Todd Bridges Finds a New Stroke at The Plaza

The "Diff’rent Strokes" star has found a new way to move the world

The spinning wheel settles on ’80s and ’90s TV shows. Tiffany feeds title clues to a blindfolded Ricky. The North Dakota couple nails Sesame Street and The Dukes of Hazzard. Then Diff’rent Strokes flashes on a screen. Tiffany blurts out, “Oh, he played on it!” and hops up and down as she points at Todd Bridges.

Frazzled, Ricky yells out, “Homer Simpson!”

Bridges, host of the Plaza’s oft-boisterous live game show Lovers or Losers, feigns dejection as a touristy crowd of about 60 roars with laughter. Tiffany mutes giggles with a hand, then recovers to deliver, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” Fed the catchphrase line that a pint-size Gary Coleman, as Arnold Jackson, always aimed at big bro Willis, or Bridges, Ricky provides the title instantly. Bells ding.

A stagecraft veteran, Bridges smoothly goes on with the show, which on this particular Wednesday night features five different games, each pitting three new couples from the audience against each other. Prizes start at a $100 Plaza gift certificate, escalating to a weeklong Caribbean or Mexican cruise, and a week’s vacation in one of 15 Mexican cities, which Ricky and Tiffany ultimately fumble away in a tie-breaking defeat to Nebraskans Betty and Todd.

Lovers or Losers attracts weekend audiences of 160 and has been altered several times since it opened about a year ago. Bridges and producer Bob Colasuonno have purposely polished the 90-minute production to accommodate a TV-friendly 48 minutes. They say they’re close to selling it to a cable outlet; it’s booked at the Plaza into 2017.

The 50-year-old Bridges, joined by three glittery models, glides across the stage with panache and zeal. He might bellow a bit too loudly into the beige hands-free mic that dangles from his left cheek, but that can be owed to his innate affability and enthusiasm.

Bridges became enthralled with show business 45 years ago. He couldn’t take his eyes off Redd Foxx on NBC’s popular Sanford and Son show. He told his mother, Betty, that he wanted to be “just like (Foxx), a TV actor.” Betty had studied at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and her three children marveled watching her onstage. She called around, Todd auditioned, and he was soon promoting Parkay, Manwich, Jell-O, Tide and United Airlines on television commercials.

Inside two years he was a bona fide TV actor. His first lines—“How ya doin’, sir?”—on Streets of San Francisco was to Karl Malden, playing detective Mike Stone. Through a tight connection with Sammy Davis Jr., Bridges would go on to meet Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

A spot in Barney Miller led to creator Danny Arnold including Bridges as a regular, with Abe Vigoda, in Fish. Then came the Diff’rent Strokes run, from 1978 through 1986 that certified Bridges as a star. He made 30 grand an episode. He flirted, and more, with co-star Dana Plato.

Bridges watches as Couple #2 consumes mass quantities of "Lovers or Losers."

Bridges watches as Couple #2 consumes mass quantities of “Lovers or Losers.”

At the Plaza, a septuagenarian man from Texas stumbles on a multiple-choice question. He apologizes to Bridges and says, “When you get to be my age …” Bridges pauses two beats and tells the man, “Well, when you get to my age and go through what I’ve been through …” Crowd chuckles are measured, uncertain.

Bridges descended into an abyss of his own design after Strokes, fueled by years of physical abuse by his father, sexual maltreatment from an agent, police persecution (he was almost arrested for stealing his own Mercedes), and addictions to cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines.

It’s all detailed in Killing Willis, the biography he wrote with Sarah Tomlinson in 2010. He was using and dealing. The 5-foot-11 thespian shrank to 112 pounds. When he called Plato to inform her of his plan to enter rehab, she said, “Todd, I don’t have a problem like you do.” Three days later, she was dead from a drug overdose.

Bridges’ IMDb listing includes 98 credits as an actor, six as a producer and four as a director, but there is a distinct void between 1992 and ’96. He nearly forced cops to shoot him, but stopped just short of grabbing a 9mm Beretta. He says his low point arrived in his fifth attempt at rehab at a facility in Marina del Rey. Shower rod in hand, he prepared to swing on every staff member about to approach him.

One security staff member, a bald-headed black man—“a giant,” Bridges says—ducked so his noggin wouldn’t scrape the door header and told him, “This can be easy or hard.” Bridges chose the former. He stripped, was handed a diaper, and his wrists and ankles were strapped to a cold slab.

“It was the worst way to kick drugs,” Bridges writes in his book. “I was super-aware of every inch of my body, and it all felt sick.”

After 24 hours of good behavior, a wrist was freed. Twenty-four hours later, the other was released. By the fifth day, he could walk again.

Shortly after that, he heard kids goofing around outside a window and came to a realization.

“Something had to change,” Bridges says. “I couldn’t continue this behavior. I thought, ‘This is terrible. Look at me. I’m a successful actor wearing a big diaper.’ Then I got hit by this light. I heard people laughing and playing, like, ‘Wow, that’s joy. Where can I get that?’”

He unearthed it through an arduous process aided by his mother’s tough love, by setting an example for his son and daughter and through building a foundation of steady work. He completed nearly 20 projects between 2009 and 2015. He’s got a new movie in the can, plus two in pre-production and five in post-production. He does voice-over fairly regularly, and performs a stand-up comedy routine all over the country.

But now, in this moment, he’s all about this couple from Ohio. “It was so much fun! Nice to meet you,” Robin and Keith gush at Bridges after Lovers or Losers ends for the night. He greets patrons, poses for photographs and signs autographs. It’s late. His eyelids are as heavy as garage doors. But he genuinely enjoys meeting people, even if they do occasionally call him “Homer Simpson.”

“That’s a great part of being in the business; giving someone joy for one minute. Send them away happy, with a smile on their face,” Bridges says. “But I’ve also realized that what makes me who I am is liking myself. That’s the most important thing. If you don’t like yourself, you’ll never be successful in anything you do.”

Lovers or Losers

The Plaza, 8:30 p.m. (dark Thursday and Sunday), $39.95-$74.95, 702-386-2507, PlazaHotelCasino.com.

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