Todd Bridges has been famous for most of his life. The San Francisco born actor, best known as Diff’rent Strokes’ Willis, began acting while still in grade school. “I used to watch Redd Foxx on Sanford and Son. I knew I wanted to do the same thing he did,” Todd tells Closer. He did a fine job of it. In addition to Diff’rent Strokes, Todd guest-starred on many of the most influential TV series of the 1970s, including Barney Miller, Little House on the Prairie, Police Story, The Waltons, The Love Boat, and even scored a role in the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots.
In his personal life, Todd has known times of trouble. He’s dealt with childhood trauma and drug dependency and had several well-publicized run-ins with the law in the early 1990s. He became sober in 1993 and feels grateful to have come so far. “I’ve been through a lot,” admits Todd, 56. “But now I know I can get through anything.”
A father of two, Todd recently appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, where he shared a different side of himself with viewers. “It was much more difficult than I expected. But at the end of the day, I’m happy. It was really fun,” he says. “I got a chance to show who I am, not how the media has portrayed me. Fans got a chance to see the real me.”
When you are recognized, what do fans most often say to you?
“They always say, ‘What’chu talking about Willis?,’ which I did get to say to [host] Julie [Chen] during the finale of Big Brother. It had the right timing, and it was hilarious.”
What do you consider your big break?
“Barney Miller, and then from that show I went on Fish. That was a fun show to work on. I loved Abe Vigoda. He was a really great man. Everybody was from New York and had a New York accent except for me! That was always funny.”
Do you have a favorite role of all time?
“Probably Little House on the Prairie. The show was about a kid who ran away because he wanted to learn how to read and write, but they wouldn’t let him in school because he’s Black. But Michael Landon got him in school. It’s still very relevant today.”
What are some of your favorite episodes and memories from Diff’rent Strokes?
“One of my favorite episodes was when Muhammad Ali was [a guest star]. And the other with Nancy Reagan. Those were some really good shows. Another one of my favorite shows was in the first season, when me and Arnold [Gary Coleman] were trying to make cookies and start a business and it turns into a big mess! I really loved Conrad Bain. He was more like a father to me than just a castmate. I really cared a lot about him.”
You and Gary Coleman were a great team.
“Yeah, that’s the sad part. He is not here anymore.
Last year, you paid tribute to the original Diff’rent Strokes cast before the live remake starring Kevin Hart. Was that difficult?
“No, it was nice. It was fun to be able to go out and talk about everybody in the cast who left us.”
Did you ever have any regrets about becoming an actor so early in life?
“No, not at all. Everybody in my family was in showbiz.”
Did you have a hard time dealing with your early fame?
“I don’t think it changed me. The only sad part about it is that you lose your freedom. And people can think or say whatever they want to say about you. Sometimes, people think you’re somebody else before they get to know you.”
What surprised you most about playing Celebrity Big Brother?
“Well, what surprised me is how difficult it is not to have your phone and no communication with the outside world. That’s the most difficult and surprising thing. But we had some good times in there.”
Do you have a favorite moment from when you were in the house?
“Probably my favorite moment was when I surprised everyone by showing them that I could cook! I made two stuffed chickens that everyone liked. It was really good. I guess it also surprised me to know how good my taste buds really are. But that’s what makes me a good cook!”
You’re a dad of two adult children.
Yes. My son Spencir is 23, and I have a daughter named Bo. She’s 25.
Did either of them follow you into show business?
“My son was doing commercials and movies up until he was like 11 or 12. Now he does stuff for the Third Floor [a creative studio specializing in virtual reality]. He does really well for the company. And my daughter’s just not into acting.”
Do either of them have kids yet?
“Heck, no! [Laughs] I don’t want to be a grandfather yet!”
What do you do for fun?
“I’m a big gamer. And I love to build things. I do all my own plumbing. I have done a couple of cabinets, a couple extra rooms. I’ve done a lot of things in this house.”
Sounds like it could be another whole career!
“No. I don’t want to do that for a living, but it’s nice to do it for fun.”
What do you like most about being the age you are now?
“How much wiser I am. I don’t need to go out and party anymore. I don’t need to go to clubs. I’m moving on to finding a girlfriend and having a good life. I’d like to marry eventually again.”
Does spirituality play a role in your life?
“Spirituality plays a very big role in my life. Spirituality has taught me the key to forgiveness. And also the key to forgive myself.
What is next for you?
“I have my life story coming up. We would like to do it as a miniseries. I think it would help a lot of people.”