “Just Say No,” the 1987 series called “The Thrill Can Kill,” was aimed at high school students. She appeared in the first of these, along with actor Clint Eastwood:
The “Thrill Can Kill” ad campaign starred a number of late 80s personalities, including Pee-Wee Herman. His appearance was a rare serious one in character which sharply contrasted with the high-energy wit of his persona on his Saturday morning “Pee-Wee Herman Show”:
She focused her efforts locally after leaving the White House and retiring to Los Angeles, uniting her Nancy Reagan Foundation with the Best Foundation. She continued fundraising for her anti-drug efforts by calling on Hollywood actors like Tom Selleck and Brooke Shields, who had helped her during the White House years.
Incidentally, that first First Lady who was an actress? It was Priscilla Cooper Tyler, hostess for her father-in-law John Tyler in 1841, and succeeded by sister-in-law Letty Semple until June 1844 when the President married his second wife Julia.